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Preparing your kids for living abroad

Updated 18 Sep 2009

With all the planning that goes into moving abroad it’s easy to neglect those members of your family that don’t have a choice in the matter. Children typically find out about the big move once the decision is made, and parents seldom know how to help kids make this very important transition in their lives.

The child’s age and developmental stage are big factors. Preschoolers locate “home” wherever their parents are – and are thus ideal candidates for even the most extreme expat relocation. Between ages five and ten, kids can develop strong but flexible attachments to friends and schools. This means that if they are prepared adequately for the move, they can quite quickly adapt to their new environment and for new social attachments.

Teenagers are often the most reluctant expats. Their identity is wrapped up in their social relationships and recreational activities. Leaving these can be profoundly dislocating and can even be experienced as a form of bereavement. Some of the strategies discussed below may be helpful in managing – but there is no doubt that the initial phase of expat life can be tough on both the teenager and his or her family.

Preparing your kids for living abroad is a process – one essential to go through if you want your overall expat move to be a success. Of course, some kids will embrace the experience from the first mention of “We’re moving to Kinshasa!” and in all likelihood will thrive in their new home. And some expat moves to similar cultural environments will entail far fewer adjustments. But most kids will need a little help to reach a stage of acceptance and positive adaptation.

The sequential steps below contain ideas and strategies expat parents can use to make emigration as smooth as possible.

Preparing the ground

This is a big one: let the children participate in the decision-making process. Involve them from the start so they have a chance to get used the idea, raise any concerns, and – most importantly – feel like their opinions helped shape the decision to move abroad. Show the, choices of accommodation and schools and get their input. At this stage it is vital to be clear and realistic in the information you provide. Not everything is going to be easy, some sacrifices might have to be made. Don’t fudge the details – honesty with an emphasis on the positive is the key to gaining your children’s acceptance.

Communicating the details

The best antidote to doubt and anxiety about the move is information about the destination. Get books and DVDs, login to websites, buy some food from the destination – whatever it takes to get familiar with what will be their new home. For younger kids this can involve teaching them what fruits are good to eat, what animals are dangerous and other important safety considerations. Give them a list of simple words to learn in the language of the destination country. When they arrive these few phrases can generate incredibly positive reactions in local people and immediate feelings of accomplishment in the expat child.

Creating continuity

Children may feel they are leaving a lot behind when they leave their established home. The transition can be eased by reproducing aspects of home in the expat destination. Set them up with a Skype account to chat with friends, help them build a blog to communicate their new life. Buy a gift for their new room that can only be opened on arrival. Get them to bring items from home to show and introduce to their new classmates. If possible, relocate the family pet – unless it’s a St Bernard and you’re moving to Dubai.

Leaving shore

Experts in emigration transitions emphasise the importance of having a proper farewell. Think of it as a gateway between the new life and the old. Hold a going away party, take lots of photographs and make your children feel as if they are on the cusp of a great adventure. Get the children to plan their own goodbyes as well. Closer to the departure date why not hold a garage sale to off-load unwanted possessions and let the kids keep the bulk of the proceeds?

Ongoing support

Keep open lines of communication throughout the emigration process. This is especially important during the settling-in phase where the child will deal with unfamiliar people and surroundings, and will need plenty of positive support. Listen to your child, let them express their feelings, without necessarily coming up with solutions. Help your child to see that anxiety and fear are just the flipside of excitement and adventure. Lead them through the tricky early stages and they may soon blossom in their new environment.

Teens are likely to need plenty of empathy and support even though they may not ask for it in an obvious way. Look out for rebelling and mood swings. These are signals that he or she needs help with the adjustment. An important strategy is to join online communities that offer peer-to-peer support. Sites such as and are excellent sources of information, advice and networking provided for kids by other kids.

Celebrating the positive

The good news is that if handled correctly moving abroad can be hugely beneficial to children. Studies show that expat children are more likely to develop into confident adults, with more adaptable and advanced social skills than their contemporaries. Thanks to their experience of moving abroad they are likely to cope better with change. They are also more attuned to and tolerant of multicultural differences – a useful attribute in an increasingly diverse world. A final attribute associated with expat kids is that they tend to have a confidence and curiosity about their world that stands them in good stead when making their way as adults.

Moving abroad with children is subject to a range of variables, most important of all are the children’s age, temperament and the destination. Some moves will deliver a bounty of new experiences and adventures; others may involve a more constricted, challenging lifestyle. Regardless of one’s circumstances, children of all ages will need preparation. The more attention paid to this process during the early phase of the move, the greater the long-term benefits.

by David Fair

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