How to prepare your children for a move abroad
For very young children, moving house can be very hard indeed. They have become accustomed to their home, their room, their friends and their routines and to leave all this can throw them into confusion.
Try to see life from a child’s-eye view. Without the benefit of years of life experience, with some extra imagination and knowing YOUR child’s foibles.
The world of a child is unexpectedly complex and the things they worry about are not always the things we might expect. Added to this, their understanding of time, distance and space is very limited, so the concept of moving to a new home, in another part of the world, for a defined period, can be totally alien. By being aware of this, you will be able to help them understand it all a little better.
It’s all basically down to recognising their child's eye view of life, communication, routines, and handing the some control in this big life-changing thing that's happening to them.
Please scroll down for the transcript
Resources and Links
1 to 1 Expat Espresso Chat
Book a call with me to help you work through any questions or concerns you have about expat life.
£99 for one hour
Know before you go!
5 essential topics to discuss with your partner before you move abroad.
Download this FREE eBook to discover how to make sure you have the best expat experience before you even leave home.
Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. In my last episode, I talked about what is the best time to move abroad with children, and in this one, I want to go through some practical tips to help you prepare your children for their move abroad. As I mentioned in my previous episode, moving abroad with kids is a wonderfully rewarding experience for everyone involved. You all get to experience fascinating new cultures, discover new tastes, see new sights and make incredible once in a lifetime memories together. You'll adore watching your children grow into strong, happy, well rounded individuals with an international mindset and a broad global horizon.
Of course, any form of travel with kids comes with its own unique hurdles to overcome. It still amazes me that parents don't talk about their upcoming move with their children. Before I started ExpatChild back in 2012, I heard quite a few people mention that they just didn't bother to tell their kids - some until a couple of weeks before they left. One of the reasons I started my site was to help people understand that our children are far more important than that. Some people seem to think that even a six or seven year old won't understand what moving overseas is about, which to my mind, is seriously underestimating your child's intelligence to an incredible amount. I simply don't get it. So I'm not going to go about it here.
But start telling your children sooner rather than later. You need to be open with your children as soon as you know about your move. Your children need to be aware of the move and to be kept up to date with any new information. It may be tempting to make all the arrangements first and then tell them to put off difficult conversations. But being up front really is the best policy. Your children need time to process the change in their own way; to process their thoughts and feelings in their own mind. And yes, they will have many of these. And no, they won't be what you expect at all, or the same as what you're thinking.
Now, let me just explain a little bit deeper into this particular topic of when to introduce the subject of moving. There is no point sharing plans of a possible potential, maybe move three years into the future with your four year old. They just won't get that. You could bring this up with an older teenager depending on your teen. But if there is a definite and closer opportunity of the move, say, within the next year, then yes, your child can be part of the planning, as long as you know that it will happen. If it may well get cancelled before it's even taken off the ground and just leave it until there's a bit more concrete information. Use your judgement.
Of course, all discussions need to be age appropriate and individual appropriate. The focus on age in this particular episode is on, say, well, older toddlers, perhaps, to primary aged kids, roughly. But the advice fits for all ages, even teenagers. I will be talking about moving with teenagers in a special episode next time. But for now, let's focus on the younger ones. And please, as ever, recognise that each of your children is an individual and may need different conversations.
Now, for very young children moving house, even within the same country, can be very hard indeed. They have become accustomed to their home, their room, their friends and their routines. And to leave this all can throw them into confusion. When we're planning our move, it's easy to get too focused on practicalities; the packing, the planning, the language learning, the financials, the insurances, the legalities, the pets, the school choosing... Just so much! And also as adults, we've made that decision, so we know kind of what to expect, but we're able to process all the details as we're planning and as we're preparing for the move. And because there is just so much to do, who could blame you if full emotional preparation has taken a bit of a backseat? And by the way, I do mean for you as well as for the kids. But for now, let's focus on our offspring.
It's human nature to block out things that we don't want to think about right now. And we can hide our feelings under layers of planning and practical actions because it's easier. We are more than busy. And as adults we can compartmentalise quite well. Emotional stuff can be put in a box for a while as we get on with the practical deadline-type things. Not so for a child. Children do not have the ability to put fears, anxieties or thoughts to one side. Their feelings are their driving force, and they can change from one minute to the next as I'm sure you're aware. You may remember the days, or maybe you're actually still in them, of "Why is ice cream cold? Why is it frozen? Why does it make my head hurt? Why does it melt?" And then suddenly, a few seconds later, "Muu-um, why do we have nostrils?"
