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Instead, I burrowed into my store of unpublished stuff and discovered the following.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