Moving house is a stressful process for adults and often means a period of re-adjustment. For kids, the change can be even harder as their whole environment changes: home, school and friends. In many cases, this is something they may never have had to deal with before.
A move abroad means even more changes. Depending on where you are coming from and moving to, there may be differences in language, food, dress, climate, race and religion.
Breaking the news
Talk to your kids as soon as possible about the big changes ahead. It is essential to build up a positive picture of what this will mean for them. Think about it like selling an adventure or holiday. Showing them pictures and talking about the new place is a great way to create some excitement and anticipation.
You need to explain why you are moving. It is very important they understand the reasons for the move. It is also important for you to demonstrate decisiveness in the decision, as this helps them feel secure about what is coming. If you have any doubts and worries about the move, it is probably not a good idea to talk about them with your kids, or in front of them.
Get them to ask questions and talk about their feelings, both the positive and the negative. If you don’t know all the answers, it’s a great opportunity to find out about the new country with them.
Talking openly within a family about future plans is a really positive activity. Kids are resistant to change in their routines and environment.
Approach this type of discussion with great care. At this stage, it might be better not to include your kids in the decision process. A negative reaction now could make it harder for them to accept the move later on.
Although kids are initially resistant to change, they are normally quicker to adapt than adults and more open to new experiences and environments. A child placed in a local school will typically attain fluency in a new language in a small fraction of the time required for an adult. This learning capacity can quickly remove one of the main barriers of adapting to life in a new country.
Start the language education process as soon as you know you are going to move. Consider private tutors, au pairs, classes, online programmes, showing cartoons in the language, games and learning alongside your children. Whatever head-start you can give them before you arrive will be a great help.
If your destination country has a cuisine very different to your own, check to see if there are any restaurants serving it near you. If not, get some recipes from the Internet and try cooking some dishes at home with the kids.
See if there are any cultural events, performances or groups near you from the country you are moving to. Try asking the country’s embassy or looking online to see if there are any local associations or clubs. Also look for any documentaries or travel programmes online.
The goal here is to reduce some of the ‘strangeness’ of being in a new environment for the child, and involve them in a positive way in the process of discovering a new culture.
Preparing for the move
If you are not taking everything with you, get the children involved in deciding what they want to take with them. This makes ‘saying goodbye’ to any of the things being left behind a lot easier. One idea is to pack their things with them. You could also give them some responsibility and freedom in unpacking and organising their new room. Make sure they know when things are happening, and they feel like they have a part to play in the moving process.
Not having direct and regular contact with friends and family is one of the most traumatic changes for younger children. Make sure they get a chance to spend time with the people who are important to them. Hold parties or special events to mark the occasion in a positive way.
Until they make new friends, their circle of ‘trusted’ people shrinks to the family unit. This can be a tough time. Email and online videoconferencing are great ways for kids to be able to stay in touch with family and friends. Use them!
Try to create a familiar environment in the home from the start. This can be difficult if the initial period is in temporary accommodation. A few simple things like family photos and favourite pictures or toys go a long way to re-establishing the family home in the child’s mind.
If you have the opportunity to organise a school before you arrive, ask whether it’s possible to put any of the kids there in touch by email or old-fashioned snail mail. Talk about the new school with the children and show them pictures.
When preparing for their first day, talk to them about their concerns and provide as much support and encouragement as possible. Make sure you spend time talking about their experiences over the first days and treat any concerns immediately. Successful adjustment to their new environment is a key factor for their general well-being.
Take and make opportunities for your children to encounter and make friends with local children; invite the neighbours’ kids over to play, spend time in the local park, talk to other parents at school and contact other expats in the area. Making extra efforts to get to know people will be a real boost in helping your kids build up a circle of friends – not to mention you! Look at joining clubs and activities based on your kids’ interests or new things they would like to try. This is a great way for them to meet new friends.
Discover things together
The post-move period is typically very busy, but make sure you set time apart to spend with the children. Organise activities where you can all get out to see and experience the new environment. Building up a set of positive, fun memories is a great way of helping kids adjust and balance negative experiences. It also shows them you are committed to helping them discover and enjoy your new country.
Talk, talk and talk. Reinforcing (or even improving!) your communication with each child is more important than ever when moving country. They – and probably you – will have some tough moments in the process and you need to be there for them to listen and help them through it. Living in a different country is a fantastic experience for most kids. It widens their outlook and horizons, and provides them with great life-skills for the future.