Moving to another country: what about the children?

We’re living in a world that’s globalizing more and more. This brings along changes in the way we look at things and act in our everyday life. One of the changes is that it’s getting more normal to work and live at different places in the world. Companies work more international so it’s more normal you go abroad for a while to work and live in another country. As well it happens more often that people do online work and can work from every place in the world as long as they have internet. But when we move over the world, we take our kids with us. And what does this mean for our children? It is likely that more and more children will experience life in a non-native environment at some point. Nowadays these kids are be giving names such as Global Nomads, Global Kids or Third Culture children.

What are the benefits of growing up in different countries?

As we all can imagine there are a couple of benefits when you grow up in different countries. An important one is learning another language. Being bilingual or multilingual gives you opportunities in life. Even more significantly, international interactions are becoming more important in our increasingly diverse and global society. Growing up bilingual has some other benefits: better language attention, the ability to process complex information and disregard irrelevant information effectively. They also develop a better short-term (working) memory.
Besides learning a language you learn to adapt yourself in different situations. This can help you in life confronting new situations. Growing up in different cultures as well opens your mind. Anita Mayntzhusen of Global Children states that often the expat child will feel closer to someone who has the same experiences as they do, regardless of nationality or cultural background, than they might to someone from the same country as them. This in turn opens up a multitude of possibilities, as their exposure to different cultures makes them open-minded to other ways of seeing the world. The exposure also enables these children to access alternative creative possibilities of action, for example in problem solving.

What is the down side?

Reading the above you can almost think that growing up kids in different countries can give peace on earth. But like with everything there can be a down side. Which is good to be aware of, so we can detect it and try to overcome it.
Moving to another country has an impact. Like all new things it’s exciting, but as well your facing to an unfamiliar situation which can be scary and insecure. For children these feelings of being unsettled can be overwhelming. The first thing you need to challenge is the language barrier. Not knowing the language makes integrating difficult. Besides the language there are as well local customs or gestures that have meanings you’re not aware of. Children need to make new friends, which can be hard if you’re the only one coming new in a class and not knowing the language. In the mean while they miss their family and old friends. Their parents are still trying to adapt and busy with arranging everything. All this can lead to feelings of loneliness.
Older children, in between 10 and 15, will generally be more impacted by a move away. They are more likely to have developed strong friendships in their home country and will be unhappy leaving these behind. Adolescence already is a difficult period in the lives of all children, but when children are removed from their close circle of friends they can often find it even more difficult to deal with the mental and physical changes they are experiencing.

Some tips for a smoother relocation

  1. The process of relocation already starts before moving. It’s really important to keep the kids informed about what’s going on. Children normally know pretty well that something is going on with their parents, so don’t try to hide things. Let them play part in the process. Just like you, they will worry about missing things at home and as well they will be excited about what’s coming. The best thing an expatriating family can do before their move is to make time to have open conversation routinely as the move approaches. Sometimes it can be helpful to go before moving to a counselor with expertise in moving abroad.
  2. The choice of school is always a difficult one, but it is important to think about it and research the possibilities. A lot of your choices depends on the age of the children and the duration of your relocation. If your planning to stay for a long time it can be an investment to let the kids go to a local school. It will take them time, but in the end they will integrate in the culture. When you’re planning to stay for a shorter time or your moving with older children an international school can be interesting. The language barrier is not such a big problem here. As well integration in an expat community normally is easier because everybody is in the same situation. Ask the school for the support they can offer expat children in developing and supporting their social networks and their social competences.
  3. Be aware of the stages that normally occur when your adapting in a new country. First everything can be exiting in the new country, but after everything is getting more normal and the normal ups and downs of life are starting, it happens that you will look back home like something perfect. Being aware of these stages can help you prepare yourself and your children. Be excited about the new country, but don’t exaggerate.
  4. To keep a feeling of continuity in the lives of your children it’s good to continue the same hobbies and activities that they liked at home.
  5. Put effort in building up a social environment for your children. Arrange playdates, try to be in contact with other families, let them go to extracurricular activities.
  6. The concept of home is changing for children. Home isn’t any longer the house and the town your living in. It’s becomes smaller. Home is where your family is. This tells as well how important you as parents are.
  7. When children don’t feel comfortable normally they express this through behavioral changes. With their behavior they express their feelings about the new country. Younger children might suddenly show big changes in sleeping and eating patterns, or even seem to lose their “toilet-training” skills right before, during or after a move to a new environment. Older children tent to be more withdrawn or just the opposite act out more. As a parent it’s good to be aware of these signals your child is giving you. The simple act of acknowledging and validating a child’s struggle can go a long way toward helping an expatriate kid who feels lonely.
  8. As a parent you have a huge job while relocating. You need to arrange everything in your old and your new country, you need to adapt yourself and find your way in an new culture. And last but not least you need to take care of your children and make sure you give them a warm environment at home. Although relocating can be a really great experience, it’s not always easy. So besides taking care of your kids, make sure you take care of yourself as well. Because your wellbeing has an affect on the wellbeing of your children as well.

Of course there are a lot of different ways of living abroad. Kids can be born in the country, it’s possible that you move when they’re still really young, or maybe when they already a bit older, maybe you only move for two years, or maybe you’re changing every couple of years from location. Every situation is different and so is every family and child different. So take good look at your own situation, talk with people about it and if you need more guidance, you can find counselors at many different places of the world or online. Don´t feel embarrased to ask for help!

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