This is an important question, possibly the most important one you’ll have to deal with if you decide to move abroad. Moving to another country will have a huge impact on your children and, depending on their age, will be something they have little or no say in.
In my case, our daughter was roughly two and a half when we started considering the opportunity. It was actually her third birthday three days after my family came out to join me in Barcelona so we did have a fun birthday on the beach!
Anyway, back to the question at hand, where do you start when considering your children as part of moving abroad?
I would say there are four key stages when moving abroad, with different things you can do to support your child in each. These stages are:
- Pre-decision to move abroad – Fact finding and understanding whether you’re really going
- Post-decision to move abroad – Planning, organising, and preparing for the move
- The actual move – Shipping, flights/ferries, moving into your new place and saying goodbye to your old life
- Settling in and future in a foreign country – get to know the area, spread your social wings and set yourself up to succeed
There’s potentially a fifth, which would be along the lines of becoming part of the community and really feeling at home but this post is more about preparing and settling children in the early days.
Moving my daughter abroad
My experience with moving my daughter abroad was mixed. Some days were great and others were really difficult. She handled the physical aspects of the move quite well and I was surprised at how well she coped with the separation from our family and her close relationship with her Nana. I think as long as she’s occupied and busy then she just gets on most of the time. We struggled with the fact the she hadn’t yet started any kind of pre-school or really been away from my wife and I other than with family. We got her into an international playgroup (run by English people), which was great, but she wasn’t happy at all. I guess in hindsight I’m not surprised. With everything else that we’d gone through it was always going to be difficult to then send her off for her first ever day without mummy and daddy in a foreign place.
I think this touches on one of the key reasons we struggled a lot with our relocation – we had always lived near family and my daughter had always been with us. It was a complete shock to the system then to be abroad, have no support and for our little lady to be so sad because it was another new thing she had to cope with.
I’ll try to avoid sounding self destructive but, similar to a number of other areas in my move abroad, I think I under-estimated (potentially blocked out) the emotional impact it could have on everyone else and the practicalities. This is something I really wish I’d put more thought into, particularly for my daughter as she had the potential to suffer the most and had the least choice.
Hopefully what I’ll cover here will help you just a little when it comes to involving your children in your relocation and preparing them as best as possible to set the foundations before you go. Obviously things will vary slightly depending on age but most of the basic principles are the same – involvement, communications, planning, understanding, sympathy etc.
Four stages of moving abroad
1. Pre-decision to move abroad
Fact finding and understanding whether you’re really going
The important things at this stage are involvement, communication and honesty. The thing to remember this early on in the process is that the thought of something can often be more exciting than when it becomes a reality. Try to stay level headed in front of your children but always positive (I definitely wasn’t level headed).
Ideas to help engage your children with your plan to move abroad
Get them involved in the decision making process – Children who are involved in what you do, whether it’s moving abroad or buying a new car, will feel more in control. Feeling like you have some control over something makes things a little less daunting. Involve your children when you talk about relocating and encourage them to make suggestions and share thoughts and ideas.
Let them help you research the country/places/culture – Building up an understanding of the country and culture you’re interested in is as important for your children as it is for you. Watch clips on YouTube of festivals and traditions. Find books at the library and encourage your children to ask you questions about the place you want to relocate to. Another great thing to do is find some child friendly things to do for when (if) you go. For example, look for theme parks, events, concerts or anything you think your children would enjoy so they can see that there will be things to do in the new country. With my daughter we mostly focused on the access to a pool and the beach (and the weather to use both). This was enough for a 2 year old!
My wife also brought a great range of children’s language books (English to Spanish) that my daughter really liked. They covered loads of basics like colours, transport, numbers, family and various others. We got them in a pack, which I’ve tried to find for you but can’t. Instead here are the search results on amazon.co.uk for most of them, and they do various languages. My daughter still likes to read them now.
Anything you can do to get your children interested in the move and to understand the new culture will be really beneficial.