Before I drift off into reminiscences, what I'm getting at here is that kids can focus very, very tightly on one topic for a very short time and then skip off onto something completely different a few minutes later. Keeping track is fun! Focus is not really a kiddie thing. They're experts at living in the moment and going where their thoughts take them. And because we grown-ups are personally involved in every detail of the move, we may forget that they are seeing things in a very, very different way and experiencing very different emotions.
In some kids, anxiety, fear and worry can be very, very strong. The absolute key to preparing your child for a move overseas is communication. Talk and even more importantly, listen.
So, for example, you could discuss why you are moving, why you believe that this is the best choice for your family at this time. Kids need to understand that their parents make decisions based on what they truly believe is best for the whole family. They also need to be clear that because you are responsible for your family, you therefore have the authority to decide this for all involved.
You may be surprised to find that many kids, even if they show upset, confusion or even anger at your decision, will ultimately find comfort in your decisiveness. When a parent shows that they are secure in their decision this actually imparts a sense of safety and security to your child. Now, although the child may not actually be able to identify this as one of the things that helps them feel more secure at this time, this is what it is.
I mentioned boundaries before. A child doesn't do well with wobbly boundaries or instability. You need to stay strong and be confident with your decisions. By taking full control of the actual 'we are moving' decision you are providing the stable boundaries your child needs to explore their personal life and this new experience more comfortably. At every stage, communication is vital and lets your child know that they can turn to you for advice; when saying goodbye or adjusting to the big move. From the start, children should know that change is inevitable in life anyway. By treating these transitions as a form of progression rather than a daunting but unavoidable transformation, this will help make your child feel less intimidated by similar changes in future. So, just to reiterate on that, put this forward as progression, not necessarily a change; you're moving on.
Now we're all guilty of communicating with little children in a series of directives: "Put your shoes on", "eat your breakfast", "put away your toys", "don't lick the cat!" Now there's nothing wrong with this, of course, directives do have their place, and without them, we'd certainly never get anything done. However, there is also a place for active listening and for allowing your child the time and space to express their own thoughts.
Now, active listening requires feedback. Listen to what your child is saying and repeat core points back to them so that shows that you have actually listened and understood what they have said. Welcome challenging feelings and questions and work together to act on any concerns or to find the answers to things that you don't immediately know, even when those questions are abstract or hard for an adult to answer. We're back to the whole "Why do we have nostrils" thing? Children do ask very strange questions, and that leads on to some very, very strange worries that they may have about moving house and moving overseas.
So, answer their questions, spend lots of time talking about the move and watch your child's behaviour whenever you can. There's a lot of what I call listening between the lines. Really knowing your child and hearing the concerns that they don't speak out loud is key to this. And this is usually because they don't actually have the vocabulary for what they're feeling. Sometimes it's hard enough for an adult to name or even sometimes voice feelings. So please understand that it is incredibly difficult for children to do the same. However, don't put worries into their head. What I mean by this is don't assume your child is worried about something that you expect them to be worried about. And don't keep probing and questioning them about something that you're worried about or you're concerned that they may be worried about.
For example, don't keep going on about them potentially being worried about making new friends. They'll probably be fine. They're probably not even thinking about that at all. Don't keep on about them learning a new language. That probably hasn't occurred to them, they probably don't even know what a different language is. They may well not be at all worried about anything you're thinking about. They may be more interested in how Nanny will cope without their regular cuddles, or whether they'll be able to take their favourite toys with them, or what will a different bed feel like, or if their new bedroom is nice and hopefully it won't have scary wallpaper and perhaps we could get a tortoise or... Who knows? Children are very weird and that's what makes them such fun!
And yeah, kids worry about the strangest things. Try and see life from your child's point of view, without the benefit of years of life experience and with some extra imagination and knowing your own child's specialities - their own foibles, the world of a child is unexpectedly complex and the things they worry about are not always what we'd expect. Added to this, their understanding of time, distance and space is limited, to say the least. So the concept of moving to a new home in another part of the world for a set period is totally alien and you just won't get that through to them.
