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The impact on the family

One of the first and most important aspects of moving to another country is the thoughts and mental processes which not only go into the decision making but also form the background against which we consider emigration in the first place.

If you are considering emigration, you are on the verge of a major life event that is characterized by stress, the feeling of loss and major change.

What is the psychological impact of emigration on the individual, couple, family and friends?

Emigration and the Individual

During migration normal emotions to be expected before, during and after migration can include excitement, ambivalence, anger, sadness, loneliness, guilt, fear, anxiety and depressed mood 3. In addition, migration has been associated with certain psychological conditions, which could develop or worsen during the process of migration. Some of these are anxiety, depression, addiction, psychosomatic illnesses and behavioural difficulties.

Relationships change and with this change a sense of loss is experienced. The loss of relationships as well as the loss of belonging experienced can cause emotions similar to that of the grieving process. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief one could expect to experience when facing a personal loss or change. The experience of these stages is unique to each individual as not everyone would progress through the stages in a linear way or even experience all of the stages. The five stages will be briefly outlined to facilitate a better understanding of the emotions that is expected when experiencing a personal loss or change.

Denial– during this phase the reality of emigration and the implications thereof might be consciously or unconsciously denied in order to avoid the emotions that accompany this process.

Anger– anger can be expected as individuals feel angry about the situation in their home country which is forcing them to leave their country, family and friends; be it politics, crime or the economy.  Anger could also be experienced when confronted with little support from friends and family members and their negative reactions regarding emigration. Family members can be moody and take their anger out on each other.

Bargaining– In this phase individuals would seek to create an opportunity, which would allow them to stay or revisit their need to emigrate in order to remain in their home country with their family and friends. It is normal to have doubts and this is where you revisit your decision making process, if it was sound you will come to the same decision.

Depression– The emotions to be expected from a personal loss such as loss of your home country and relationships with family and friends are allowed to surface. In this phase it is normal to experience sadness, fear, guilt, regret and uncertainty.

Acceptance – In this phase it is once again possible to view the personal loss and change as well as the emotions associated with it objectively and to experience a sense of calmness about emigration. The phase of acceptance is different for each individual, some might experience acceptance even before emigrating and others might only progress to this stage months or years after migration.

Another type of loss associated with migration is loss of identity. During migration some individuals might experience a sense of loss of identity. The social identity and normal life roles of the individual are modified to include the roles expected of them in the new country of choice.

Each individual’s experience of migration is unique and influenced by their cognitive appraisal, personal characteristics, interpersonal skills, expectations, coping mechanisms, family and social support.

Emigration and the couple

Emigration can have an immense impact on the relationship of a couple. This process can either strengthen a relationship or cause discontent in the relationship, which could in extreme cases lead to divorce. A healthy relationship has been linked to psychological well-being, whereas relationship problems during the time of migration have caused psychological adaptation difficulties. The factors to be considered for successful emigration as a couple is the motivation of each partner to migrate, the needs of each partner before, during and after migrating, the amount of support each partner provides and the discussion of changes in gender roles and responsibilities.

Discussing the issues outlined above and regularly taking time out as a couple to strengthen the relationship before, during and after emigrating could serve as protective factors and facilitate the continuance of a healthy relationship.

Emigration and children

During the emigration process it is important to consider the needs and feelings experienced by the children involved. The developmental phase of children during emigration is important as the successful negotiation of each phase of development allows for the progression to the next phase of development. Adolescence is a difficult phase, which can be trying at times for parents and teenagers. In this phase adolescents are in a process of developing a social identity, which is influenced by peer relationships and their social environment. Confusion during this stage could therefore lead to confusion regarding their roles as adults 2. It is therefore important to provide them with opportunities to explore and gain confidence in this new social context. Parents should empathize with the emotions they are going through and provide them with the necessary support when entering new schools and making new friends. Parents could further assist their children in keeping contact with their friends in their previous home country, which would allow for additional social support and an emotional outlet.

It is important to assess children’s coping skills and if necessary educate them on positive and adaptive coping mechanisms to ensure their psychological well-being throughout the migration process.

Children of all ages could also be encouraged to read books with illustrations and facts about the new country prior to emigration, which will facilitate curiosity and inform them of the new countries culture and social practices. This preparation could increase their adjustment to and understanding of this new socio-cultural environment.

Emigration and family and friends

Family and friends often exert additional pressure on those emigrating by asking for reasons for the migration, whether it is temporary or if you are emigrating permanently. Their reactions to the news of emigration could include shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, envy, disgust, resentment and a sense of abandonment. The acknowledgement and processing of the feelings of the family members and friends left behind is essential in order to ensure the continuance of the relationships and allow for the psychological adjustment of all parties involved.

Separation during migration

Research suggests that individual’s initially emigrating alone and waiting for their families to join them can experience psychological distress. The decreased amount of social support, long distance relationships and the additional pressure placed on the individual to adapt to the new environment in order to prepare for the arrival of their family can contribute to adjustment difficulties 8.

The remaining partner will also experience additional distress as their responsibilities increase with regards to attending to financial affairs, their children and other family members.

“We worked like a team. He went ahead and bought the new house and I stayed behind and sold the old house and packed up. I think though that I had to deal with more of the emotional things about leaving because he had already moved on.”? (Anonymous)

It is important to explore the implication of separation during migration before one partner emigrates. The couple should decide on the manner in which communication and support will be facilitated for both partners and the family and identify other potential difficulties that have to be resolved prior to emigration.

Protective factors during migration

Cognitive appraisal– It is important to investigate your own appraisal of emigration as the manner in which it is appraised, as either a significant stressor or as a challenging opportunity, will affect your stress levels during this process 6.

Coping mechanisms– Coping mechanisms can be viewed as each individual’s learned behavioural pattern which they use when confronted with stressful life events. Positive coping mechanisms can include physical activity, healthy diet, positive self-talk, positive life view and positive reappraisal, seeking emotional and social support, communicating and expressing feelings, relaxation, and visualization, hobbies, planning and problem-solving. It is important to identify adaptive coping mechanisms and implement them during stressful times.

Expectations– Realistic expectations about the new country of choice and the initial adaptation and adjustment period to be expected, can protect against the development of adjustment problems.

Interpersonal skills– Problem-solving skills can assist in the manner in which migration obstacles or problems are addressed and solved. Communication skills allow for effective communication with family and friends regarding the diverse issues associated with migration.

Personal characteristics – A positive outlook, flexibility, sense of humour and self-confidence are important, in addition, knowing yourself and your needs and trusting your own feelings can serve as protective factors during migration.

Social support– The amount of support received from spouse, partner, family and friends can greatly influence psychological adjustment. Social support from other expatriates, from your home country or not, could provide a sense of belonging once again as well as alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety and alienation. The maintenance of relational ties in the country of origin and the active contribution to these relationships through communication mediums can also provide support during migration 3.

Religion– Spiritual well-being and religion can act as a buffer when experiencing a life changing event such as migration.

Cultural learning– Exposure to the new culture and making local acquaintances and friends can facilitate the learning of cultural skills, values and social norms which lead to psychological adaptation to a new socio-cultural environment.
Country of origin– Remembering the positive and memorable times in the country of origin can decrease the sense of loss of culture and allow the passing down of important cultural practices to children.