Committee for Children Blog

How Social-Emotional Skills Are Helping My Family Adapt to Our New Country

Were my children thrilled when we informed them we were moving to Costa Rica with only six months notice? The answer: Both no and yes. My 11-year-old son said it sounded cool, but my 13-year-old daughter began acting like we were sabotaging her very precious teenage life.

Our process started back in January, when we went through a pros and cons process as a family to make sure everyone was on board before we committed to the move. We got to an agreement, because the pros clearly outweighed the cons, but with lots of resistance and big emotions from our teen, of course.

We arrived in Costa Rica in July of this year, and it’s been a roller coaster ride as we adjust to a new country, culture, and language. Luckily for us both the Ticos (that’s what they call Costa Ricans) and expats we’ve met have been very kind, generous, and understanding. It truly feels like luck has been on our side. Nonetheless, it’s been a challenging transition for us all.

So, what’s helped us navigate some of the challenges we’ve encountered?

The simple answer is our social-emotional skills: emotion recognition, empathy, problem solving, assertiveness, and communication.

Much like the volcanoes in Costa Rica, our teen has had regular outbursts of emotions. Most days, there are a few small tremors, but on others it feels more like a full-blown eruption. We receive daily reminders of how we have devastated our daughter’s life and how unhappy we have made her. This has required much empathy on behalf of everyone in the family.

Emotion recognition and empathy have been the most important skills our family has relied on during our transition. We’ve all had to work on being aware of what we’re feeling, staying tuned into one another and empathizing when someone is feeling lonely, anxious, or sad about being so far from our loved ones and lives. We consistently take time to listen to one another to show we care, understand, and respect one another while we make this adjustment. This has helped us avoid arguments and power struggles and to stay connected.

Even though empathy skills have been critical, our communication skills have been paramount to our successful transition to a new country. We make it mandatory that during at least one meal a day, we check in and acknowledge something that happened that day that we are grateful for. Even our hardest days, we’ve been able to find something of value.

Since our children have been struggling with being away from home, friends, and their regular creature comforts, my husband and I have made sure we’re available to talk and listen daily. Like most teens and tweens, they won’t come to us for a chat. So we intentionally go into their rooms and just “hang out” for a while. And even though they act like they dread these “visits,” there are surprises in some of the things they share about how they’re feeling, what they miss, and news about friends back home when we make ourselves present and available.

As a beginning-level Spanish speaker, I often feel anxious and overwhelmed during normal day-to-day interactions, like going to the store or trying out a new gym, because I can’t express myself and tend to freeze out of panic. I’m sure I sound like a two-year-old to a native Spanish speaker. Being aware of these feelings is important, because I could easily spiral into regret, frustration, and even depression for making this choice for myself and my family. Communicating these feelings and experiences with my husband is essential, because he continues to remind me that we’re new, and things can only get better. His mantra, “I won’t always be this bad at ________” has been helpful to me when these feelings creep up.

Problem solving and learning to be assertive have been skills we’ve all relied on throughout this time. Our first four weeks in Costa Rica were spent at Conversa, a Spanish immersion school, in the hills around San Jose. We were in small classes, four hours a day, with different people each week. Some weeks were great, and we made significant progress. But on a few occasions, especially for my son and myself, we were frustrated by the dynamic in the class or the instructor’s teaching style. It required each of us to speak up and make requests to move classes or cover or review specific topics.

For an 11-year-old boy, this isn’t easy. So, when things weren’t quite right we would problem-solve together and then allow the person whose needs weren’t being met to advocate for changes. We would start by identifying the actual problem, then analyze the situation, brainstorm, and evaluate all the possibilities to get to the resolution. This was hard even for me, so I can only imagine how challenging it was for my son.

Change is the only constant in all our lives. Moving our family out of our comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory has stretched all of us as humans. I feel grateful to have this opportunity to live abroad and have the social-emotional skills to manage our daily challenges.  I invested early in my own parenting by learning skills to manage conflict and build strong relationships with my children. I’m now starting to see that return on my investment. And the journey continues!