Expat Kids… Stress… and Mindfulness

Contributed by Kate S. Berger, MSc, Child & Adolescent Psychologist

Expatriate children deal with a laundry-list of stress factors that are associated with the dynamic lifestyle they live – e.g., packing, unpacking, saying goodbye to loved ones, time differences, new schools, new friends. And after one has made it through those stressors there is the difficult process of adjustment where the child realizes s/he is totally our of their comfort zone, has no firm ground to stand on, and must find a way to adapt to the local culture.

However, despite the challenges associated with this cycle of life events, expat kids can – and do – achieve success because they are uniquely qualified for leadership positions in society (due to their vast experiences from living in different contexts, their exposure to diverse thinking styles and their capacity for resilience). That said, the road to success isn’t always easy because of that nasty thing called – you guessed it – “stress.”

Stress gets in the way of learning.

Professionals working with children see that the stressful-adjustment process expat kids face can have an immensely negative impact on learning. One of the reasons that stress impedes learning is that the automatic, physiological reaction that takes over in response to stress inhibits executive functioning skills in the brain – things like concentration, memory, creativity, and logical thinking. When these skills are impacted, learning capacities diminish.

Stress harms the body.

In addition to stress impacting the learning process, it is also negatively impacts the body. In fact, many researchers are now suggesting that the physiological reaction that occurs in response to stress plays a huge part in the development of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease and is thus THE biggest health concern tin our society.

Our risk

Society is missing out if we don’t make efforts to counteract the negative impacts of stress for expat children, as we risk the possibility that these kids will become crippled by stress and therefore will not fulfill their leadership capacities. If this happens, we all lose.

There is good news!

It is 2014 and – voila! – we are able to enhance childrens’ capacity to cope with stress effectively, and in the process of doing so help them to build skills that allow them to have greater compassion for themselves and for those around them. How? Drum roll… Mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is based on traditions practiced throughout history, and is a secular approach to learning that teaches individuals to focus on the present moment, and shift their attention inward, with kindness.

Many kids today are very externally focused (playing internet games, chatting on social media, etc.), so teaching them to look the other way around does require practice, but research is showing that there are tremendous benefits for doing so. In the process of turning inward, kids who practice mindfulness build increased capacities for empathy and openness. And it gets even better:

Bodies of research looking at the impact of teaching mindfulness to kids are showing positive impacts on emotional well-being, learning, and physical health. Neuroscientists are literally able to see how practicing mindfulness changes the physiological reactions to stress, and kids who have participated in mindfulness programs have shown significant decreases in depression, anxiety, ADHD, aggression, oppositional behaviors, and sleep difficulties; and improvements in concentration abilities, memory, self-awareness, optimism and positive emotions.

And you don’t have to take my word for it

It seems that everyone is getting on board the mindfulness movement these days. In the UK, the Mindfulness in Schools Project is at the forefront of educating teachers so that mindfulness can become part of mainstream day-to-day curriculum in schools. Globally, there are numerous publications sharing information about the positive impact of mindfulness – The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Time Magazine (who called it “The Mindful Revolution”) to name a few. And guess what? Mindfulness isn’t just for dealing with the difficulties in our personal lives: government agencies, military personnel, corporations and famous athletes have started using mindfulness practices in the work-place as a way to improve performance and enjoyment (and decrease stress!). This is B-I-G.

Is it the golden ticket for expat kids?

I make no promises here that mindfulness will eliminate stress, because that is not the point (or realistic). Expatriate life can be tough, and if mindfulness gives expat kids effective tools to cope with (the inevitable) stressors, to enjoy life more, and become better equipped to effectively contribute their unique insights and experiences to society at large, then we can’t really afford to not join the “revolution,” can we?

[Originally published in the ACS International Schools e-newsletter.]

Author: Kate S. Berger, MSc, Child & Adolescent Psychologist

Kate Berger is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist and certified Mindfulness instructor, specializing in working with expatriate children and their families in her private practice, The Expat Kids Club. Kate is actively involved in networking within the expatriate community as a way to spread awareness about the benefits of mindfulness for kids and teens. She strongly believes that practicing mindfulness is a way to create stronger connections with those around us, and the greater community.

For more information about the research mentioned here, or with questions or comments, please contact Kate directly: expatkidsclub@gmail.com. For more information about Mindfulness in Schools Project, please visit: www.mindfulnessinschools.org.