Six weeks ago, we packed up our life in Santiago, Chile which we had called home for four years, and headed north to Toronto, Canada. Moving continents is a big deal for anyone, but particularly for our children who are aged 7, 6 and 2 as this is the only ‘home’ they remember. While we find our feet in this new city, we are grieving a life left behind.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross theorised about the six stages of grief with respect to death and dying. They are:
However, grief and the grief cycle is experienced in many facets of our lives, in particular with imposed change.
For a child, imposed change might look like moving house, a new sibling, an extended holiday, a parent returning to work, or in our case right now, moving to a new country.
Before I dive in to how you can support your children and be kind to yourself during this process, it would be easy to look at this list as linear stages that you move through. And to be honest, right now I am thinking that would be pretty nice! However, these stages are fluid and people move through them at different paces, often back tracking and reexploring emotions in earlier phases before true acceptance is reached.
I’m going to write a little bit about what these phases have looked like for us. The move to Toronto is still shiny and new and we are deep in the trenches of this process! Sitting with these new, big feelings is uncomfortable. As an adult, it is a little easier to peel back the layers of anger to find that fear and discomfort of change lying underneath. For children, that process of unravelling feelings is often communicated through behaviour.
Shock and Denial
Stages one and two in the grief cycle of change often go unnoticed because they could easily be reworded as ‘everything looks fine’ or ‘the calm before the storm’. Stages one and two for us really occurred before we left Chile and in the first week we were in Toronto. None of us emotionally accepted the permanence of what we were doing before then. For me, this meant joining 3786 unschooling facebook groups in Toronto and scheduling meet ups with other unschooling families for pretty much every day of our first two weeks. Serious eager beaver. I think I was on some kind of mission to duplicate a life we had in Santiago as if nothing had even happened. Well, Toronto is not Santiago. I created unnecessary stress and pressure for myself and my family and in the end, I let people we had never met down by cancelling. Shout out to the unschoolers park meetup, I will make it one day!
Hello anger, you are alive and thriving in our home. Anger needs to come out to be resolved. But there is a big difference between breathing it out and punching it out! Our children need to be able to experiment with resolving their feelings in a safe place. And, as parents, it is ok to have boundaries. ‘I can see that you are very angry right now, but I can’t let you hurt me/your brother/your sister.’
The anger that comes with imposed change overflows in surprising ways and at surprising times. All of these heavy feelings of fear and frustration bubble over in intense rage. Here is a quick check list to keep in mind when your child is feeling anger. But first, the most important thing is to stay calm, take a deep breath and buckle in.
Let go of your urge to undermine your child’s feelings through phrases like ‘calm down’, ‘its ok’ or non-genuine hugs. Your child needs to feel this emotion and they need to feel like they are allowed to feel it.
Also, name those feelings! ‘You are angry that x happened.’ I find with my children, their go-to method before they develop the coping mechanisms they need to work through particular emotions, is to try and get me to experience what they are feeling at the same time. This might look like lashing out physically, it might look like saying hurtful things, or breaking something of mine to generate hurt or anger in me. They are trying to communicate how they are feeling by causing me to feel it too. These situations can be triggering! However, it is so empowering as a parent to help your child successfully navigate anger. ‘I can see how upset you are. I know you would like me to be upset too so that I understand how you are feeling, but I want to let you know that I understand what you are feeling without you doing that and I am here to support you.’ Another one I use a lot is ‘I want you to know that I am not angry and I am not going to get angry (if they are trying to make me angry). But you are feeling big feelings and I am here to support you if you need.’ Acknowledging feelings and patterns of behaviour is so disarming. It is so interesting to see that moment of recognition in your child’s eyes ‘she gets it!’ and watch the tension drain from their body, usually to tears about whatever fear or pain has caused the anger.
Use simple language and keep it brief. Say it once and don’t feel the need to repeat yourself. Be their calm pillar until the anger subsides. Every time you feel the need to speak, listen instead. I find this hard, but it is something that I am really trying to be mindful of.
Once your child has ridden the wave of anger and come out the other side, with some space to regroup, it can be useful to revisit the feeling if they are willing to talk about it. ‘You were feeling a lot of anger earlier. You should feel really proud of yourself for working through your feelings. Do you have any ideas of what you could do to help yourself work through the anger if you feel angry again?’ My kids always have lots of ideas and then I ask permission if I can remind them next time if they forget. It can be as simple as ‘would you like to try the deep breaths you thought might help you while you are feeling angry?’ If they refuse, I always leave it at that and start the process again later once the anger has subsided. Sometimes it takes a few goes around for something to stick and that’s ok.
This has come up a few times for us. ‘Maybe we could just go back to Chile for the day and then we can come back.’ ‘Maybe our friends could move here too?’ This might come up for you as ‘maybe you just don’t have to go to work today.’ Or, ‘maybe we can just end this holiday and go home.’
I have found it really useful to ask what it is they miss most about the old normal. For one of my son’s, it is his friends, so even though we can’t go back to Chile right now to visit, we can set up skype or facetime calls. For my other son, it was his bedroom in our old house, so we had a morning where I made a big deal about setting up his new room with lots of new things that he loves.
This stage is really the catalyst for this post. My children have taught me a lot about processing feelings. I’ve got another post coming up in the next few days that is going to talk more about parent self care and processing feelings because I think it is something that is missed by a lot of other self care articles. But for now, here we are, stage five, depression.
I looked around me today, my kids quietly pottering about. One absorbed in lego, the other ‘mixing things’ and one on his ipad. I had been looking forward to today. Today was a park meet up of other unschoolers that happens each Wednesday. I have planned to attend every Wednesday for the last six weeks. My children have not. But yesterday they seemed keen so I thought today was the day.
It turns out that today was another day we would not be leaving the house. The same as three days before this. And the mood was kind of quiet and flat. We have gone into a bit of a hibernation. I had a lot of time to reflect today, and I realise that my intense desire to get out of the house and busy myself has a lot to do with avoidance. Sitting here with these uncomfortable feelings is difficult. But the only way we are going to move through this process is by allowing these feelings to be felt. And so I found myself following suit. Sitting quietly, thinking, having space. And the feelings were intense! I have noticed the mood rising to anger at the end of the day with the kids, and I can feel that frustration too. But I also believe in this process. I believe in giving my children the space they need to process this change.
Look, I am a talker and an oversharer of my own feelings, so it is really hard for me to keep quiet. Every time I feel the need to parent-splain a feeling, I have been swallowing that Oscar winning speech and just listening. Here is a list of ways you can respect that quiet, low period, but still show you are there for support.
- I love massage. It is a physical connection where no speaking is necessary.
- Watch a movie together.
- Listen to an audiobook together
- Go for a walk together
- Play at the park
- Go to a quiet natural space together
- Read books next to each other
- Knead dough together
- Build with clay
Some of these activities are simply allowing space for silent reflection, others allow stress relief through physical movement, others generate connection in silence.
For me, the most important message that I can send my children during this time is that their feelings are valid and respected.
Well, we are not there yet. I imagine that this is going to start slowly as renewed enthusiasm for getting out and exploring the new museums, parks, natural spaces and friendships that await us in this city. But for now, we are cuddled on the couch watching Matilda and our family is enough while we wait to find our new rhythm.
Goodluck on a new journey in life! Just remember what I always tell myself when I am going through big changes. If you’re not happy doing it, then do something about it. Cheers!
Our children are our mentors too, with truthful and unreserved behaviour …. and voice! To reflect in the quiet space you speak of can be a soothe as long as our head talk is kind. Offering ‘grace’ to all the challenging moments without criticism and incrimination builds harmony … and of course LOVING FAMILIES.