Ask them questions and listen to their answers (I mean really listen) – Feeling like you’re not being consulted or heard on changes that will impact you is frustrating no matter what age you are. It’s really important to treat any concerns or fears your children have with respect and openness. If they feel that you’re genuinely bothered about what’s going through their heads (which I’m sure most people are) then you’ve got more chance of bringing them along on the same journey as you. If you’re dismissive and have tunnel vision (I might have been a little like this) then it’ll likely make the situation more challenging, particularly with older children. It’s easy to get it in your head that moving abroad will be a great experience for your children but just remember that it’s your opinion, not theirs.
Make them feel like they’re helping you to decide on what is best – This ties to the decision making point but I think it deserves to be highlighted. It will just enhance the feeling of having some control over the situation for children, making them feel closer to process. Get them involved in the ‘pros and cons’ discussions and let them feed their own in. Ask them what they would do and, if feasible, do what they suggest.
Things you should consider
Is you child shy or outgoing? – Not that this should necessarily be a deal breaker but it should be a consideration. This could determine how well they settle in the new country and potentially have a wider impact on the relocation altogether. If your children aren’t getting happier then it will be a real struggle to make the move abroad work. You may have to work harder to help if your child is more on the shy side so finding international clubs and events they could attend or other things that will help them interact would be a great start. Our neighbours in Barcelona had relocated from the UK and had a son in his early teens. I believe he was quite outgoing prior to their relocation but he really struggled in Barcelona. So just be conscious of what the social impact might be on your children.
What sort of personality does your child have (anxious, worried, positive etc)? – Personality and outlook are a big factor for adults and children when relocating abroad. If your children tend to look on the bright side of things and have a positive outlook then you’re more likely to see them settle much quicker than children who are more anxious and get worried easily. My daughter is a bit of a worrier so we struggled with a lot of the different things that came along in the early days. Again, you’ll need to give more focus to a worrier to make them feel at ease and excited about the relocation.
What is the culture like and what does it offer your child? – To make the experience worth it for your children you need to feel confident that the culture you’ll be adopting is going to benefit them. Whether it’s learning a commonly used language, becoming part of a great education system or just a general way of life thing it needs to align to your children’s needs.
2. Post-decision to move abroad
Planning, organising, and preparing for the move
Now that you’ve committed to moving abroad with your children your challenge will be keeping them motivated and engaged whilst you work through the many difficult decisions and challenges that come with moving to another country. On one hand you’ll need all your energy to get everything in place (accommodation, job, transport, legalities, citizenship, shipping, utilities etc) and on the other you’ll need to focus on the emotional impacts on your children and family.
Keeping your children motivated
Re-iterate their concerns and what you’re planning to do to support them – You’ve hopefully spent some time in the first stage talking with your children about their worries and maybe touching on some of the things you can all do to get round them. It’s definitely worth revisiting some of these things with a clear plan of how you’ll support your children with their fears so they absolutely know that you’ve still got them in mind and you want them to be happy.
Be really positive and highlight benefits – I’m sure it goes without saying that you need to be positive. This will subconsciously flow into those around you so make sure you’re talking about the great things that the move abroad will bring and how it will be of benefit to individuals and your family as a whole. One thing I would avoid though is trying too hard to turn worries into positives. This is something I did and I think it had the opposite effect as it’s like you’re trying to cover it up. Best to focus on how you’ll support and work around these things.
Let them know that your scared too! – Although it might sound counter productive, it’s a great idea to share your fears so your children don’t feel isolated or weak. And by sharing that you have fears too gives you the opportunity to explain how you’re going to overcome them and why those fears are not enough to put you off moving abroad. It’s a cliche thing to say, but a problem shared is a problem halved…
Get your children involved in the more detailed research and decisions – Again, this will make them feel empowered and involved. It will also give them more insight into where you’re going, what your home will be like and what the area will be like. Show them the properties you’re interested in and ask them for their opinion. Get a list of things from them on what they think is important for your new home and take these things into consideration. If you can make it into a team effort then your children will feel much more like a part of the team.
