Helping your child settle into life abroad

Overcoming the challenges, and making the most of the benefits of raising children abroad

Kate Berger, Child & Adolescent Psychologist,
Founder of The Expat Kids Club

1 May, 2017

Families who move abroad can look forward to exciting, even unique, experiences, especially for their children. But there can be obstacles, too. Here are some of the most common challenges your family may face, and some ways to help tackle them - so that they can enjoy the benefits of a move abroad.

Key Challenges

Missing family, friends, beloved places (perhaps a favourite restaurant, or the local playground) and a stable sense of personal identity are all types of losses associated with relocation, which can make children feel like they are going through a grieving process.

When moving abroad with children, expect and accept emotional upsets. They may at first seem fine, but once the initial excitement dies down, some of the losses acquired during the move will dawn on them.

American expat, HSBC Expat Explorer survey

In the 2016 HSBC Expat Explorer survey, parents identify several additional challenges that their children faced when moving abroad: settling into a new school, adapting to a new culture and understanding a new language.

In younger children, these challenges might manifest in a reluctance to take risks in school and other social contexts; parents may notice increases in defiant behaviours or tantrums. Older children may have a hard time establishing a sense of belonging in their new environment and show sudden shifts in sleeping and eating habits, or excessive moodiness and a desire to be isolated.

The lack of stability that relocation can bring may be overwhelming for the whole family. It is important that parents not only acknowledge these factors, but also keep in mind that every child will adjust in his/her own time and in his/her own way. Remaining patient and respectful of the transition process is key.

Helping your children through the transition

Stay close

It is crucial that children feel they have a distinct and important role within the family, and that parents are a stable source of unconditional love and support for their children in relocation. That means prioritising spending time together and maintaining family rituals – for example, setting aside time for family meals and celebrations, taking teenagers to a sporting event, having a play-date with your little one, going for a walk around the neighbourhood as family, reminding your child that “you belong” here no matter what. These moments provide a “security blanket” for your children, and are typically the times when they will open-up and share their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Validate their feelings

It can be extremely validating for your children to know that you recognise when it’s all getting a bit too much.

Let your children know that you recognise relocation can be hard – for example, that you are sorry they miss their loved ones and familiarity, that you know it takes a lot of strength, patience and endurance, and that it can sometimes feel like they are on a rollercoaster.

You don’t always have to have a solution for them - acknowledging your children’s emotional experiences can sometimes be all the support they need. Sometimes it is worthwhile consulting with a professional if you think your children are struggling more than you’re comfortable with.

Empathise

Asking open-ended questions, such as, “How do you feel about the fact that you can’t go see Granny whenever you want?” gives the message that you are curious and interested in your kids, makes them feel that they matter.

Humans are wired for connection and the more empathy we have in communication the greater connection we have in our relationships, so in fact empathising with your children will actually bring you closer to them, just when they need you most!

Enhance their resilience

One of the best ways to support your children in relocation is to encourage them to see the difficulties along the way as challenges. This approach shows you believe in them, and helps in developing confidence and resourcefulness (which are useful life skills at any age)...

Ask younger children to name four different ways to tackle a given problem, and then ask which option is the best. For example, when it’s snowing outside, ask your three year-old, “What are four different options for shoes that work for today?” Then help her choose between “fur-lined boots, party shoes, sandals, and rain-boots” by asking, “Now, which one makes the most sense given what it looks like outside?”

Psychologist Carol Dweck describes how in a ‘“growth mindset,” “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Talk with older children about this wonderful, liberating concept. Let the kids make their own mistakes. Then be there to encourage them to learn, and grow, from difficult experiences.

When you can catch your children exhibiting resilience in real time, positive praise can be a great reinforcement – for example, when Sufian isn’t invited to his classmate’s birthday party and decides to head down to the local basketball court to see if there are any kids his age to play with, let him know why you’re proud of him for handling it that way.

Model

Especially during relocation, your children will be watching how you handle difficulties. Lead by example, by showing that you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable and willing to talk openly about your own difficulties. When you problem-solve in the face of challenge, letting your children see that you are allowing yourself to do it imperfectly, and that you keep trying, is the best way to model the resilience you are encouraging them to develop for themselves.