Being aware of this, you'll be able to help them understand it all a little bit better. What they may be thinking about is something along the lines of, "Hey slow down! Everything is moving too fast and I'm scared. One minute I'm secure in my home with my family and my friends, and next I'm off to the 'other side of the world'. What does that even mean? Does the cat go in the suitcase? Will I be able to take Teddy and all my toys? What happens if I get left behind? Will Evie next door still come and play? Our we taking our house?" And so on and so on. It really is a very difficult concept for a child to understand.
The main things that the child will probably worry about are friends and family, obviously. Even favourite TV shows - why not find out how to take some with you? If they're used to certain activities like a soft play area or after school activities, perhaps you can find something similar overseas for them to get into. Sports teams is an interesting one that came up recently. Maybe a bit older than the focused age here. But to give you an idea of how kids think. I recently had a conversation with someone considering a move overseas. Her teenage son was a massive football fan (soccer). The country they're moving to isn't known for its soccer at all. And this was what he pinned his worries on. But he very soon came around to deciding that he would actually teach his new schoolmates how to play soccer and with added dreams of being the person to bring soccer to that country. So nothing about finding new friends at school. It was all about the soccer to him.
It all basically comes down to missing familiarity and routine, which is so important for a young child. If you can keep as much of these two going, then you'll be helping them more than you can possibly imagine. I've mentioned before to take familiar bedding and so on, favourite breakfast cereals. So do that and keep your routines going as much as possible in your new country.
Some more tips to help you prepare. Be honest. Being honest builds trust. If you're staying for four years, tell them. If you're moving away for good, tell them. So, tell your children exactly how long you'll be in your new country, if you know, of course. And when, or if, you'll be returning home. It gives them something to look forward to. And most importantly, lets them know that goodbyes are not always forever. If you're leaving one country for another and know you won't return, help your kids plan how they will keep in touch with their friends that they're leaving behind.
It's really important that you don't make something up for an easy life. That way problems lie. Sometimes the truth can be hard to hear, but finding out later that your parents lied to you is so much harder. Now I'm sure a lot of you have already had lots of hard discussions this past year with covid, so you've had a fair bit of practise. Just keep at it now.
Encourage your child to ask questions and give them honest answers. Set aside time to discuss the move and actively listen to what your children have to say. A lot of the time, your answer may be that you just don't know. And that presents another important opportunity. And that's research. Research together. When you don't know the answer this is a great way to build curiosity and to get your children involved in doing some research about their new potential home. Use an atlas or a globe to show them where in the world they'll be. Use Google Maps to show them their new street and local area. Find their new school and show them pictures and help them contact the new school by email or letter to introduce themselves.
If possible, try and get in touch with one or more children in the same age group and see if you can encourage regular correspondence. Of course, this is only going to work if you have a long time and a bit of a network over there in the first place. But it's worth trying. And this will give your kid a head start on making friends. The Internet is a wealth of information, so you can also find out about perhaps local leisure facilities and new exciting opportunities. Make a list together of things to do, to go and see and to try out in your new home country and get excited about it.
Make a list of that. Tick it off as you do them. Make sure you follow through. This is back to the honesty thing - there's no point making promises if you don't keep them. For younger children, role play is really, really helpful to help overcome fears. Set up a family of action figures and encourage 'moving away' play in which you participate, of course, because you'll need to answer the questions. Little children find it very, very helpful to talk through a third person, if you like, a toy. You can have quite interesting conversations between teddies and dolls that your child won't necessarily say to your face. So role play is really, really helpful tool in this situation. You can introduce different scenarios such as starting school, for example, and practise overcoming doubts and difficulties. And you'll be surprised at how quickly your child will take a lead role in saying what their fears are, even if they can't say them. Does that make sense?
I remember writing an article for a magazine many, many years ago about preparing your kids for the move. I heard back from someone who set up an entire - get this, it's brilliant, an entire make-believe airport for their particularly anxious child. They used cardboard boxes and a huge amount of creativity to create things like the metal detector and the hand luggage x-ray machine. And they walked the child through this in real time, as it were. Apparently, it really, really helped the child process their worries about so many unknowns. The x-ray machine, for example. They've never seen one before. It might be second nature to you if you're a regular traveller, but when they see their bag or their teddy, go through the x-ray machine for the first time... Oh, my goodness! Yes, learn from my experiences, please!
Another tip, and one to be careful with because it's easy to scare your child is understanding the country you're moving to. And by that 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 the child if they aren't expecting it. Other countries may hold lockdown drills in case of an armed invasion. Again, these can be absolutely terrifying to a child who has no experience of this. So you need to very sensitively explain issues like this to a child so as not to invoke even more fear about the move. It may be better to wait until you're there, but it is something that is well worth keeping in mind.