Themed nights for your new country – This might sound a bit strange but I think it can really work. We only did this once but I really enjoyed it. We had a tapas night and we made sangria and Spanish food. It was great and really got us into the spirit of things with my daughter. Find out what’s big in your adopted country and have a couple of themed nights for you, your family and your friends.
Things you should consider
Local facilities and opportunities for your children to socialise – There will be 101 things that will factor into the town/city/village you choose abroad and factors that impact your children will be among them. Just make sure these factors aren’t an after thought and are considered as a high priority. As I mentioned earlier in the post, if your children are unhappy and aren’t making progress then it’ll put your whole move abroad at risk. There needs to be stuff for your children to do and opportunities for them to mingle with other children of a similar age. Parks, swimming pools, clubs and anything else where groups of people mix would help greatly.
Being in or near an Expat community – Speaking from experience, there’s nothing better than a friendly voice every now and again. The area we chose in Barcelona had a mixed international community so we didn’t feel too isolated. Every now and again we’d hear an English person in our local ordering a beer or food and it made us feel a bit more at home. We also discovered another lounge bar up the road from us that was run by a Scottish guy, so that was handy too. Little touches of home go a long way when you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps.
Some people suggest that the best way to relocate abroad is to immerse yourself in the culture but I think you have to be tough skinned to take this approach.
What sort of schooling you want for your children (and what do they want) – In Spain we had a few options for my daughter at the point where we would have put her into full time education. There are state schools, which are free (other than lunches, books, uniforms, trips etc), then there are international schools that generally start at around €700 per month plus €1000 joining fee (each year) and all the extras as with the state schools, and there’s something in between which costs a bit less per month but isn’t fully state school or fully international. We wanted to put our daughter into an ‘in between’ option and we’d found a great little school about 20 minutes from our house. When I found out about the issues with my monthly take home (covered in the ‘My relocation story‘ page) our plans were pretty much blown out the water. My advice here is think about what sort of children you have and align your option to them. I met a guy who sent his son to a catalan school just outside Barcelona and he was very unhappy. The plan was that by fully immersing him in the culture he would pick things up quicker. This will work for some children but not for all. This is another area that has huge potential to make or break how happy your children are. Put yourself in their situation – you have to go to work in an office where you don’t understand what anyone is saying and they don’t understand you. But you’re an adult and you can deal with these situations in a better way than a child.
I will be creating a separate blog post soon specifically covering schooling and the things to think about/look out for.
What’s your backup plan / plan Z? – I’ve talked about this in my post ‘8 critical things to consider when deciding whether to relocate abroad‘ but in summary, I strongly recommend you have an exit strategy of some sort. When we relocated to Spain we had no escape plan, no back up funds, no way out. So when it went downhill and we found ourselves desperate to get out we couldn’t. We were tied into a rental contract, I was tied into a contract at work that included paying back my relocation costs, we had no spare cash and we had no home or car back in the UK. October, November and December 2012 were three of the most difficult months I’ve ever had to face in my life. If I could go back to the time when I was considering moving my family abroad I would be seriously thinking about what I would do if things didn’t work out. Unfortunately my view at the time was ‘it’ll be ok, we’ll hang around for a year and then we’ll plan to come home‘. Planning to come home takes a long time if you have no resources or plan and a deadline of a baby being due! Although this doesn’t seem like it relates to children specifically it will if you find yourself in the position I was in as you’ll just want to get them sorted and settled as soon as possible.
3. The actual move
Shipping, flights/ferries, moving into your new place and saying goodbye to your old life
For me, this is when reality struck me right through the heart. I have a bit of a mindset problem sometimes where I fall in love with the romance of an idea but I miss out all the difficult parts and the practicalities. This is when the metal hits the meat and you really find out what you’re made of. And this is when your children are going to seriously need your support and understanding. It’s a lot of upheaval and a lot of stress to go through but there are ways of taking away the sting a little.
