9 Ways to Help Your Kids Re-enter America

reentry2My children have spent months or years in Djibouti and then, in twenty-seven hours, transitioned to Minnesota (and back to Djibouti) six times over the last decade.

There are the obvious struggles like jet lag and forgetting stuffed animals in airplane seat pockets. The inevitable meltdown in Chicago’s O’Hare airport because we have been traveling over a day and are so close to home and they just changed our gate and we have to run, bleary-eyed, past day commuters who don’t understand why I can’t keep my children calm for a mere 45-minute flight.

One quick solution for jet lag? Don’t plan anything except ice cream, grandparents, and a nap in green grass for the first few days. One quick solution for forgotten stuffed animals? Have a grandma who greets you at the airport with a new one, balloon tied to a fluffy bunny tail.

But this kind of travel induces much greater, more subtle, and deeper challenges for kids. Suddenly the language and culture and people are different from what they have known.

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My kids didn’t know how to play on a playground or what to do at the zoo. They didn’t know what a lawn mower was or how much American coins were worth. They didn’t know they could drink tap water or that water came out hot and cold or that American toilets are filled nearly to the brim with water and so inadvertently got a handful when wiping.

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Here are 9 tips to help kids transition.

  1. Decide to have an attitude of gratitude. Your kids will pick up on your subtle vibes. Especially when coming from a less developed country, it is easy and natural to feel overwhelmed, even judgmental. Make the conscious decision to enjoy what America has to offer the fully stocked grocery shelves and the clothes that fit well, English menus, wi-fi, people who love you.
  2. Don’t attempt to squeeze everything in. American is a land of nearly infinite options and stimulation. Don’t even try to do it all. Enjoy simple things like grass, playgrounds, libraries, bike rides, swimming, and those people who love you.
  3. Give your kids words. Help them know how to explain where they have come from in their own words, appropriate for their age.
  4. Remind your kids to care about others too. Time has passed for people in America, the same amount of time as passed for you while away. There have been challenges and successes and pain and joy. Be interested in these things too.
  5. Spend time with the kids, just your family. Read out loud, snuggle before bed, go for a walk. Don’t let the pressures in America crowd out family time. Maintain a few habits you can carry across borders.
  6. Pay close attention to your kids. They may respond in ways that surprise you. An overreaction to a minor incident. Withdrawal. Unusual comments. Check in and ask specific questions: Did you understand what so-and-so said? Are you confused about what to do next in this game? Are you tired/hungry/homesick? Do you want to look at photos of Djibouti for a while?
  7. Don’t force them to do something they aren’t comfortable with that highlights their ‘otherness,’ unless they want to. Examples include: doing a presentation at school, speaking to a church group, wearing traditional clothes, demonstrating their foreign language skills. This is not the parental opportunity to show off multilingual children who can eat with chopsticks or use a squatty potty or recite another nation’s national anthem with aplomb.
  8. Remind them of how much they know about their host country. Sure, they might not know the latest American fashion trends or television shows or music, but maybe they know how to bargain in the market. Maybe they know how to sort coffee beans. Maybe they know 2, 3, or 4 languages (even if they don’t want to use them in public).
  9. Let them feel what they are feeling. They could be thrilled about being in America or grieving about not being in their host country. They could feel both in the space of an hour and all your kids might feel something different. Be their safe place to process.

What have you found helpful in transitioning to the US, or other home (passport) country with kids?

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