Other issues, such as hurricanes, personal safety, violence, etc., should be discussed as necessary and in a very age appropriate way. Discuss, plan and practise what you do in specific emergency situations without alarming them. Explain very matter of factly that families should hold emergency drills no matter where they live.
Now on to goodbyes and keeping in touch. Reassure your child that it's perfectly normal to be scared or emotional when saying goodbye. Every child will have different feelings about this move, so try not to make assumptions based on your own feelings. This is the key to it all. Your child is not you. They have different emotions.
The best way to get a child to open up is to ask open questions. This way you aren't putting words into your child's mouth, but rather giving them the chance to put into words how they truly feel. With all age groups, I think, particularly with older kids and teens, this seems to work best when you're doing some kind of chore together or in my case, while driving. It's something to do with not making eye contact, I think. And it's a very useful way of getting teens to talk... Sometimes too much!
Now, saying goodbye is a difficult but necessary part of the transition. As an adult, we may feel inclined to avoid this process because it hurts, it's painful, it's horrible. But for a child, saying goodbye is a great way to help their understanding of the situation and to make the move more real. It is absolutely, really, really important to say goodbye. It forms closure. It allows the child to move on. Plan, advance how you're going to help your child keep in touch with friends and family so that your child understands that they'll see them on Skype and talk to them soon. In reality, any child under the age of about 11 won't maintain a long distance friendship for a prolonged period of time because they just won't see each other. It's hard for a child that young to have a concept of friendship. They'll remember people, but they don't really keep in touch. Feeling that they are able to do so is important, though. Contact their friends parents, swap addresses, swap Skype details and social media details depending on age suitability, of course. Promise your child that you will help and keep in touch and keep that promise, until they lose interest of their own accord.
Let them spend time with the people they will be leaving behind, if that is indeed possible in this day and age. This will help them prepare emotionally and mentally for departure. As I say, it's all about closure.
Practise using Skype. Now, this may seem really daft when grandma is still living just a few streets away, if you're very lucky. But learning to use Skype and understanding how it works and that by doing so, they can still see those important people, will help remove any separation anxieties.
I can't emphasise the importance of goodbyes enough. A lot of people were unable last year to say a proper goodbye. Goodbye is create closure. Closure isn't just required for children either. It's important for the whole family, including you, to say goodbye to your old home, friends and family. Goodbyes help you to move forward. As I say, many people had to move last year at the start of the pandemic without being able to say a proper goodbye. And we had to move from Tokyo shortly after the earthquake 10 years ago, without saying our goodbyes. So I do really understand how important this is.
Depending on lockdown rules, your circumstances and the age of your child, you could perhaps throw a small farewell party for them. Don't make it too much of a big deal because that will emphasise the enormity of the impending move. But a nice get together of friends and family can help. Something that parents of young children have found helpful is to create a goodbye scrapbook or memory box. So have your child lead you around your house and their favourite areas while you take photos. Print these photos out and make a scrapbook of special places and special scenes. It's important to get your child's input into this book, because children have an unexpected way of seeing things that we often miss. For a start, they are a lot closer to the ground, but they just see different things that you wouldn't think about photographing, for example. Basically just go with what they want. Encourage your child to tell you why each scene is important to them and then write it into the book. And then when you're in the new house, you can find similarities to point out.
Remembering their own personal history is really valuable. So in a memory box, you could put maybe something small from the home, like a piece of bedroom curtain or a scrap of wallpaper. Again, be led by your child as they have an eye for the small details that we simply do not notice.
One thing that you really can do to help them is to give them some control over some choices; giving them ownership of some decisions. And please note, I'm emphasising the 'some'. You don't want to give them control over everything, obviously! Ownership is really important to all children over about the age of four. If they're old enough to have an opinion and to decide their own likes and dislikes then they're old enough to appreciate involvement in decision making. Moving with a baby or toddler is easy. Their home is wherever you are and they have no strong attachments to anything other than you. Older children will have more doubts, but by allowing them to get involved in finding out information, putting together lists of opportunities, packing their own things and keeping in touch with their own friends will help them feel some ownership and control of their own lives.
