My top tips for relocating overseas with children

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Moving abroad with kids

First published: Nov 2019
Updated: Dec 2023

I was at a bit of a loss with what to write this month. I had planned a follow-up to my article on expat mental health last month, but it ended up being overly long (and more than a little bit ranty). All because I received some negative feedback about speaking openly about expat depression and other mental health problems.

Apparently, there are some people who don’t like me speaking about the potential negative aspects to expat life. They would prefer me to keep it all light and fluffy; pretend that each and every one of you has a super easy and fun time and maintain the expat bubble. All in all, some would prefer me to hide the reality of relocation from everyone. <Deep breath>.

Well, no.  That’s not going to happen because I prefer to be honest and open about it. I’m not going to compromise my authenticity for anyone. So, yah boo sucks to all who want to bury their heads in the sand!

However, I did re-evaluate what to post this month because a) I was getting cross each time I looked at the planned topic, and b) what I had written was simply too long. Therefore, I will split it into two or three and post a series next year.

Instead, I burrowed into my store of unpublished stuff and discovered the following.

Several years ago a well-known British broadcasting company (!) contacted me asking for an interview/article. I can’t even remember what it was for now, but I wrote the answers to their questions and they didn’t use it.

Which is good, because now I can share my top tips for moving abroad with children with you!

What are three things that parents of older children (9+) don’t think about prior to moving abroad?

1) As soon as you know there’s even a possibility of a relocation, include your children in the conversation. Don’t just spring it on them. Make sure they understand that the final decision is yours, as an adult, and that you are making it as the best decision for the entire family.

2) Encourage discussion. And properly listen to their, often unspoken, concerns. It’s too easy to get caught up in the practicalities of moving overseas and because we adults are so involved in every detail of the move, it’s easy to forget that our children are seeing things in a completely different way. They experience very different emotions. In some children anxiety and fear, loss and sadness can be very strong yet they are unable to voice their worries.

3) Ensure they will be able to keep in touch with their friends. For older kids and teenagers, this generally means social media, so it may help to set up any accounts they need before you move. Discuss this with them and their friends so everyone knows what to expect.

What are three things that parents of younger children (0-9) don’t think about prior to moving abroad?

1) Explain everything, assume nothing. Kids will worry about some – to adults – very peculiar aspects of the move. Again, talk and listen. Don’t dismiss any concerns your child has. To us, these concerns may seem trivial, but to a child they are valid and need to be addressed.

2) Very young children may be confused about what they’re able to take and what they can’t. They don’t always know what is part of the house and what can’t come with them. For example, my daughter was upset that her bed couldn’t move with us because our new home was already furnished.

3) Young children do not understand time or distance. By all means, tell your kids exactly how long you will be in your new country (if you know) and when/if you’ll be returning home, but don’t expect them to understand this. Don’t lie either. If you don’t intend to ever return home, tell them this. They will also not understand that their best friend from nursery cannot just pop over to see them when they want. Again, don’t pretend these things are possible just so you get an easy life; be honest at all times, but be supportive too.

What are three or four of the most common problems for expats with children (you can specify ages in your answer)?

1) Changing school. At any age. For older kids, especially teens, this can be very nerve-wracking. It will help if you can find out as much about the school as possible before your child starts there. Most children don’t want to stand out from the crowd so seeing the unspoken ‘dress rules’ is important. With older kids, fitting in will override comfort and common sense, so be prepared for the fact that wearing the ‘right’ shoes or backpack is vital! During a visit check out what the current pupils are wearing and carrying: this is particularly important if the school doesn’t have a uniform.

2) Food! Especially in younger children who may be fussy eaters. Carry some familiar foods with you in your luggage. Breakfast, in particular, needs to be easy in the early days and before you can transition your child to locally available foods.

3) Expat teens can experience some quite intense problems, especially if they have moved countries several times. Identifying with a home country can be difficult for them if they haven’t lived there. The youth culture and unwritten social rules may be beyond them as they haven’t had the grounding of the local kids, making it very hard for them to fit in.

What are a few unexpected ways that both parents and children can adjust to expat life?

