Moving to another country with children can be a stressful experience. The tearful confession, “I want to go home,” is the last thing any parent wants to hear. Adults will be going through their own period of adjustment and this, coupled with the logistical matters that lay claim to their time in the early days, can leave them ill-equipped to give their children the help they need to cope with the transition.
The good news is that, when properly prepared and supported, children often adjust more quickly than adults. The key to a move with minimum fuss comes down to 3 main things:
Let’s look at each one in more detail:
This starts well before departure. Let them know of the impending move in plenty of time so that they are not unsettled by any preparations taking place, but not so far in the future that they have too much time to dwell on it. Parents have the best knowledge of their child to be able to make this decision but, as a guide, the older the child is, the sooner they need to know.
Discuss the new destination, find it on a map or preferably a globe (3D is more fun!) Do some research together about weather, animals, customs etc. so that your child can build a mental image of their new home. The more pictures and interesting information the better; nothing is more frightening than the unknown. If there is a new language involved, learn some key words and phrases together, and have fun seeing who remembers the most.
Once you arrive, do all you can to spend time together. This is difficult for adults who are starting in a new post, but it’s worth bearing in mind that family is your child’s one familiar constant right now. It’s the only thing cushioning them from the difficulties of their new situation. The more time you can spend together, exploring and learning new things, the easier it will be for them to step out on their own when they feel ready. It also helps for them to see that this is a learning curve for everyone and if it seems as though you are enjoying it, they will be more likely to also.
Stay in touch
Help them to maintain links with loved ones and friends back home, whether it’s through letter-writing and postcards or Skype and email. Continue to discuss the new location: likes and dislikes, new things you’ve learnt, favourite places, etc. We used to go round the table at dinner, taking turns to say what we liked about Canada. It keeps the lines of communication open and reminds everyone that they’re in it together.
Expat life can make or break a family, throwing them together or splitting them apart – communication will help you to stay supportive of each other and work together instead of feeling alone.
One of the hardest things about moving, for a child, is that they have no control over the situation. The decisions are made by adults. This can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness. Help your child to stay positive by including them in the transition process and giving them control over their situation in age-appropriate ways.
• They can pack their own things, choose what to take on the plane and what gets shipped. For older children you could let them host a goodbye get-together with their friends; anything that makes them a part of things and not a spectator on the side-lines.
• Let them chose their bedroom, or if that’s not an option, how to decorate it. Although it might be tempting, don’t assume now is a great time for an “out with the old, in with the new” approach, it will be a comfort for them to see their old stuff from home around them.
• Discuss their education with them, if there’s a choice, what school they prefer. Let them have some input in choosing their school supplies, pencils, rucksack, etc.
Any way you can make them feel they have a choice and an impact on their situation, will have the benefit of distracting them from their anxiety and, in the long term, foster confidence in their own abilities.
I can’t stress enough the importance of making time for children. No matter how communicative you aim to be with them, if they sense you don’t have the time, they won’t open up. Spending time together builds trust and allows them to broach difficult subjects when they feel ready to talk about them. Children can’t always verbalise what they are feeling, it takes a while for them to get a handle on it and then put that into words.
Get out and about
When you arrive, hit the ground running and put yourself out there. Make friends with neighbours, have a house-warming and invite them in. Establish links, arrange play-dates and talk to parents at the schoolyard. Don’t be discouraged, results won’t be immediate but once you get past people’s initial reserve friendships will be forged and your children will learn from your lead.
Time it right
If possible, schedule the move carefully so that kids have enough time to settle but not so much that boredom kicks in and they start to think about what they’ve left behind. About two weeks before the beginning of a new school year is considered ideal.
Be prepared for heightened sentimentality, attachment, sensitivity etc. while they adjust. Younger children may regress from recent toilet training or have trouble getting into a sleep routine. Teenagers may have mood-swings or withdraw. Be accepting of the time they need to adapt and be patient but gently persistent.
While it’s important for you to be encouraging and enthusiastic, you also need to be realistic and let them know that you understand the difficulties of their situation. If you put up an impenetrable wall of positivity children will feel unable to speak to you about any negative feelings they might have. We used to discuss the things we disliked about Canada as well as the things we liked. Nothing should be taboo.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a mother of three who worked in Early Years Education before embracing expat life. She knows the struggles expats face and hopes her advice helps others in similar situations.
Children's books about moving
Dear Phoebe, S. Alexander
We Are Best Friends, Aliki
It’s Your Move: Picking up, packing up and settling in, L. Bourke
I Don’t Live Here!, P. Conrad
I’m Moving, M. W. Hickman
My Friend William Moved Away, M. W. Hickman
Moving Molly, S. Hughes
I’m Not Moving!, P. Jones
Maggie and the Goodbye Gift, S. Milord & J. Milord
A New Boy in Kindergarten, J.B. Moncure
Mitchell is Moving, M. W. Sharmat,
The Monster in the Third Dresser Drawer and Other Stories About Adam Joshua, J. I. Smith
Moving Day, T. Tobias
Moving, W. Watson
Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care – NNCC
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.
She can be contacted via the usual avenues (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) – just swing by the blog for directions.
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.