Children and Expatriation: Moving abroad with your Kids

Mummy or Daddy is relocating to China for work and the whole family will follow her/him in this brand new adventure. Finding a new home, moving out and in, finalizing administrative tasks, saying goodbye… this fresh start requires a lot of preparation!

This key step in one’s life, physically and emotionally challenging, is impacting the whole family, particularly the offspring. Thinking that they are too young to understand the ongoing preparation, that they will adapt easily to any kind of environment, and so exclude them from the preparations and from the moving process would end up in minimizing the impact of such an event can have on them. Contrarywise, any expatriation project and its preparation should be thought with the help of the offspring, in order to avoid them feeling unwell at their arrival in a new country.

Everyone Has a Different Way of Experiencing It

If the parents could see in the expatriation many opportunities for their children, a “chance” for them to discover a new culture and a new language, the child might not have the same opinion.  With each age comes its own expectations and concerns, its reactions to a switch environment.

Indeed, moving will be differently experienced depending on your child being 3, 7, or 14 years old. It is mostly due to already built landmarks, as some will need to be deconstructed when he/she will arrive in the new place.

Todlers could be easily appeased by some familiar elements, like games or their favorite teddy bear. Nonetheless, they might be destabilized by moving into a new room, or a parent becoming less available for them.

Don’t we say often « 7 years old, the age of the reason?” It is also around 7 years old that children start building their own environment and identity, at school or by playing sports or practicing music. Moreover, they start learning foundations, like writing and mathematics. Environmental change could be really disrupting and have an impact on how the child will behave at home and out, as well as on its school commitment.

Teenagers, who are also building a sense of identity, might be unsettled by these changes. They might bond more with the nuclear family rather than finding new friends, or on the contrary, withdraw from their family circle, looking for more emancipation.

Abnormal behavior might be the result of a delicate expatriation for a child: sleeping and eating disorder, gloomy and irascible attitude, emerging difficulties at school (in its learning as well as in its integration), etc. are few examples.

Communication and Participation Are Key

First of all, it is important for the parents to take the time to announce the move to their offspring, to avoid doing it at the last minute and into the rush. Children can easily feel anxiety toward the idea of moving, and need time to eliminate their apprehension. One should let the children enough time to get familiar with the idea, as for them to make the most of these last moments, even organize a farewell.

Being a young expat involves many lifestyle changes, that could be stressful. One needs to listen carefully to one’s children’s apprehension and appease any of their doubt, introducing them the positive aspects of this departure, but also being honest regarding eventual new challenges coming with this trip. Having knowledges about the host country and making the child discover it before the arrival is a plus. It would help him/her to face culture chock and make his/her adaptation easier. Expats associations and clubs are numerous around the world. Contacting them is a good way to forge relationships before your arrival. 

Many psychologists and expat parents acknowledge that involving the kids in the departure’s preparations is essential. The idea behind it is to not let them feel that the moving decision is one-sided i.e. only made by the parents, but rather letting them understand that their opinion counts, and how it will impact their future. For example, you can together browse information about the host country and its usages, asking his/her opinion about the new home and his/her room layout, or his/her future school and activities there. In some cases, you can even plan schooling at home. Arranging the move with him/her is essential, to let him/her choose what he/she wants to keep.

Living abroad is a challenge, no matter the age. For sure, children have a great adaptability, and being a young expat will make them become “Third Culture Kids”: multicultural and open-minded kids, mostly bilingual or even trilingual, with a strong international background. But this capacity should not be overestimated, and its positive impacts should not make the difficulties invisible. Children’s priorities are completely different from an adults’ ones, their view differ in many aspects. Children’s participation and parents’support are crucial and will determine the success of this project. Taking everything into account, and involving your offspring will make the best of this meaningful experience: happiness, stability and cultural fulfillment.