1) Don’t underestimate the power of familiarity. Carry a few familiar items with you when you move, such as bedding, so there is an immediate sense of ‘home’ when you arrive.

2) It’s not a good idea to relocate during the school holidays. While this may seem attractive as a way of bonding as a family and getting out and about in your new country, it doesn’t actually work that way. Many other expats – the ones who can help you find your way in that country – will be away themselves, and there will be nobody for your child to meet. If at all possible, start your child at school as soon as you can after arrival. It will help them make friends and get into the swing of their new life. Creating their own social circle and being distracted will help them acclimatise very quickly.

3) Wait at least six months, preferably longer, before visiting your home country. Going back too soon can make it much harder to settle in your new home.

4) Live as normally as possible. Keep to the same routines as much as you can. Remember, it’s just the country that’s different, not your family.

Any tips or advice that you give to expats with kids that they are surprised to hear?

1) Understand the country you are moving to. With this, I mean safety aspects that may differ from your home country. For example, in Japan the schools hold regular earthquake drills which can come as quite a shock to a child if they aren’t expecting that. Of course, these came in very handy when we experienced the big earthquake of March 2011. Other countries may hold ‘lock down’ drills in case of an armed invasion; again, these can be terrifying to a child who has no experience of this. You need to very sensitively explain these issues to a child so as not to invoke even more fear. Other issues such as hurricanes, personal safety, violence, etc should be discussed as necessary.

2) Kids can experience ‘culture shock’ too, although they will have little understanding of what this actually is. Expect tantrums from little ones and rebellious attitudes from teens – much the same as normal, of course, but with the reason being focused on the new country. Watch out for changes in behaviour, such as becoming more withdrawn, ‘acting up’ and mood swings. Often the most commons sign is, “I want to go back to XYZ!” – usually the last country they lived in. Encourage your child to talk about whatever might be bothering them and really listen to their answers. You may need to read between the lines to discover what the problem is. Keep calm, keep your head and this too will pass.

Anything else you want to add?

Emotional preparation before the move is the main point to concentrate on. While the practicalities can be all absorbing, forgetting to focus on the thoughts and feelings of your child, whatever their age, can be problematic later on. Spend time with them and encourage them to ask questions. The more you can answer prior to your move, the less insecure they will feel when they arrive.

Expatability Chat Podcast

Since writing this article, I launched my Expatability Chat Podcast and I think you’ll find the following episodes particularly helpful when considering a move abroad with your children:

When is the Best Time to Move Abroad with Kids?


How to Prepare Kids for Moving Overseas


Moving Abroad with Teenagers


Moving with Teens with The Teen Confidence Coach


Find more Expatability Chat Podcast episodes here

You can find Expatability Chat on all your favourite podcast platforms, or, together with the transcripts if you prefer to read, on my Expatability site.

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  1. I’m planning to move to Dubai with my 2 kids ( 7.5 years and 9.5 years) . My husband has his own business on our country but I want to shift to Dubai for a better life for my kids. But I’m in dilemma how difficult will it be for us to settle there with out my husband . He will Ofcourse visit us often as he’s planning to open another office there. But I’m worried mostly for the kids .. will they adjust there easily or the absence of their father will be a big factor for me in future ?!! I’m very confused

  2. Looking for experience…we are seriously considering moving abroad for 2-3 years when my daughter is 11. At that point, she would be in 5th grade here in the states. When we move, our other daughter will be in college, so the 11year old will be essentially an only child. Wondering if anyone has any experience with moving with an only child of that age.

  3. Hi Carole!
    We are living in Nz but Planning a move to Australia to have a better work life
    We have a 3 year old and I’m originally from Italy ( my partner is a New Zealander )

    My plan was to go first to Perth spend few weeks there than Italy to visit family as he never met any of my family due to Covid
    And spend few months in Italy and than go and live in Perth ( my husband would be living for Perth earlier to organize house ecc)

    Do you think this would be too much for him ?
    I have already started the conversation as he is a very talkative boy .

