Moving abroad with teenagers

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Negotiating the minefield of teen angst

To do this tricky subject even the tiniest bit of  justice we first must consider the question we all ask ourselves at some point, ‘what is a teenager?’ The dictionary says any person between the age of 13 and 19 – but as parents, we know the answer is far more complicated than that, right?

A teenager is a young person in a transitional life phase. Someone who is experiencing puberty and the complex change in mindset and physicality from childhood to adulthood. This means we can’t treat them in the same way as younger children, but at the same time they’re not yet quite emotionally ready to be treated as an adult – despite their protestations. A teenager is a young person in a transitional life phase – and you’re adding another transitional life phase on top of all this with the move abroad! So when you’re considering a move away from everything that’s familiar to a new country and a new life; teens can be your toughest critics.

To find your way through the accusations of “ruining their life” and the ensuing period of anarchy, you need to understand the key reasons for their dissent;

  1. Teens form very strong social connections; at this stage in life their friends are more than just people with whom they share common interests; they are an important part of their own identity.
  2. Teenagers still hold on to a childish confidence that they are the centre of the universe and that everything that happens within the family home is directly because of, or for, them.
  3. Hormonal changes give teenagers an unprecedented aptitude for drama and theatrics; emotions are raw, reasoning is still not fully formed and logic may seem to be absent altogether.
  4. Due to the development of their bodies and minds teenagers frequently believe they are adults and will feel hard done by if they are not treated as such, even if they are not yet capable of acting the part.

Of course, this is a massive generalisation. You may find your teen is the exception to the rule and is excited by the prospect of a new start and the opportunities opened by global experiences… But just in case you’re not that lucky, let’s look at what you can do to help the average teenager to come to terms with parents who seem to be hell bent on destroying their very existence.


Communicating with teens can be a minefield. In my experience, attempts can be met with eye rolling, grunting, shrugging and an array of words that haven’t yet made it into any known dictionary. Or with flat-out tantrums, histrionics and unsolicited drama. Actually, these are all quite normal reactions, and you should only truly worry if you get no feedback or arguing at all. This means they are internalising their problems, which can be worse for everyone. Yet try we must.

A key factor in getting a teenager to accept a life changing decision is to get them involved right from the start. As soon as it becomes a possibility to move overseas discuss it with them, tell them why it’s a great opportunity, be honest about your own enthusiasm and tell them as soon as possible when it is likely to happen.

When they react – and react they will – make sure you listen to their concerns. Even if the reaction is one of tears and recriminations, the truth about their reluctance will be in there somewhere, and this will give you pointers to planning your next steps.

Allow them some control

Although your teen may not be ready to go it alone as an adult yet, he or she will greatly appreciate being consulted as an adult and given some say in the decisions that most affect them.

Are they in important exam years? If so, would they appreciate the opportunity to stay behind with family or friends until the exams are over? This is quite a radical thought, but do think about it… having stability of schooling and friendships at this age can, literally, be life-saving. Unless they have lived abroad at some point during their life, this may be too much of an upheaval for them to cope with.

Do they have genuine reasons for not wanting to leave the UK? Would they prefer a boarding school? This can be a very hard decision for a parent but it may provide a happy medium for your teenager and get them through their exams in a curriculum they are used to.

Are they concerned about leaving their friends? If so, would it help to plan their first few visits home before you even leave, so they have something to look forward to and something to plan? Or even plan an occasion for friends to come and visit; which will no doubt generate some enthusiasm amongst their peers and maybe even a little envy.

Remember that even whilst they rebel against your every sentence (because what do parents know?), it’s mainly only because you are their safety net and rebelling against you gives them a valuable opportunity to practice their adult assertive skills. Taking the wind out of their sails by understanding their needs and acquiescing to their demands might provide the answer to a productive discussion.

