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The Impact of Leaving on the Kids

From the series When the China Dream Comes to a Halt

If the police come and take mom and me, don’t worry. They will bring us back and we will go home together.

The above conversation sounds almost surreal, yet it actually took place between a set of real parents and their children. Though it is a conversation most parents would prefer not to have with their children, it is important to prepare children for what may happen. By assuring the kids that the situation has been thought through and that there is a plan, they can feel safer and the situation can be less traumatic. For me, as their friend, it was a relief to know that they were preparing their children for the worst. They were taking precautions—they were caring.

I think it is safe to say that most of us are aware that children feel the stress and emotions of their parents. Unless they are careful they can project their stress and fear onto their children. And even when they are aware of the possibility, they may still impact their children in ways they don’t realize.

“How open should we be with our children?” I was sitting with a mother of two who had seen a family leave very suddenly. Her question was an important one. The answer does depend somewhat on the age of the child and the individual child, but my general answer to that question is to be open with children. Be honest. Perhaps spare them some of the details but allow them to ask questions and answer as honestly as you can.

The challenge is to be honest without being overly negative about China. It is OK to be upset. It is also OK if a child says “the stupid police came and took daddy.” But it is important to remember that, especially for the kids, China is, or was, their home—maybe their only home. In many cases China has been much more of a home then their passport country. China is where their best friends are, where they ate their favorite foods. It’s a place that is familiar to them—a place they love and where they have felt safe. To suddenly leave that place is overwhelming and painful.

It is important that children have the opportunity to create memories of that special place and to say farewell. Before leaving, if at all possible, they should visit special places and take pictures as they eat their favorite jiaozi, enjoy their favorite local ice cream, or even as they walk on the road outside of their apartment complex. If it is not possible for the parents to do this with their children, perhaps a teammate or local friend could take them.

Later when the family is back home or at an interim place and the parents find themselves sharing their experiences and answering questions over and over again, it is important for them to bear in mind that their children are hearing what they say. Not that they should shield them or lie to them, but it’s important that they also remember the wonderful place China has been to them and to their family. Of course parents do need to share their experience and pain, but they should try not to focus only on that when the children are around.

So how do children view this experience? Here are a few comments from kids who have had to leave unexpectedly.

One girl shared her memory of how she felt when the phone would ring and they weren't allowed to answer it. Each time the phone rang it reminded her of the reality of what was going on—the PSB (security police) were looking for her dad.

A boy remembered that he didn’t really understand what was happening; it seemed so strange that this would be happening to his dad.

At the time just before we left I remember that we had a lot of sleep overs. That was great! It was partly to say goodbye, but partly to keep us busy and away. Now as the years have passed, I realize that maybe it was also a way of sparing us kids from some of it.

I had the idea that waiguoren (foreigners) can’t be touched, so I wasn’t really that scared.

I don’t think our parents told us much . . . or maybe I was just naïve.

I eavesdropped quite a bit and learned a lot that way.

When mom told us that dad had to go away, I felt scared. He sometimes went travelling, but this was different. Mom seemed worried. And she had many friends coming over to stay with her. And we could watch lots of TV. When mom put us to bed and I asked how many days until dad would get back home she didn’t really answer. She just looked very sad as if she would start crying. That is when I got very scared.

If a child has felt lonely, scared, or powerless in the midst of this kind of experience, it could be trauma and needs to be treated as such. Children need help from a safe adult. In order to be a safe adult the person needs to first have worked through his or her own trauma. When faced with this much uncertainty the need to be close to adults with whom the children feel safe is even greater.

Children are all different and react differently to the same situation. Even though parents know their children best, at times like this, when parents themselves are in the midst of their own emotional stress, it is good to have the insight and help of others and to turn to professionals for the best help and care for the children.

If your child or anyone you know need professional counseling, please contact us and we can provide you with a list of counseling centers.

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Lisa (pseudonym) has lived in Asia since 1995, serving China and working in the area of member care. She moved with her family to be a light among the people God had put on their hearts. After more than ten years the dream suddenly came to a halt and they …View Full Bio

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