  4. Hi
    Thinking of relocating from Irel to Perth with 3 kids , boy 8, girls 5 and 2.
    We lived there 5 years ago moved back home to Ireland when boy was nearly 4. He now only knows his Irish life. He has maybe 2 good friends that’s it in Ireland. He loves his life here which is quite rural and boring. He has told me he doesn’t want to move to Perth. I’m stressed out and so anxious now . I’m unsure whether to listen to him and stay or move as it is a wonderful life there compared to rural Ireland. My boy is social outgoing and confident. The girls don’t mind really and are happy to go.

    Any reassurance would be appreciated.

    1. Your child is not best placed to make this decision – you, as an adult, are. You’re making the best decision for your entire family.
      All kids want is familiarity and stability. Please don’t make him do adulting decisions that he isn’t capable of making. Allow him to be the child he is.
      If you’d like to talk this through with me 1-1, please book a call here

      Alternatively (and as well, really!), please listen to my Expatability Chat Podcast episodes listed below:
      When is the Best Time to Move Abroad with Kids?
      How to Prepare Kids for Moving Overseas

      1. Thanks you for your reply.
        From your experience do 8 year old settle well/ quickly in a new country/ school?
        This move was decided for a better work life family balance. Here in Ireland we live in the country, just work and home and part time farming , that’s it.
        Maybe it’s me that’s confused or nervous . I know the city we will move to very well,

        Thanks I’ll listen to the podcast

      2. 8 years olds tend to do just fine
        You’ll be just fine
        Like pets, kids pick up on our anxieties, so please do dive into my podcast where you’ll be sure to find most, if not all, your questions answered.
        Enjoy your new life! It sounds like a wonderful relocation

  5. We are moving to France- so different country AND different language. My 11 year old daughter is country against it. She’s crying anytime we mention it and I’m at my wits end. We do country the options for me and the kids to stay back in the UK, while dad moves to France, and he visits- (but realistically, only 90 days in a year maximum). My heart really breaks for her, as we just moved to England in 2021, from Scotland. I’m almost tempted to stay put, but I also want the family together. I feel my 6 yr old son needs his dad, and I’m just tired of years of rotation. Your article has helped put things in perspective- andI can see it from her view. Do you have any tips to help her see the potential p[have in this?

  6. I really appreciate this post. We are in discussion about our next move which will be the 8th relocation for our 10 year old. It may end up being overseas (a longtime dream of my husband and me as all our moves have been stateside). He is adamantly against it, and I wonder if it has to do with already having moved so many times. He considers the US home, and doesn’t care where we move as long as it’s in the states. I feel for him so much, because the changes ARE so hard, plus I want him to have a chance to make and keep good friends for once in his life. But…this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our family, so we may end up going no matter what. Mommy heart breaking…

    1. 8 moves in 10 years. That’s a LOT for a kid. Really a lot. Are you a military family? Or just have itchy feet?
      As a 10 year old, he’s at the age when most expat parents I’ve worked with have found it most challenging.
      Please listen to my podcast episode on this
      And perhaps book a call with me for more individual advice

  7. Great advice – thanks so much for writing.
    Do you have any thoughts on the best way to move to an area from overseas with kids without having any rental accommodation to move into?!

    We want to be able to get a feet for different suburbs before we jump into renting.

  8. Do you think it will be easier for a younger child 2.5yr to settle in somewhere new?
    Currently contemplating moving abroad, but it would be for three years with a toddler and newborn.

  9. Amazing read – my 12 yo daughter is giving us a very hard time now after we relocated (4 weeks now). She went to school and been spending lunch breaks in the bathrooms talking/vid chatting to her old friends. Some lunch breaks she would sit alone outside and not talk and not eat. IT IS BREAKING HER MOM’s heart. I personally believe she will be fine in time. she just needs to give herself the chance to explore and accept. I just don’t know when would that happen. 2 months? 3 months? 6 months? the problem is, I’ve told her that if we end up with an entire year of sadness, I’d take her back home. I still believe spending 1 year in Dubai with all the city has to offer, she’ll be happy. I think all she needs is few friends.

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