Sell the positives

Let’s be clear. Bribes are too obvious; they work well with younger children but with a teen you need to be more subtle. An obvious bribe will result in a negative reaction but selling the positives might tip the balance… For example, if you’re moving to a hot country, surely there’s a need for a shopping trip? Going together will provide valuable time to discuss plans and try to generate excitement as well as pandering to most teenager’s love of something new and trendy.

Perhaps there are opportunities in the new country that don’t exist where you currently live? Dune driving, horse riding, or learning to drive earlier? Do some early research so that you are armed with accurate and relevant, juicy facts.

Respect their privacy

What your teenager’s friends think about this life changing decision is a lot more important than what you think! Don’t intrude; give them the time and space they need to process the change in their own way (and hope that some of their friends have something constructive to say!).

Don’t dictate

At the end of the day, you are the decision maker and your teen will have no option but to go along with your plans. Whilst this is true – and you both know it – shouting the odds and being dictatorial is not the route to a happy transition.

Instead, build bridges. Give your teen the freedom to take part in the planning, to openly discuss their fears and to ask the difficult questions. Encourage and help them to research your new area and find out for themselves what it has to offer. Find out what things would make the move more palatable and do everything in your power to be accommodating.

Take the higher ground; refuse to be drawn in to drama and conflict you will eventually win them over, just with love and patience and understanding because when all is said and done they still need you and they just want to feel like they’re an important part of your plan.

Expatability Chat Podcast

If you’d prefer to listen to me talk about this topic, here are a couple of my podcast episodes about Moving Abroad With Teenagers

Moving Abroad with Teenagers

Moving with Teens with The Teen Confidence Coach

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  1. Hi, we are considering moving back to the UK (from Brazil) for work reasons. We moved to the US for 3 years when our daughter was 10, and she didn’t want to move back here. However, since coming back she has finally settled back in with her old friends and into school life. She is now 15, I feel really bad about making her move again and leaving behind friends once more and I’m worried that this could have a detrimental effect on her education and growth. Do you have any advice for us?

  2. Hi, we moved from Latin America to the UK. It’s a big change and my teenager son and is having a really hard time finding friends and people who can share experiences. He is really sad and we as parents are very worried about him. He likes to read a lot, what book can we buy for him to read? Many thanks

      1. Thank you for this article. I moved with my Australian husband and two Australian teenage sons from Queensland Australia to Texas USA 4 years ago. It’s sure been an interesting experience. Now I am wanting to return to my country of birth Australia to be near my parents in their late 70s and near my sisters in their 40s, but my husbands USA job is secure and he is happy and the boys want to stay another 4-10 years. It’s hard to know what to do.

      2. It is so difficult to navigate this, isn’t it? Many expats experience this at some point, and there is no set or easy answer, because everyone’s situation is so different. Mainly, you have to do a lot – a LOT – of family talking.
        If you’d like to talk this over with me for more clarity and advice, I’d be more than happy to share my insight based on your personal dilemma.
        You can find my calendar for availability here

  3. I’m a single mum to a 19 yr old son. He and I have spent our entire life together. His father has minimum presence.
    My son seems to be so attached to our homeland(lebanon). Eventhough he was raised abroad, in Belgium..
    I failed to find a job here for the last 5 yrs and I’m unhappy. However, I stayed for him. I didn’t want to impose any changes on his life since he seems happy.
    I’m now 38 years old and I really want to go back to Belgium. For several reasons. Work, quality of life.. etc..
    I mentioned this to him several times and he got all defensive and asked me to leave without him.
    I can’t leave him here. I don’t feel good about it and I know him very well, he still needs my supervision and support as a parent.
    Is there a way I can take this decision without feeling that I ruined his life?

  4. I’m currently going through the same thing and think that moving abroad is best done when your children are not teenagers already going through a bloody tough time. I hope you work through it, I’d like to say it gets better.

  5. i’m a teenager and moving overseas ruined my life. i don’t remember a day i haven’t cried in months, i’m miserable, and the vastly different school curriculum means i’m struggling in a thing i used to excel in. i’m lonely, tired, and annoyed at americans.

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