One of the most frequently asked questions I get asked about emigrating to Singapore is “how are the kids coping?” and then when my response is something along the lines of “they’re doing ok” I usually get a nod of agreement and a “well children are very resilient”. And I just find that statement so absurdly old fashioned and completely undermining of all the hard work that goes into moving a young family to the other side of the world without any major issues. It lacks any understanding of a young child’s mind, because for the many things they are, resilient they are not. I often think back to one morning when we were in the UK, it had been a difficult morning with the kids being less than cooperative, we were running late and the world seemed to be driving like douche bags. And then, whilst sat in a traffic jam and swearing under my breathe to myself a little voice piped up from the backseat “Mummy, my tummy hurts”. That age old excuse to not go to school, not particularly inventive but always worth a shot. So with nowhere to escape to and no one else in the car to respond I entered into a conversation with my 4 year old that I will never forget.
“Why does you tummy hurt? Do you need the toilet? Is it sore like you need to poo or fart or sore like you might be sick?”
“It hurts because it’s worried”
“Your tummy is worried? Why’s your tummy worried?”
“It’s worried it won’t like any of the food in Singapore”
And then there was a split second silence before the tears started flowing from both of us.
He had been quietly absorbing everything around him, all the conversations and stress and tears in the lead up to the big move to this place called Singapore. And at only 4 years old he was, quite literally, worried sick.
It was heart breaking, and as we both sat in the car having a little sob I realised that the Topsy and Tim Move House book I’d been to Waterstones to buy especially was actually going to be fuck all help in this situation. We needed to go hardcore, and quickly. My usual go-to for parenting hacks (the internet) was awash with really helpful advice for the adult expat, boring practical things like insurance and property, but absolutely nothing of any relevance for children. Nothing for young children anyway, and certainly nothing about supporting their emotional wellbeing during the tumultuous period of change that comes with emigrating. This was the first time that I’d ever really had to think carefully about how to talk to them both, how much depth they needed, and whether to let them see my emotional journey too. I went from stressed about moving logistics to being parentally overwhelmed and emotionally under-prepared in the space of one school drop off.
My son wasn’t voicing worries about making friends, or starting a new school, or what would happen to our pets. No, Topsy and Tim had got it completely wrong, the mind of a 4 year old was quite simply worried about whether there would be food he likes or if he would be left to starve in misery. And so began a series of conversations about moving to Singapore via the mind of a 4 year old.
“Do they have night time?”
“Do they have postboxes?”
“Do they have toilets?”
“Will there be a park? With a playground?”
“How big is the plane?”
“How big is the ship?”
“Can I take my toys? Even the noisy toys?”
“Will we still have fish finger Fridays?”
“What if I’m lonely?”
“Will we go camping?”
The list goes on. And on. Some of his thought processes I understood and we could talk about both of our feelings, but the more out there, left fielders, were somewhat more challenging. How do you break it to a little boy that whilst there will night time, it won’t be like he’s used to? We won’t be stood at his bedroom window looking out into the darkness, pointing at the moon while I tell him I love him more than all the stars he can count in the pitch-black Devon night sky (lots of stars for the record). But Singapore would be different, it’s an adventure, and we’ll make new traditions – my reassurances becoming more desperate as the move date drew closer. His behaviour at pre-school changed too, there were more melt downs, more tantrums and more tears. He was trying, desperately, to cope with an emotional rollercoaster that I was barely coping with. I would eat chocolate, drink wine and sob to my friends, and he would get angry for no obvious reason. To be fair, Clara struggled too, she went from delightful at nursery to having screaming sessions where she would yell “you’re not my best friend” to the little girl who was, up until that point, her best friend. They were both acting up and they knew it, but they didn’t know why and they were confused by themselves and their loss of control.
And this is what no one tells you about emigrating. For children, for young children who do not have the emotional maturity to understand or vocalise what’s going on inside them, it’s terrifying. A child’s ability to cope with the level of upheaval involved in an overseas move is not down to some innate form of resilience, it is down to having the right people around them surrounding them with love and support and feelings of security even in the scariest moments. Moments like when they wake up in the middle of the night, remembering in the lonely darkness that they are moving to an unknown place and become inconsolably upset that they won’t have their favourite teddy, or duvet, or bedtime story with them. They fixate on things being forgotten, including themselves, and it’s exhausting keeping on top of it all in the midst of a huge house move and a million things going on.
There is also, I’m sorry to say, no way to avoid this other than never leaping into the unknown. But never, for your own children or someone else’s, assume resilience. Don’t assume they have it or they are coping with change because of it. They are not. They are coping because of the emotions they are being taught to cope with. They are learning strength and resilience yes, but they are still children and they have so much more to learn. Choose your words carefully, there are little ears taking them all in and little minds trying to make sense of them.
“The mind of a child is fragile. Their emotions touch their future. Your words shape their destiny”