Abroad and confused

Helping kids understand relocation

“When will our bunk beds arrive?” asked a curious 3-year-old after a few days of vacation in Spain.

We looked at her with an enquiring “Huh?” Then it hit us. You see, we had just moved from America to Denmark about 3 months prior, so naturally she thought that since we had traveled to Spain, we would soon be receiving a shipment of our things and would likely be setting up residence there as well.

That was an eye-opening moment for us. Our kids (or at least our youngest) were confused. Life had been moving fast and we were under the assumption that these bright kids of ours were cruising along at our pace. When really some of what was going on was flying right over their heads.

We had done quite a bit of traveling with them in the past, but this whole moving-abroad business threw them for a loop.

An adult’s decision

Often, a move overseas is something that transpires out of desire or necessity, but either way, it is usually an adult decision. And although you might think you are involving the kids and making the process understood, some kids are too young to fully understand.

In a sense, this blissful ignorance works to your advantage. Our 3-year-old felt happy as long as Mommy, Daddy and Big Sis were by her side. She walked through unfamiliar surroundings feeling safe holding a familiar hand. She was comforted in knowing that she could still eat Cheerios for breakfast and that her favorite songs were still sung to her at bedtime. Then, just as she began to equate Denmark as the new-normal in her life, we switched things up on her and took her to Spain. Not thinking it was necessary, we hadn’t explained that this was a vacation and not another move.

Our 5-year-old however, was confused in another sense. She was acutely aware that we had moved to Denmark and could not, for-the-life-of-her, figure out why. She wasn’t unhappy, but she was full of observations and questions:

“Kids here don’t speak my language.”

“Why did we leave my friends and grandparents?”

“Where will I go to school?”

“The TV doesn’t speak English, Mommy!”

And if she had a particularly bad moment, it was all Denmark’s fault.

For example, she would fall and skin her knee and cry out: “I HATE DENMARK! I WANT TO GO HOME!” Which really, is quite accurate if you think about it; because let’s confess, when adults are having a tough time navigating their way through a new country, aren’t the children thinking exactly the same thing?

Information and experience

Adjusting to something new is never easy and although we give children a lot of credit for being adaptable, we have the upper hand in the situation, merely because we have all the information.

It has been instilled in us (or at least some of us) that experiencing other parts of the world will broaden your mind and soul. We have life experiences that have taught us that challenges make us stronger and often deliver huge rewards.

How is it possible for a 3 and 5-year-old to recognize these things? It’s not. But as their parents, we can only try to lessen the confusion and ease the transition with lots of love and guidance.

As a former expat-child, who cried when leaving friends in 2nd grade, I am tremendously appreciative to my parents for the gift of seeing the world with young eyes. Consequently, in regards to my own children, I often say to myself, they will thank me for this later. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Although it initially brought some uncertainty, the vacation to Spain, 3 months after moving to Denmark, ultimately helped confirm our move and eliminate confusion.

It was really quite simple. You know that comforting feeling upon returning home after a long vacation? When nothing feels better than sleeping in your own bed, and the kids are overjoyed to see familiar toys? Well… we had that. This new and unfamiliar place, suddenly felt less new and more familiar.

By Mandy Haakenson

Mandy Haakenson is a travel industry professional and freelance writer, specializing in family travel and sustainable tourism. Her passion for places and cultures has led her on numerous adventures around the world. She is an American currently living in London, England and a mama to two girls. She and her husband strive to enjoy all the small moments in life, while also giving their kids a broad view of the world by traveling as much as possible. Mandy shares their expat life and travel adventures at www.offcoursebird.com and can be followed on Instagram and Twitter at @offcoursebird.

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