Young Expats: How to help children adjust to Expat life
Moving abroad is a life-changing experience, especially if you are a child! There’s plenty to organise and remember once you’ve decided to move abroad. But if you’re a parent, it’s not just your needs that have to be taken into consideration. It’s important to prepare your child for the big move and support them as you both settle into your new life, and the sooner the better.
Learning the language
Even if English is widely spoken in your new country, it will greatly benefit your child to get to grips with the local language. It’s the dialect that they are most likely to hear when they go to the shops, use public transport, and hear their classmates speaking at school. Moving abroad can make people feel isolated and it can be made worse if you can’t interact with people on a basic level.
Start your child off with key phrases:
- What is your name/My name is…
- How much is this?/Where is the nearest…
A dictionary is as good a starting point as any, as well as downloadable apps and websites, like Duolingo, for your children to learn in their own time.
Take your children with you, where possible, when you visit the country. The more they see of the local and surrounding area of their new home, the more they can begin to get used to the idea of living there permanently. It’s a good opportunity to meet new neighbours, and possibly make new friends before the big move. It’s never easy to move countries but it will be helpful for children to move to a familiar environment rather than being thrown into an alien country.
Make a point of involving children in research about the country and culture they will be moving to. Not only does the country become more familiar, they can also begin learning details about their new home (and develop good research skills!) There are a variety of ways to get your child involved in expat preparations:
- Find a good travel guide for them to mark places in the country they’d like to visit
- Watch online videos
- Show them blogs written by Expats already living in the country
- Find a good book by an author from the country to read to your child
Saying goodbye to your old life is always one of the hardest things about expat life. Allow your child time to spend time with their friends and enjoy the familiar parts of their old life like going to the local park or staying at a friend’s house. Also, ask them if they would like to be involved in a send-off party. Although it can feel tempting to keep your child thinking about the new home and ‘moving forward’, it’s also important to let them honour their old life and the people they are leaving behind. Remember to emphasise the send-off as a celebration of friendships that don’t have to end just because the family is moving.
Timing is key when moving abroad, and not just for moving furniture and finding accommodation. It’s important to leave enough time between breaking the news and the actual move. Give your children time to digest the news and adjust to the following changes and plans for the future. However, don’t leave it too long between explaining the situation to them and actually moving. A drawn-out process will only make it harder to leave and even suggest that the plans aren’t really fixed.
This can feel like a losing battle for any parent! It’s a good idea to provide a structure for your child in the midst of the chaos of moving.
- Time the move for the start of term in the new school
- Make sure injections that are needed are up-to-date
- Get up-to-date on the new school curriculum
Try to make the actual moving day as fluid as possible. Book ahead with things like transport to the airport so that you don’t have to do quite as much rushing around, and can spend more time helping your child get through the day.
It’s a good thing for both you and your children to take a few time outs, both in the planning period and on the actual moving day. Take a break from researching your new home and have a quiet evening, or do something fun with your children to take their mind off the big changes that are occurring.
On the big day, take it as easy as possible. Make sure to take a few minutes to get a drink and something to eat, pack a cushion so your child can sleep on the journey, or just give them a hug every now and then. You’re all likely to be feeling a bit wobbly and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of supportive camaraderie.
Children are naturally inquisitive, so if you’re planning on moving them abroad, they’re going to have a lot of questions! These can range from which country and what kind of house, to why they’re having to move in the first place. Always answer these questions honestly, even if it’s hard, or you don’t the know the answer. For the easier questions about your new country, you can involve your child in the plans by looking up the answer together. The tougher emotional questions might not have obvious answers, but remember that however hard it might feel, it’s always best to be honest.
Your child might disagree, but starting school can be one of the most grounding experiences after moving countries. Although your child will be getting used to a new culture and language, school provides an excellent structure whilst they adjust. There’s a timetable to follow, a dress code to wear, homework to be done, and work to be completed. Even if it’s a shock to be doing normal school things, it’s a practical way of getting your child actively thinking and interacting with their new surroundings.
Do familiar things
Be understanding, but try not to alter your parenting too much after the big move. Reminding children about homework and asking them to lay the table are staple parenting techniques. The children might grumble, but it’s important to keep up everyday routines, including familiar reminders about household chores! Try to make family favourite meals every now and then, or play the same games as you did in your home country, to help your children get used to being in a new home.
Find new interests
Look for hobbies and activities once you’ve moved countries. If your child is doing something fun, active or creative, it can help lessen the anxiety about fitting into a new community. Check out extracurricular activities that are happening at your child’s school, or if there are any clubs and groups around the local area. You can even turn it into a joint experience by suggesting you and your child take up a new hobby together.
Part of being an expat is getting used to belonging to two countries, the one you came from and the one you moved to. While you and your children are discovering all the new things to do, keep in mind that you don’t need to make them completely forget their home country. You can honour your old home with simple things such as:
- Cooking a favourite meal that reminds your children of your home country
- Reminiscing in conversation
- Making regular calls and visits back home
Don’t feel like you have to erase the memory of your home country for your children’s own good!
Don’t expect your child to just happily go along with your plans. Moving to a different country, culture and even learning a new language, are big enough challenges for an adult to face, let alone a child. Stay calm through the tough times as well the good, and remember to involve them as much as possible. It’s a new life for both of you!