To get at the crux of the issue as to what are the long-term effects of a life of relocations on developing children, let’s go deeper.
Do you remember Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs? Maslow attempted to rank order human needs. He positioned what he believed to be the most critical needs at the bottom of the pyramid and then placed subsequently less important layers of needs on top of one another. The most critical needs he called the “Basic Needs“….what lay at the bottom of the pyramid… Air? yes, we can’t live without air. Water? Sure…Food?…Shelter?… All those things form the first level of the hierarchy. The needs on the lowest levels of this pyramid must be met and satisfied before humans are free to satisfy the needs that are classified as being “higher level needs”. I can’t worry about “who I will invite to dinner” if I don’t have a home to invite them to.
What comes next? Meeting the need to feel safe in all its various expressions. “Will that tiny blue-ringed octopus sitting in the tide pool kill me?” “How far can the deadly funnel-web spider really jump?” “You mean the huge blue-tongued lizard is really harmless?”
Let’s back track a little. Why are we talking about Maslow’s Pyramid and relocations?
Do you see the connection?
Every relocation places us face to face with confronting some very basic human needs that most of us haven’t worried about meeting in a long, long time. “Is the water safe to drink?” “Where can I find the food that I am used to?” “Where should we live?”. “Will the salary they are offering me be enough?” “Is the job secure?” “Is it safe for me to walk alone here?”
Although it is annoying for adults to have to spend time on such considerations, it isn’t unearthing. We spend a few months and we rediscover, reinvent, make adaptations and rebuild the basic building blocks of our lives. It’s how I learned to cook a black-skinned chicken in Singapore. It’s how you learned to live without Vegemite for a while.
Meeting the needs of the next level is where things can get thorny for some of us.
The next level of needs contains the need to belong. At somewhere around 18 months into a relocation, adults get busy meeting their own need to belong. They join a tennis club. They start building relationships outside of work. They find a group of people to run with. They network with local people and establish friendships.
Children do this too (only they feel this need strongly from day one) and it doesn’t take them long to work with a vengeance on meeting their needs to belong. Adults can help them here by extending themselves, reaching out, and inviting over other children. Adults can structure shared activities that bring their child together with other children. All of this is very important work to do early on for children. Take them to a movie. Take them bowling. Take them to a park. Invite, invite, invite…..
What is the difference between children and adults? Children are still developing. Depending on their ages, when you relocate, they may be functioning at a very low level on Maslow’s pyramid. At best, most youngsters have never even mastered “belonging” anywhere outside of their immediate family yet in their developmental progress. They are still working out this critical developmental stage. And the relocation has interrupted, if not altogether, arrested that very essential stage of development.
On the other hand, you, the adult, have already mastered all of the levels of development. You were “self-actualized” when you accepted this international relocation. It won’t take long for your to feel your old “self-actualized” self again, once you rebuild the lower levels of the pyramid that any relocation shatters.
Meeting the need to belong can be a challenge for many global children. Paradoxically, they may feel very comfortable in foreign environments but they may never perceive themselves as truly belonging there. For many global children, their sense of belonging remains anchored very firmly in their nuclear family. “My family were my best friends.” “They were the only ones who truly understood me and all that I had experienced.” “Nobody else could really understand.”
Many families report that living inter-culturally created a very strong family bond between parents and their children. The creation of this shared bond was perceived as a real plus that came from international relocations.
When these young people are required to individuate and to leave the nuclear family, they may face an unusually demanding period of adjustment. Overcoming a private sense of loneliness and alienation may be emotionally taxing for them.
Thoughtful parents will investigate the “next step” that these adolescents are taking as they individuate and attempt to determine if the environment values and supports the unique global perspectives that these young people bring with them.