This article is by Dr. Caroline Hacohen, educational psychologist
Moving home is a major “life-event”, and the challenge of moving far away, when making aliyah, adds extra stress. It is often especially difficult for the younger members of the family. Together with all the excitement, it may be a challenge to keep the family stable during the long period before, during and after the move. There is likely to be a roller-coaster of emotions, from denial, to excitement, to anger, depression, and eventual acceptance.
First, there may be months of uncertainty beforehand while decisions are finalized. Often this is as hard for the children as for the adults, As one child said: “I didn’t even mind what the final decision would be, but I couldn’t bear the limbo of not knowing”. Yet even if the possibility of moving is not discussed with the children in advance, they are likely to be aware of it. Children who can manage the anxiety of having to live with unpredictability, gain an important learning experience.
Children may deny the impending separations from their old, familiar lives until the last moment, continuing as usual with their friends and schooling until the week the packers are due to come. This is a normal way of dealing with the fear of the unknown. However, towards the last weeks children should be encouraged to talk about the move – who they’ll miss and how they’d like to say goodbye; what they’ve most liked about living here, how they imagine their new life to be. It also helps to share with them as much as possible about their new environment – how their new home looks, details about their new school (a typical lesson timetable, name of teacher, number of children in the class, location from home, or a class list with recommendations from the teacher of a few children to meet in advance).
After the move, what may seem at first like an extended holiday, may gradually feel more challenging, as children miss their friends and have to get used to different norms of behaviour in their new schools. Many teenagers try to continue feeling part of their old friendship groups, by living in a virtual-reality of instant messaging – often till late at night to get round the complication of time differences. This is understandable and important – for a while – but virtual-living can end up being more frustrating and upsetting than satisfying. Parents may need to gently encourage gradual involvement in social activities locally, such as youth groups or more structured extra-curricular activities. It is important for parents to bear in mind how hard it is often for children to join a new social group – partly due to guilt about leaving a best friend behind, and worry about being forgotten by friends back home, and partly because new classmates may also be ambivalent about welcoming the newcomer.
Schools which are sufficiently sensitive to the newcomers’ anxieties and sense of vulnerability, can do a lot to support them. Firstly, teachers can prevent a sense of exclusion from developing, by showing interest in the child’s past – for example, listening to stories about the newcomer’s old school and other activities, and encouraging classmates to do the same. Such modelling behaviour from the teacher also helps classmates to accept differences and develop a healthy curiosity in the wider world. Secondly, schools that are used to accepting olim, may have a transition programme in place including organizing a buddy–system to help orient the newcomer for the first few weeks. They may also have a named class-parent as a supportive link for the family; and offer an orientation session with student and his/her parents to increase familiarity with the school (and with other newcomers).
If you feel that your child should have a solid foundation in Hebrew before plunging into school, there are ulpanim in most cities, provided free by the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration. For example, the Ulpan for Immigrant Students in Rehov Gidon, Jerusalem, is for high school students. It offers up to a year of intensive Hebrew (while gradually introducing a core high-school curriculum), and gradually works towards integration in a regular Israeli high-school towards the end of the programme. Other cities also offer support for integration – often through a specially designated Immigrant Advisor/Coordinator (“Racezet Olim”) in the local “matnas” (Community Centre).
Some parents become anxious when their children still seem unhappy or unsettled in school after a few months. Many children regress behaviourally, or show other symptoms of anxiety. An international move, even to Israel, can temporarily shake up a child’s sense of identity and belonging, and if your child seems depressed or isolated, try to talk to them about ways you can help. If necessary, a few short-term therapeutic meetings with a psychologist may be useful. The parents, child and psychologist together, can work through the child’s perceptions about the move, address feelings of vulnerability and loss – from extended family, from friends, and from the comfort of familiar routines, objects and places. This helps the child feel more resilient, adjust successfully to their new home, and be open to establishing new friendships.
Dr. Caroline Hacohen is an educational and child psychologist with many years experience working in schools and privately as a psychologist with families after transitions. She has a clinic in Jerusalem, and specializes in psycho-educational diagnostic assessments, short-term therapeutic support for children and teenagers, and parental counseling. Caroline can be contacted on [email protected]; tel: 052-8997773; www.israelpsych.org