Helping your children transition from old to new
Be transparent with all the plans/dates – Make sure your children know what is going to happen and when. If you’re shipping your household items then tell them when it’ll happen and let them know how it all works. Let them know about flights and travel plans. If you think it’ll help then stick a calendar up with the key dates and any information you think would put their minds at ease.
Give them opportunities to say goodbye properly – Make sure they have the right time with their friends, other family members and places so they feel like they have a certain level of closure. Think about those holidays you’ve had where you really feel at home in the two weeks you’re there and it’s really difficult to leave. I know I’ve had that and I’ve literally been emotional about leaving. Now add on however many years your children (and you) have been in your home country and think about the impact. I think saying goodbye to the place is probably neglected somewhat. I know I didn’t really give it much thought and then I thoroughly missed all my creature comforts when I got to Spain. Let your children say goodbye, and encourage them to include places in this too.
Take familiar things for your new house – As I mentioned earlier, having little things that remind you of home are comforting. Take your pictures and put them up in similar places, take your children’s toys so they can carry on where they left off (depending on age), and carry on listening to the same music you would listen to in the house. Something I really missed was English radio. We had English TV in the house but the radio was rubbish. My commute would have been so much better if I could have chucked on a bit of BBC Radio Two, or potentially even Radio Four! Set yourself up to make your children feel at home when you arrive.
Be prepared to be an emotional sound board – Yep, you’re not going to hear the end of it. Not that I can talk from experience but I would expect that this is more difficult the older the children are. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been 14 and had a boyfriend (as if, that’s never going to happen on my watch!). I guess the themes of the phrases would be along the lines of – ‘You’re ruining my life’ and ‘I want to stay here’ etc. Just be ready for it and don’t try to fight it too much as it likely won’t help.
Remember – Keep listening, keep being supportive and just be there for them.
Things you should consider
It’s not going to be easy – Probably not what you want to hear but it’s better to prepare yourself. Your children’s emotions are going to take a beating and therefore so are yours. But if you truly believe that moving abroad is going to be great for your family then you’ll forge on through and get it sorted.
You need to be selfless – No time for worrying about how you feel now, as your energy is going to be taken up by making sure everyone else is up beat and positive, particularly your children. If you’re the one driving the move abroad then it really is down to you to maintain the momentum and keep everybody feeling like you’re doing the right thing
Try not to get stressed at your children – It’s going to feel like you have a locomotive heading towards you and there’s no way to jump off the tracks. For us it felt like the amount of work to do was increasing and the time was getting less and less. It was easy to flip out a bit at our daughter when she was acting up or getting in the way, which was unfair as she was probably just craving our time and attention. Try to remember that your children are part of the move and still need you support as a parent, even though you’re totally stacked.
4. Settling in and your future in a foreign country
Get to know the area, spread your social wings and set yourself up to succeed
All four of these steps have critical elements in them but this one has an edge to it that you won’t feel until you’re there. It’s the feeling of arriving at your new home in a foreign country and realising you can’t pop to your friends house, visit your parents or take a trip to your favourite cafe. Most people are in a situation where they’re on their own, they don’t know where the shops are and everything around them is different. Pretty daunting right? Now think about it from a child’s perspective. They rely on you for guidance and support so if you’re in a situation where you’re not really sure what’s going on it’ll feed into them. Here are a few things that will hopefully help ease the pressure of this stage for your children (and you).
Setting the foundations for you and your children
Maintain your routines wherever possible – My wife and I have always been hot on keeping a routine with our daughter and we did our best to keep this going in Barcelona. We moved it by an hour to fit more in with the way of life out there (people don’t eat lunch till at least 1pm and dinner is probably not till after 9pm, or later). Our daughter still knew what to expect though and we did the same things at bed time and bath time so that she felt the same as she did before. You probably want to cut them a bit of slack in the first few weeks/months or so as it will be difficult on them but keep things as predictable as possible.
