Article by: Eric Haynes, Social Media Coordinator
Day-to-day expat life keeps us in a seemingly infinite loop of tasks, ideas, and around-the-clock availability via our smartphones. Our minds can be on a constant roll of thoughts, languages, and to-do lists. This high demand has an impact on our thinking and bodies and our Expat Kids, experiencing a new environment and managing friends around the world, can be a bit much! When the heightened nervous system activity moves from giving energy to taking it away and draining us, it makes us nervous and overwhelmed, which engages our flight or fight responses. This anxiety response is actually our body’s way of taking care of us – it is telling ust we need to slow down, restore, and rehabilitate our balance to withstand the demands facing us.
It is a universal truth that we are all faced with stress, at any age, in any culture. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in managing our stress, but learning how to counteract this high stress activity for a stronger inner foundation is essential! So, how can we learn to tune into ourselves to know when to take a break and help our children and family do the same? Our therapy team answered these questions and gave more insight into knowing when it’s time to clock out!
What are some key indicators as to when a break is needed?
“Difficulties with emotional regulation are probably the clearest, regardless of age,” Jamie begins. “If you notice your child or teen reacting very strongly to small inconveniences, it’s likely they are overwhelmed. It’s important to not overwhelm them more with a negative response, and instead give them space to calm down/take a break.”
“Negative emotions and lots of mood swings can also be a good sign that it’s time to take a break ,” Marilena continues. “This can be irritability, nervousness, or fidgeting.”
“Parents can also recognize physiological manifestations of being overcooked,” Kate explains. “Shortness of breath and increased heart rate are just two examples, but you may also see a child showing their need for a break through tantrums or, more subtly, through being easily distracted.”
What are obstacles for expat kids in particular when it comes to managing stress and how can being an expat, in particular, exacerbate this? Does being an expat and struggling to solidify a “new identity” play it’s part in difficulties managing stress and identity in terms of knowing one’s limits
“Some of the substantial obstacles for expat kids when it comes to managing stress are the time zones differences,” Kate says. “There is also a need to stay connected to friends from home and, of course, meet and maintain rigorous academic standards. When you are having to cope with all of these challenges, and also figure out who you are in the context of being an expat in a new country, it can become too much.”
“Learning to be mindful in recognising moments of stress is a good first step to better stress management,” Marlina says. “After someone can recognise their own stress responses, they will be better prepared to intervene before they are overwhelmed. Looking to our surroundings is a great way to begin understanding and regulating your own stress. For example, having a favourite spot in nature that calms us down, or being supported by that one friend that allows us to reset. Here, the extra challenge of being an expat kid is the ever-changing context. This can take the stress-related factors to new heights.
Marilena continues, “The constant moving, saying goodbye and then hello again to new faces, cultures, and environments creates challenges that need to be overcome multiple times. This can be a significant stressor for expat kids.”
What are key benefits of taking breaks for kids?
“Just like adults, kids can get burned out and tired from too much – a key benefit of a break is just an opportunity to reset”, Jamie explains. “They can also become disappointed if they’re having trouble focusing, and don’t realise that taking a break from that task to reset can help greatly.”
Marilena adds, “Taking breaks reduces daily stress because it takes out the momentum of a busy and stressful day. Not just any breaks, but conscious breaks without screen time or additional input to keep the mind and body busy.” She continues, “conscious breaks allow for slowing down and can help create a space to breathe, release tension, and check-in with oneself.”
“In addition to allowing one to relieve stress”, Kate explains, “breaks also facilitate learning to prioritize oneself, setting boundaries and improving emotional regulation capacities, such as allowing time for mindfulness.
How can parents encourage their kids to be more in touch with themselves in terms of knowing their limits and how can this encouragement not become unbalanced by simply letting kids “run the show”?
“Parents can be encouraging by helping kids connect the physical sensations to the emotions they are feelings and the thoughts they are having”, Jamie begins. “Your child may not realize that they are becoming overwhelmed or stressed, but there are “warning signs” that they can learn to look out for – maybe if they notice that their face is feeling warm and soon after frustration follows. Helping them connect the dots to see what the warning signs are can allow them to stop and take a break before the frustration becomes too much for them to handle.”
Marilena says, “Parents can also encourage this mindfulness by setting a good example by knowing when to take a break themselves. In addition, explaining this process can lead the child to understand the nature and purpose of breaks.”
“Parents can also set an example by spending time away from the screen, meditating, taking walks, and inviting their children to join in and find activities they find relaxing.” Kate continues, “breaks should be functional and serve a beneficial purpose rather than distracting and procrastinating which is usually a sign of avoidance which ultimately leads to adverse outcomes.”
What are some activities that families could do to take a “time out” with their kids
“If you enjoy mindfulness,” Jamie says, “bringing them into meditation can be a great way to give them a timeout – you can make it a little silly by saying something like “freeze!” and then no matter how you’re standing you have to freeze where you are and pay attention to what the floor feels like under your feet or what the food you are eating tastes like. You can also, of course, have “no tech” time where you do an activity together that’s focused on the present moment.”
Marilena continues, “Some fun activities might be taking weekend excursions into nature like bike tours or hiking trips, cooking meals together, playing games, painting, singing, or anything that the family collectively enjoys away from daily stressors. Restoring balance and energy are best when break activities are about finding and sharing enjoyment with each other.”
“Break activities can also be simple things,” Kate continues. “Activities that include moving the body like taking a walk, stretching, going to take out the mail, or walking the dog. There is also a lot of enjoyment to be found in simple household tasks like vacuuming and folding laundry together. Ways that kids (and adults!) can enjoy their breaks while simultaneously undergoing healthy integration into their new environment can come in the form of practicing a new language, looking at a map of a new area, talking to a neighbor and calling a friend.” One fun thing the whole family can do is use a map of your new town to try to find your way around the streets and attempt to pronounce all of the street names!