Preparing Your Children for an International Move

If the global COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can work from anywhere. There are a number of digital nomads and entrepreneurs in the world who can now apply for remote work visas in different countries, like Barbados or Georgia, which gives them the option to stay in-country for up to two years to work on projects and giving those countries much-needed tourism dollars.

For other professionals, there are traditional expat experiences where your company sends you and your family to another country to live and work. This is not always the easiest move for the trailing spouse, who often finds it difficult to find work in their new country and no longer has the support network of family and friends. Children in these families tend to respond to the emotions of their parents, so the better prepared you are, the easier they will find it to adapt and express their own feelings. Change is not easy, the family and friends they had back home are now miles away and in a different time zone but there are opportunities to meet new friends and continue to expand horizons.

For parents looking to help their children adapt to their new surroundings and getting used to having family far away, here are five tips.  

  1. Create a daily ritual before and after the move. Find one activity that you can do together as a family that you know you will be able to continue before and after the move. Many families already have the habit of reading a story at bedtime; this encourages quality time together and often discussions to follow. Before the international move, start the ritual of having children choose a book to read together and continue that ritual after the move, and don’t forget to pack some of their favourite books too! For older children, reading to them may not be welcomed (or met with an all-too-familiar eye roll) but finding a common place in the house to read is also a great opportunity to have some quiet time together. During COVID we also found adventure in exploring new playgrounds in the city, this can also be exciting in a new place rather than always going to the same ones nearby. Activities you do together bring you closer and adds some much needed routine when children feel out of sorts.
  2. Learn about your new city, neighbourhood and language with your children. Often, children feel like they have no control on the world around them. A low sense of control is the most stressful thing we can experience, at any age but especially for children. Having your children feel involved is important so they feel like they have some control over their new environment. To prepare for your international move, have your older children do their own research on the city you are moving to and have them find resources that can help them learn a word a day before moving if the language will change. Maybe they discover an amusement park they want to visit or a new app that can help them learn the language. Participate in the activity with them. For younger children, take them through a virtual tour of the city and get them excited about some of the things they will experience. Maybe you want to get them used to the food so have them choose a tasty treat from a local restaurant or try recipes from that country at home.
  3. Check in with their feelings, often. Emotions will change. One day living abroad will be the most exciting thing and the next it will be the most annoying. Day to day, month to month, children are coping with all those emotions so be sure to check in with their feelings, often and regularly. Books are a great way to help children explore their feelings and discover new ways to cope. For older children, there are self-help books or teen novels at their disposal that help them identify what they might be going through. For the younger ones, you have books like Faraway Families that help them understand that they are loved no matter where they are.  
  4. Get involved locally. Find activities at your local expat organization, children’s new school, library and/or community centre to get involved. COVID may have put these in-person activities on hold but there are many online communities that encourage video conferencing and/or require behind-the-scenes support. Getting involved locally allows you to build a sense of community with your new surroundings. Involving your children with those activities or encouraging them to find their own also allows them to feel like they have found a new community with which to connect.
  5. Stay in touch with family, friends “back home.” In the same way you want to connect with your community locally, it is also important to stay connected with your community back home. For some children, they may first want to talk with their friends or family every day and then the need wanes over a few months. For others, it may be the other way around. Either way, technology has made it easier to stay in touch with those left behind in your home country. Keeping those connections strong is important for families and make it a little easier when returning for visits or home for good (which can also spur reverse culture shock, a surprising phenomenon where you keenly notice the differences in your home culture versus the culture you adapted to and hopefully grew to love). 

Circumstances for every family are different but one thing is certain: it will not be easy, but you will grow. Both individually as a person and as a family. Children meet new friends. Adults grow professionally. Both get to discover a new culture and/or language together. The world gets a little smaller for everyone. And, whether family or friends are living near or far, you realize “you are loved no matter where you are.”