Maintain traditions and festivals – If you celebrated a national holiday in your native country that isn’t celebrated in your adopted country then carry on celebrating it anyway. This will help your children feel more settled and again, they’ll know what to expect and feel a bit more at home. A good example for us would have been St George’s day, although we don’t really celebrate that in England so it wasn’t really any different!
Start exploring and finding the fun places – Hopefully you’ll have done your research and found a whole list of activities to do and places to visit. Start getting to these straight away and remind your children of the research you did to find them. Make a point of getting to all the places on your list and continue to research new things to do. Jot down the places that the children enjoy the most and make sure you visit those places regularly to remind the children that the experience is fun and there are things they enjoy doing
Join clubs, go to events and put yourself out there – Often the only way your children will be able to build their social circle is if you do it first. So make sure you’re proactively seeking friends and social activities and aim to find things where there are likely to be other children. It’s easy to sit back and hope that friends will just suddenly appear but for most of us it doesn’t work like that. Be bold, be positive and help your children by helping yourself first. I guess if I were to use another cliche it would be ‘lead by example’.
Maintain close contact with friends and family – As mentioned earlier in the post, I think some people think it’s best to fully immerse yourself in the culture and pretty much cut of contact for the first 6 months. I don’t think this will ever be possible when you have children and I also think it’s a bit brutal on the adults too. If your move abroad is planned correctly and thought through then there shouldn’t be any reason not to keep in constant contact with your friends and family. I’ve talked through a few of the options for staying in touch when you relocate in my post ‘Cost effective ways of keeping in touch when you move abroad‘ so it’s worth taking a look at that. We mostly used Skype and WhatsApp as they were either free or very low cost.
Give your children time – It’s really important to remember that moving abroad is a really really big deal. It’s a huge upheaval for everyone and it will take time to get settled and really start to break through the feeling of isolation and being an outsider. As with the running theme through these stages just listen, support and guide (rather then tell) to the best of your ability and let them know you’re there for them. If they have a problem then don’t dismiss it, really try to help them get it sorted as quickly as you can.
Things you should consider
Keep doing the things that make you/your children happy – Whether they’re new things you’ve found or things you’ve always done keep on doing them. If you fill your children’s time with fun and exciting things that they enjoy then they’re spending less time worrying or being bored
How can you make sure you’re there for you children – You’re going to have a lot on your plate. New country, new language (potentially), new job and pretty much new everything else. You need to make sure you’re setting aside quality time for your children both to have fun but also to talk to them about how they’re feeling and whether there’s anything you can do to help them feel more settled. The first month or so probably isn’t the best time to be working an extra hour in the office each night or heading off to play golf with your new colleagues/friends.
Make sure you’re happy and look after yourself – This may sound like a contradiction to the previous point but there needs to be a balance. What I mean is that if you’re feeling good, positive, healthy and on top then it’s easier for you to pull people along with you. If you’re feeling ill, tired, negative and run down then you’re in no position to boost the people around you who might need a bit of an energy kick every now and again. Think about when you’re on a plane, and the safety video tells you to put your own oxygen mask on before putting on those around you. It’s the same principle – how can you help others if you’re already suffocating.
Well this turned out to be a much longer post than I expected but I’d rather give you all the information I have so that you can pluck out the things that are relevant for you. For me the main things you can do to support your children when moving abroad is to listen, support, be understanding, care, communicate and really bring them along for the ride with you as a co-pilot, rather than a passenger. They need to know that you have their best interests at heart (which I’m sure you do, but you need to let them know you do).
I hope this has helped you with what you need but as always, if you’re after more information then I’ll do my very best to help out. Drop me a not via my contact page or leave a comment below.