I was 12-years-old when my parents sat my 9-year-old brother and
I can only imagine the weight of the responsibility that my parents felt in that moment. To look into your child’s eyes and tell them everything they know is about to be uprooted and will soon be unrecognisable. That is a moment that NEEDS to be done with delicacy, sensitivity, kindness and clarity (as well as a million other things!)
How do parents even begin to approach that scenario and ensure their child is supported throughout the process of moving abroad? A process that, at the best of times, can even strain and challenge the adults involved?
The more I think about that moment with my family back in 2004 around the wooden kitchen table, the more I admire my strong and caring parents. They envisioned a better life for us; One where we were gifted with bilingualism, blisteringly hot summer months and a breathtaking historical landscape to grow up around. They had the confidence to take a huge leap of faith and give us a uniquely enriched childhood. I had just settled into Secondary (Middle) School and what I understood as our family holiday destination was now going to be the place we called home… I was lucky enough to the have the most supportive parents any kid could ask for to guide me through this life-changing time.
I recently spoke with my (now adult) brother, Tom, about his thoughts on our expat transition and how our parents dealt with it. What advice could we share with other parents to soften the blow and prepare their child for their impending life in a new country?
I loved reflecting back on this key moment of my childhood so much that I then decided to reach out to other expat families that I am fortunate enough to engage with. The advice and stories that I received back were so fascinating and I hope this is a valuable resource for those planning on sitting their children down for the expat talk! Good luck parents – You’re warriors.
How early do I tell my children about the move?
Tom: “I remember they told us pretty early on in the process. It made a big difference not having it sprung upon me unexpectedly as a 9-year-old! I was still sad but I remember slowly getting used to the idea thanks to the notice we were given.”
Kate: “I agree. I think it would be a lot harder to adjust to the shock without adequate time to process it. We were not involved in the preliminary research,
“Involve the kids in research and planning for the next move and compile a list of places and activities they are looking forward to exploring in their new country.”
“Involve them: My husband had already secured his job before we told the children, but we still kept them very much involved in the process. We talked to them not just about where we were going, but also how they felt about what we were leaving behind. We discussed how we would maintain contact with people back home, and made sure those systems were in place before we left i.e. testing out Skype with their cousins, booking flights for their Grandma to visit before we left.”
“If your children are very small, you could either get them excited for no reason or cause them unnecessary grief if the move doesn’t go ahead. However, if the kids are older, allow them to be part of the process – Especially when you have a few offers on the table. This allows them to see how exciting the new destination will be. Remember: No matter how many moves you do sometimes you get the timing right and sometimes you don’t.”
How do I prepare them?
“If you are moving to a country with a different language, you have to prepare the whole family. Our parents paid for a French language teacher to come to our house each week for the few months leading up to moving day and it was a great idea. The lessons really did arm us for the first month abroad, instead of just being thrown into school with no basic language skills. Language is a big deal when it comes to your children making friends quickly and therefore feeling integrated and comfortable in their new home.”
“Make the move as positive as possible. Do not focus on how much they will miss where they are; this will only
“In my experience, one of the most important things is to teach your kids that it’s okay to feel sad about an upcoming move. It’s okay to miss your home. It’s okay to miss your school. As a parent, we owe it to our kids to let them express their emotions around an international move. To show them that to have conflicting feelings and attachment to a place is OK.”
“Keep it positive: Whenever we talked as a family about relocating it was always in an encouraging way – An opportunity for a family adventure. Never that ‘we had to move because of Daddy’s work.’ Children are very resilient and often cope a lot better than us adults, who are prone to over-thinking!”
“Awareness and Love: We made sure that our children were aware of the big step that we were making as a family and took time to share how we all felt about it. Sometimes, the pitfall is that we reflect our own feelings upon our children; whether positive or negative emotions. Pay attention, talk with them and teach them to give their feelings a voice.”
What struggles will our children face and how can we parents make it easier?
