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Supporting Children During International Relocations

Published: 11 March 2020
Arabelle Chaw

An international relocation can be as overwhelming as it is exciting for a family, particularly for children. Though they’ll share many of the same benefits as their parents, children will also experience many of the same worries and concerns during an international move. A major difference, however, is that they may find it difficult to identify and express the feelings they’re having. Below, we’ll discuss some things parents should keep in mind when relocating with children. Following these suggestions will minimise the impact and assist children before, during and after an international move.

Communicate throughout the process: Tell your child about upcoming changes as early as possible, including the reasons for the move. Be sure to ask how s/he is feeling and address any concerns as honestly as possible on an age appropriate level. If your child has questions that you’re not sure of the answers to, provide reassurance that you’ll look into them. If appropriate, involve your child in the research to encourage a feeling of inclusion and empowerment. Since new feelings and fears may arise at any time during the relocation process, keep the lines of communication open throughout the move. Remember that children of all ages may have different concerns and questions. Whether your child is six or sixteen, be sure to talk to them regularly.

Honour the home you’re leaving behind: While it might be tempting to minimise any sadness about the move, it’s important for children – and adults – to acknowledge the home and people they’ll be leaving behind. Depending on the age of your child, you might consider helping to create a photo album that commemorates his/her favourite places and people. It can also be helpful to read children’s books about moving or watch age appropriate films, such as Inside Out (for younger children) or The Karate Kid (for teenagers). Most importantly, don’t avoid mentioning any nervousness that you may also feel regarding the move. Being honest about your concerns while also demonstrating excitement about a new experience will help to validate his/her feelings.

Get your child involved: Often, during a move, children may be troubled by a feeling that they don’t have any control over their environment. Getting children involved at all phases of a relocation allows them to be participants in the process and lessens the feeling of helplessness. Whether packing some of their own belongings, accompanying parents on home finding trips, helping to make to do lists, and/or choosing new furniture or paint colours for a new bedroom, including children in the process of establishing a new home helps them to move on from an old one.  

Give them a preview of your new home: Do some online research regarding new foods you’ll be able to try in your host country, some words in the language that locals speak there, and customs that will be interesting to take part in. Try a local restaurant in your current neighbourhood that serves the cuisine of the country or locale you’ll be moving to. Get a satellite view of your new home, the local playground, and his/her school via online maps, if possible. In addition to empowering your child by including him/her in the research process, s/he’ll find some comfort in knowing a few things to expect regarding your new home before you get there. If possible, enquire into cross cultural and language training options for the family; This will assist with building new relationships once you arrive at your new home. 

Plan ahead regarding your child’s “comfort items:” Before move out day, set aside any items your child will want to bring on the plane to ensure they don’t get packed away, including cuddly toys, a favourite blanket, iPad, etc. When packing, clearly label a box or two of your child’s favourite items that should be opened first upon arrival at your new home. Always remember that an item that may not seem important to you may mean the world to your child. Once you arrive, consider having some favourite foods shipped from home, as having familiar comforts in an unfamiliar space will help to ease the transition. Pets, too, should always be a consideration. Children – and many adults – see pets as members of the family; Making arrangements to bring them along on an international relocation goes a long way toward helping children adjust in a new location.

Enlist the help of your child’s teachers: Your child’s current teacher can be an excellent source of support while preparing for the move, from organising a class photo your child can take to the new host country to ensuring that contact information is exchanged with other students, if appropriate. Teachers often like to be made aware of a student’s pending move so they can prepare the rest of their students for the change. They will often design lessons, assign reading passages and facilitate discussions about moving. Contacting your child’s future teacher before leaving your current home can also be a great way to be proactive. Consider providing the teacher with a description of your child, along with his/her interests and hobbies. Doing so will allow the teacher to tell the other students about your child and facilitate friendships. You might also request that the teacher send a short note to your child so s/he doesn’t feel like a stranger on the first day of school. 

Maintain consistency: Once in the host location, it helps children to establish a sense of familiarity or consistency. Go to the films, continue family game night, find the nearest park to play a game of catch, find new ways to carry on existing family traditions. Ask fellow expats or your child’s teacher where s/he can continue favourite hobbies. Support your children’s efforts to establish new friendships and help them to stay in touch with old ones via Skype or other platforms and apps.  

Though an international move may initially inspire feelings of uncertainty for children, with the right support they can flourish in their new environments, benefitting from a variety of factors that can only a move abroad can provide. Ultimately, children will take their cues from the adults in their lives. If parents share that they will miss their friends and home, but are excited to build a new life, children will feel more secure in their own feelings and the decision to move. Maintaining open communication, providing children with a sense of involvement, and demonstrating an air of optimism all help children to thrive during a move abroad.