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Riveting Expat Reads: Julia Simens’ Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child

Today I’m interviewing Julia Simens, newly published author of the outstanding book Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child: Practical Tips and Storytelling Techniques That Will Strengthen the Global Family.*

I’m going to come right out and tell you that I think highly of this book. I believe Julia has written a very important work that will help global families with young (and not so young) children.

Notice that I didn’t say ‘expat families’. Why? Because I feel this book will be of use to parents in all sorts of transitional situations, not only when moving to a different country/culture.

Julia is an educator, consultant and speaker who focuses on family therapy, early childhood education and international relocation. She’s worked on five continents with relocating families, helping them to adjust to their global lifestyle.

A serial expat and member of the American Psychological Association, she works in international schools. Currently Julia lives with her family in Bangkok, Thailand.

The book in a nutshell? Julia outlines the importance of healthy relationships for expat children to thrive, the need to accurately identify and deal with their emotions throughout their transitions, and the emotionally enriching value of individual and family rituals to honor our experiences and create memories.

Anyone who’s read this blog for any period of time or some of my articles knows these are topics near and dear to my heart.

She even had a noted favorite of mine, child psychologist Dr. Doug Ota, write the foreword to the book. An American expat himself now living in The Hague, Doug worked for many years at the American School of the Hague.

He was instrumental in creating Safe Harbours, ASH’s well-regarded transitions program, and spreading the word to other international schools around the world.

I read Julia’s careful attention paid to psychologist Gordon Neufeld’s six stages of attachment that create the basis for every relationship a child has: proximity, sameness, belonging/loyalty, significance, love and being known. I wondered whether there is a particular stage in which expats or cross-cultural children seem to have more trouble than their mono-cultural counterparts.

‘Many expat children are quite adept at all stages and thrive in their cross-cultural awareness,’ she is quick to note. ‘But I do see that it is hard for some to ‘belong’. It is hard to be loyal to someplace if you feel you are just passing through. Since all children spend so much time in school or connected to school activities, it is important that parents foster this loyalty to the new school and new community.’

An underlying theme is teaching children to accurately name their emotions. But what happens if they cannot?

‘Through socialization, children learn how to express what they feel about the environment they are in and the people they are around. If they cannot do this, their social and emotional foundation is at risk. The chance of being misunderstood is greater. They might not have strong, healthy communicative relationships and therefore they may be isolated.’

Julia goes on to explain, ‘Children need self-calming skills. They allow them to reflect on the reasons for their emotions and to modify their reactions in the future.’

Similarly, rituals are especially important to create a climate of support and security as expat families travel around the world. Shared time and experiences help create a sense of family togetherness.

‘I feel rituals are valuable because they are a way to develop a sense of shared joys and positive memories, but perhaps the most important thing a family ritual can provide is the space and time for emotional healing if the family relationships need that time.’ She continues, ‘Good memories help eclipse the upsetting ones. Rituals provide a sense of security and can be soothing.’

So how does she suggest you might go about creating family rituals?

‘A family ritual is anything your family does together deliberately,’ Julia explains. ‘The routine of whatever you do is what counts. Just make sure you do it consistently. Rituals can and do evolve over time. Start with acknowledging how special something felt and the verbalization that you’d like to do more of this same activity in the future. ‘

What about the family that is preparing to move overseas as expats for the very first time? I was interested in what advice she would give to them.

‘Ernest Hemingway said he could write a story in six words. My story to expats moving overseas for the first time would be ‘nomadic lifestyle requires lots of love,’ Julia answers, flashing her warm smile. ‘It is never too late to work on building emotional resilience.’

‘Regardless of your child’s age, I believe the building up of the emotional vocabulary is the right way to start building this skill. When we can be honest about how we are feeling and fine tune it to the correct emotion for that situation, we are growing and building emotional resilience.’

While Julia writes primarily about young children in the book, she is clear that the message can be extrapolated to teens and young adults.

‘The interactions between parents and their children are full of disruptions, miscommunication, and misunderstandings. This is the reality of all of our lives. What makes a relationship feel secure is the ability to ‘repair’.’

‘Your child can feel safe in the understanding that when mistakes or disagreements happen, you will pay attention to the cues they are sending, try to understand what they need, and come back again. There is always another chance to connect.’ Julia adds, ‘This ability to bounce back after a problem or concern is what resilience is all about.’

‘I always tell parents that they must target the strengths of their child’, she continues. ‘If parents target things that highlight the strengths of their child, they will see more self-determination and strength from that child. Empowerment results from being treated with respect and having your strengths acknowledged and enhanced. This is the best way to enhance emotional resilience.’

Finally, it must be noted that some expat children will find themselves overwhelmed and unable to develop the emotional resilience that they require. What would Julia recommend to parents in this situation?

‘Comments or actions should not be treated lightly or brushed off with words like ‘you only have a few more classes’ or you’re very popular and have friends’. What the child needs is to heard and know that the parents care about those feelings.’ She explains,’I always tell parents to stop saying ‘I know how you feel’. What kids need to know is ‘I hear what you are saying, how can I help?”

‘Children learn by watching their role models in life. When expats move around so much, the parents become the main role models so the messages we send our child are paramount.’ Julia recommends asking yourself what message you may be sending. ‘Is it okay to ask for help? Is it okay to be overwhelmed? Are you an honest person about your feelings or do you mask it so the family seems okay?’

‘In the end, trust your gut…if it feels like you need to intervene, tell them it is your job as a parent to seek help when a family needs it. International therapists or experts who work with expats and transitions are becoming more and more common as we have more and more global nomads in the world.’

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Julia’s book was published by the inimitable Jo Parfitt and her Summertime Publishing. Jo is a wonderful mentor to me, so lest you think I’m merely reviewing a friend’s client/friend, please think again. We all have too much integrity for that. Jo is aces at what she does, and only takes on topnotch expat books. I bought the book (no freebie here folks – I wanted to own this great resource), and wouldn’t have written a word if I didn’t find it to my liking. I’m ecstatic that it is the helpful handbook I’d hoped it would be.

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