“Losing our friends was one of the biggest struggles we both faced. Having a language barrier also strongly heightened the feeling of isolation so it was great that our parents ensured there were native French classes for us during school hours. There were several other English expat children at our school who were an incredible source of support. However, it also meant that we gravitated towards our ‘own’ and delayed integrating with the French children! I would definitely recommend parents to encourage more time spent practising the language and building friendships with locals.”
- Fear of Missing Out – Moving on is hard, but holding on is even harder; especially when they can see what they are missing out on. Do not allow social media to be the most important part of their life, it will only increase their feelings of missing out and comparing their old with their new.
- Scared of the unknown (especially if your child is shy or quiet) – Encouraging your child to start new hobbies in their new environment is very important. Hook them up with at least one friend, buddy or child before you get there. Get them to feel like they have something familiar when you arrive.
“Help them face their tangible losses (pets, places, objects and people) but also their intangible losses (language, sense of belonging, experiences, etc). It’s important to acknowledge both during a transition. My biggest advice to other parents is to help their kids say goodbye to a place properly. Schedule a time to visit your favourite places, spend time with your loved ones and write goodbye letters to friends, neighbours or teachers.”
- Fitting in – Just as with moving to any new place our children needed support to ‘fit in’ and we did everything we could to facilitate this, to ensure they had a sense of belonging – and quickly.
As well as making friends in school, and inviting those friends for play dates, sleepovers and parties, both my children took up an activity outside of school. We made friends with local families, which provided us with a link to the community beyond school. Whenever anyone invited us somewhere we say ‘yes’. It might be something we wouldn’t usually have done at home, but here we viewed it as an opportunity to learn new things and make new connections.
- If they struggle to adjust, give them the opportunity if possible to reconnect with friends and family back home. They will see that everything is much the same as they left it and be reassured that they aren’t really missing anything!
- Take some time out – Moving to a new place, making new friends and adapting to a new culture can be exhausting. Sometimes kids (and parents!) just need to curl up for a cuddle or with a familiar book. I strongly encourage this.
- Missing their loved ones – Help ease the feeling of missing home by reminiscing about the good memories or looking back on old photo albums. Read more tips on how to beat homesickness HERE.
- Respect their choice
notto ‘FaceTime’: If they do not want to speak to people from back home, explain to them that it is an opportunity to see the people they love, smile and make the other person happy. However, we try not to force it on them. The experience of seeing people in their old ‘familiar’ environment can upset them or heighten their struggle. The excitement of new adventures and rich surroundings can also overtake the feeling of homesickness – and we have learnt that that is OK.
- Self–Care: It helps our family to do yoga and meditation as well as appreciating nature together. Viewing sunsets or watching the stars reminds us that wherever we are in the world it is always the same and we are all connected. We also remind them every night how much they are loved unconditionally regardless of where we are in the world and that home isn’t a place or a house; it is a feeling. Read more about what ‘home’ means to an expat HERE.
There will always be challenges that are related to living abroad and the thought of preparing a child for this significant life-change can be overwhelming. I hope that the advice and experiences shared in this post have helped ease that weight from your shoulders and helped boost your excitement to create a brand new beautiful
Are you planning on breaking the news to your children? – Share your concerns!
Got any experience dealing with expat children? – Share your knowledge!
Thank you to my lovely post contributors!
Mariam is an expat & travel blogger who writes about expatriate life, world travel and raising 2 global citizens. She has been featured on Oprah, Time Out Dubai and Feedspot Top 100! Her blog can be checked out at www.andthenwemovedto.com
Kathryn’s passion is supporting people to thrive especially when out of their comfort zone. She set up KathrynRelocated (www.kathrynrelocated.com) to inspire, connect and support expat partners to make the most of their overseas experience. An expat herself, she is from the UK, but currently based in Montreal with her husband and two children (9 and 11).
Expat originally from the Netherlands and now living in Aruba, Caribbean, with her 3 kids and big dreams about the future. You can also follow her other Instagram account representing her children’s expat experience at @Little_Expats_in_Aruba.