Experiential Learning

The shifts in people, places and cultures of their environment mean that expat kids must become “cultural chameleons,” often switching between cultures and contexts - sometimes all in one day (as home-culture might be very different from school-culture, or peer group norms, etc.), and other times over the course of months and years.

All of the new experiences also mean expat kids are in a sharpened state of (sensory) awareness, with their minds operating almost like an infant’s - exploring sounds, tastes, and touch for the first time. This type of experiential learning helps expat kids develop increased skilfulness in surveying their surroundings, picking up on cultural nuances, and determining how and where to fit in. It is a way of developing skills that is completely unique to the experience of living abroad!

Your children will probably settle in quicker than you! It never ceases to amaze me how quickly my kids make new friends and pick up the local language when we move countries.

British expat - HSBC Expat Explorer survey

You might be surprised at how quickly younger children pick up the new languages. They are like sponges! Your toddler may be singing the local songs before you’ve learned how to ask, “How much does that coffee cost?”

Older expat children and teens are often quite skilled at establishing common interests with peers and can quickly form meaningful friendships before you’ve figured out the quickest route to pick them up from school.

What are the benefits of raising a family abroad?

Although there are obvious challenges that kids and parents will face, there are also many benefits for children who move abroad.

In the Expat Explorer survey, two in five expat parents note that their kids are more well-rounded and confident, and nearly half say their kids have a wider, more diverse circle of friends.

Children who move abroad gain exposure to diverse cultures, develop enhanced language and communication capabilities, develop friendships that span the globe, and cultivate a skill set that is like no other.

We move countries every 2-3 years and my children are global citizens who speak multiple languages and believe in a world without borders.

Indian expat living in Dubai – HSBC Expat Explorer survey

From their wide-ranging experiences while living abroad, kids become more open-minded and tolerant of people and ideas. In the Expat Explorer Survey, 69% of expat parents said openness to new experiences and cultures was a benefit of living abroad for kids. They learn to think outside of the box, become more flexible, and take more initiative. For all of these reasons, expat kids tend to stand apart from their peers and are prime candidates for leadership in our communities and society.

Above all, have fun

Remember that relocation is exciting! Keep encouraging your kids to stay positive and to have fun with the numerous new opportunities that are available to them. Families often tell me that when they look back on their time abroad, they see these as the best years of their lives. Hopefully, you will too!

5 Top Tips for Parents Who are Considering Making the Move Abroad

  • Empathise and validate

    Include your children in conversations about the relocation from day one so they feel they are an integral part of it. Remember to spend as much time listening as you do speaking. Communication is the basis for empathy and validation, two of the most important themes in effective parenting.

  • Use a growth mind-set

    Relocation, like life, can be hard. It is crucial to help your children see the difficulties as challenges that you sincerely believe they can overcome. When it’s relatively safe to do so, let your kids make their own mistakes and then be there to encourage them to learn from these difficult experiences.

  • Be the example

    Show your kids the skills they’ll need by modelling them yourself - prioritise your own self-care, set aside time to connect with your family and friends, try to order a coffee in the local language. Let them see you struggle and talk to your kids about what keeps you motivated when things get hard.

  • Stay together

    Show your children that they have your unconditional love and support by prioritising family time and needs above all else. A family functions best when everyone works together.

  • Have fun!

    Relocation and discovering a whole new place can be thrilling – so go out and explore your new country! Visit museums and sights, invite the neighbours over for dinner, and cheer alongside the local holiday parade. Remind your children to live in the moment and enjoy the excitement that comes with living abroad.

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About the author

Kate Berger, MSc, is an American-expat living in The Netherlands. She is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist, consultant, and the founder of The Expat Kids Club, which provides counsel to youngsters and their families, as well as businesses, in transition. Kate employs compassion-based methodologies, as well as emerging Mindfulness techniques, in serving her clientele.

For more information about Kate and the services she offers, please see: www.expatkidsclub.com.

About the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey

The Expat Explorer survey is the world's largest independent global expat survey. Commissioned by HSBC Expat and conducted by a third party research company YouGov, 26,871 expats based in over 100 countries were questioned between March and May 2016. In order to be included, each country had to reach a minimum sample size of 100 expat respondents.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are not the views of HSBC and are subject to change.