So give them some independence and some kid level decision making. For example, the packing is probably the easiest way to start with this. By allowing them some decision making, it helps them feel that they do have some say in what is happening to them, because this move is happening to them. If there are things that you must leave behind, talk about saying goodbye to them on several occasions, plan how or when to say goodbye and progressively distance them mentally from the object or pet or person over a period of time. Ask them what they'll miss most. The answers may shock you! Research and see if those things are available in your new country. Take them with you if possible. Being surrounded by familiar things will help comfort them in their new home. So encourage your child to make a list of all the things that they want or need to take with them. Obviously, a younger child will not think of the essentials because that's your job. But they will list all the things that will help them retain a sense of familiarity and comfort.
And of course, this needs to be handled very carefully, as there may be items that simply cannot be taken, such as the climbing tree in the garden or the ancient and rickety rocking horse. You've heard the phrase 'pick your battles'? This could be a battle that you may choose to lose. And by that, I mean if your child is determined to take the rattiest, old, never-hugged Teddy, that you were planning on binning, what is the harm in actually packing it? There is no point in offering control to your child if you're not going to allow them to exercise it. So pick your battles carefully and give in to quite a lot.
When it's time to pack, give them responsibility for assembling all of the items on their special list and packing them up into maybe their own special box, that they can then decorate. It's their special box, and when you open it at the other end, it will still be special. Tick every item off as you go, and then you'll have no last minute worries about whether Ratty Ted made it into the box at all.
So this is just a very brief introduction to preparing to move with children. There is obviously a hell of a lot more involved in this. The main thing I want to point out is explain everything and assume nothing. Don't assume anything. If they don't ask, you ask them. Initiate communication, but also give them time to process their thoughts at their own pace.
Expect to have ups and downs. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over and over and over again. This is all totally normal. Young children thrive on routine and stability, and the more often you tell the story of your move, the more familiar it will become to them. Clarify that nothing will change within the family; it's just going to be the house and the country. Your family will still be the same. If you can keep up normal routines in your new home, you're halfway through the battle. Introduce new routines gradually. And also remember that children don't understand time or distance. They will not understand that their best friend from nursery can't simply pop over to see them. Again, don't pretend certain things are possible just so that you get an easy, quiet life. Be honest at all times, but be supportive too.
So as well as communication, continuity is important. Familiarity is key to this. It's the small things that make a difference. I've talked about this so many times, continuity and routines, food, toys, games, books, favourite blankets, even pets will help your child settle and not be overwhelmed by unfamiliarity.
Don't alienate your kids by making all the decisions for them. Approach the move as a family endeavour and get everyone to have a positive input. Give your child responsibility and ownership and never dismiss their concerns. Let them talk about it as much as they need, even if it's an overload for you. Reassure them at every opportunity.
Regardless of their age, no two children are alike and this needs to be taken into consideration when you make your plans and with how you prepare them. Some children will need more communication and more questions answered and more time to reflect on the answers. But they won't necessarily like decision-making because decisions may feel like too much pressure. Some children are natural leaders and will need to be given a sense of control over their own destiny. Others are introverts and may need more time to process their feelings and form their questions. You know your child better than anyone else, so tailor your plans to suit their needs, however big or small.
Encourage communication, but make sure you listen out for the unspoken. I can't emphasise this too much. Quite often what's really concerning them will be what's not specifically said, and that's where role-play is really important. Be honest, don't make promises you can't keep. Let them know that your family unit will remain strong and supportive despite the changes taking place. Focus on the positive aspects, but don't be afraid to address the negatives too. Above all, be supportive and reassure your child that they can cope with what's ahead.
Sometimes it's good to just listen. You don't always need to give them advice or solve their problems, and this is especially key with teens, by the way, or if you have a drama llama in the house. You know what I mean! Sometimes children just need to download. So nod and smile, nod smile or nod and sympathise perhaps. And then just go away and scream into a pillow from time to time!
Don't lose their trust, trusting you will provide them with a sense of security. If they trust your decisions, they will feel less apprehensive. Your honesty is their security.
Make sure to create a sense of excitement and adventure. Focus on the positives, the new and the great fun things to look forward to. But never ignore or brush aside any of their fears or worries. Basically, preparing your child for a move abroad boils down to, as I said before, communication and familiarity. Talk, listen, listen some more and try to keep as many routines as possible.
Good luck with everything. I hope your move goes well. It's never too soon to start preparing your child.
And if there's any more advice I can give you, please do get in touch. Next time I'll be talking about teenagers. So that'll be fun! Take care now.