First published 4th April 2018
Updated 2nd November 2021
Is there a ‘best age’ to move children overseas?
This is a very frequently asked question in the expat (and aspiring expat) community. We all want the best for our children, and we all want the easiest possible transition.
So, when is the right time to make the move abroad with your children?
The general principles are listed here; however, if you’d like to talk about your specific concerns and have questions, please get in touch.
Let’s discuss your move and I’ll use my experience and knowledge to guide you through the key points you need to be aware of for your children.
So, what IS the ‘best age to move your kids abroad?
Basically, the younger the better. But I don’t want to just put in to your head as only moving overseas with youngsters. We all want the best for our children, of course, and we want them to experience the easiest possible transition, and the easiest transition is when they are very, very young. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t move with older children; far from it, it’s just much, much easier when they’re very young!
Very small children, under the age of five, are completely reliant on their family unit for everything – the basics of food, shelter, etc plus relationships, trust and social/emotional stability. Moving a child at this age isn’t likely to cause any significant difficulties as they haven’t learned to ‘be their own person’ yet. All relationships outside of the family unit are, in effect, superficial. A child who has formed close bonds with other family members, such as grandparents, will have the capacity to miss them even at this age, but Skype or Facetime calls can help and the child will adjust very quickly to the new circumstances.
Once the child goes to school full-time, things can get a little trickier. By the age of eight, a child is developing a much greater sense of ‘self’. Whilst realising that the family unit is still critically important, they also have their own unique likes, dislikes, fears and emotions – and their own capacity for self-expression, as I am sure you have noticed! At the same time, the child is starting to form closer relationships with their peers. Many expat parents I have spoken to tell me they experienced more difficulties if they moved countries when their child reached aged 9 – 10 years old. As ever, all families are different, so while one family may have no problem at all, another may find many battles ensue with their child.
At this stage, those peer-to-peer relationships are 100% reliant on frequent, face-to-face contact for sustainability, but the emotional and social connections are becoming strong enough to be ‘missed’ during absences. Moving away at this age almost always means severing friendships completely (as they’re still too young to keep in touch via social media etc) so you can expect a lot more reluctance and antipathy towards your move.
From the age of about 12 or 13 it becomes a lot more difficult to predict how your ‘child’ might react to an overseas move – some are hideous; some are remarkably easy (yes, I’m referring to the move, not the teenager… well, most of the time!). At this stage their reliance on their family unit is generally far less; they have solid friendships, phones, social media – and often social lives that far outstrip ours as adults. Whilst we would argue that the opposite is true, teenagers often feel that their friendships are of far greater importance and value than their relationship with parents. Add a first-love scenario into the mix and you could be in for a really rough ride! I would caution anyone with a 14-16 year old to keep a very close eye on them during a move, as this is when life can get rather difficult for them, for many reasons.
Another aspect of moving with teenagers to consider is that of education. Particularly in the UK, this age group are expected to work towards and take key exams, which may mean some schools won’t accept their placement in these crucial years.
As an adult, moving overseas presents a wide range of opportunities for anxiety; learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, making new friends and negotiating your new normal. For a child, those factors remain in play, but their adaptability varies greatly. A toddler will adapt almost instantaneously; parents, warmth, food and routine can be maintained even in a different country, so the disruption to your toddler’s life is minimal.
At the age of five to seven, when formal schooling comes into play, the child can enrol in a native school anywhere in the world and start learning at the same rate as his or her peers. At this stage, whilst they might miss their (transient) friendships for a little while, even learning a new language comes naturally and adaptability is very good.
From the age of seven, a child becomes more reliant on routine. The flexible, resilient and sponge-like nature of their earlier personality starts to be replaced by already learned patterns and behaviours, meaning they can find it much harder to adapt. At this age they are starting to become both self-aware and socially aware, so will experience more anxiety about making new friends, learning a new language and negotiating unfamiliar places. Their cultural awareness is still limited though and maintaining familiar routines in the home can make their transition easier.
Once the child reaches his or her teenage years, their worries and anxieties are basically the same as an adult’s (with many added extras), but without the advanced ability to reason. Emotions are running high and those anxieties need to be treated with kid-gloves – to negotiate this alongside your own concerns, you’re going to need resilience, patience and the ability to withstand a drama or several!
Social and emotional literacy
So far, I’ve generalised heavily about different age groups. But the child’s individual level of social and emotional literacy – the ability to process, understand and express social and emotional needs – is a crucial factor in understanding how he or she might react to a move.
A 15-year-old with additional needs, for example, may lack the social and emotional capacity to have built strong connections outside of the family unit and be happy to go wherever the parents are. Likewise, a child of seven who has spent the last three years attending breakfast club, after school club and holiday clubs due to parents’ work commitments, may be far more inclined towards independence and not as heavily reliant on family for company, so may feel extremely anxious about moving.
You know your child best and it’s important to remember that general principles don’t always accurately predict outcomes.
Listen to my podcast episode on this topic
I talk about moving overseas with children in more depth on this podcast episode, which you may find helpful when planning your move.
Are you planning a move overseas?
Make sure you and your kids are as well prepared as possible.
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