Helping Children Adjust to a New Home Abroad
If you are moving abroad with your family, it’s natural to have worries about the effects the upheaval might have on your children’s well being. On the one hand, this is an amazing opportunity to see the world and experience new adventures. On the other hand, having to find your feet in an unfamiliar place can be unsettling - at any age.
The good news is that children often adapt far better than their parents. They make friends easier, pick up new languages quicker and generally throw themselves into the experience with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth. There will inevitably be difficulties though, so prepare yourself for some ups and downs.
Older children can find it especially hard to leave their friends and family back home, and may become resentful, withdrawn or disruptive as they struggle to settle into their new lives. Children between the ages of 10 and 15 are the most susceptible to Expat Child Syndrome (ECS), a term used to describe emotional and psychological stress caused by a big move. Let’s face it, that’s a difficult period of life at the best of times! Strong family support is essential in helping them feel secure enough to navigate unfamiliar surroundings.
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These 10 ways to help children adjust to a new home abroad will help you strike the right balance between embracing the new and providing your family with the security they need:
Begin before you leave
The more time you can give your family to come to terms with the move, the easier it will be. Make sure you explain your decision and involve them in the process as much as you can, from finding out about your new country to packing up your belongings.
Throwing a leaving party can be great idea and let them have some final fun with their friends – be ready for tears though! Take every opportunity to reassure your kids that their friends and family will still be in their lives, even planning for them to visit once you have settled in.
Stick to familiar routines
When you first arrive in your new home, try to re-establish familiar routines as soon as possible. Children are creatures of habit and thrive on consistency. Keeping mealtimes, naps and bedtimes to a similar pattern will help them settle quicker. Bringing familiar foods, bedding, toys and movies along will help provide some comfort during those first daunting days. And even once you are all happily thriving in your new life, it’s lovely to keep important family traditions and celebrations going.
Prioritise their bedrooms
Your child’s bedroom is their haven, so make sure that the first room you sort out. Let them choose their room and how to decorate it. If you are expecting to have to wait for most of your belongings to arrive, make sure you bring along some of their favourite books, pictures and toys for when you first arrive. And when those boxes finally arrive, let them unpack their toys and belongings and arrange them as they like. Chances are they’ll have forgotten about many of their toys and unpacking them will be almost as exciting as Christmas!
We know that moving abroad brings with it a to-do list as long as your arm, but taking time to explore your new surroundings as a family is vital. Taking fun tourist trips will help emphasise the exciting side of living abroad and familiarise you all with your new town or city. Involve your children in the planning and take them to places they will love. You could even give them a scrapbook or diary to record their adventures in.
Get your children enrolled in school as soon as possible. The sooner they can make new friends and get into the swing of their new routine, the better. Do some research into their new school environment so they can be prepared for any differences and arrange for them to visit before starting classes. And be prepared to accept a drop in their school grades while they’re settling in – they’ve got a lot going on after all.
Acknowledge their feelings
Spend plenty of time talking with your child, listening to their difficulties and validating their feelings. It can be tempting to gloss over troubles in a bid to put a positive spin on your new life, but while your enthusiasm can indeed be infectious, it needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of realism.
Settling in is hard and they need to know they are not alone. Sharing some of your own challenges and helping them find solutions to problems is way more effective than pretending everything is fine. Look out for warning signs that your child is struggling, such as changes in behaviour or withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy.
Help them learn the language
One of the best ways to feel more settled in a new country is to learn its language and customs. Children usually pick up new languages much faster than adults, but support them along the way with family classes or practise time. Be brave in your own attempts to use the language and show them that it’s OK to make mistakes along the way. It’s also important to inform your children of the local social customs, whether that’s the greetings or the ways of eating.
Keep in touch with family and friends back home
You might want to encourage your child to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their new life, but studies have shown that regular contact with friends and family back home actually helps combat homesickness. Schedule weekly Skype chats with family, set up social media tools for older children and let your kids enjoy telling their loved ones all about their adventures. As time goes on and they make new friends, contact may well become less regular but in the early weeks it can really help prevent loneliness.
Help them make new friends
To help find the balance between old and new friends, help your children meet other kids by arranging playdates and finding activities and clubs they can join in with. Making friends with other children who share their interests, whether that’s sports or singing, will help them overcome differences in languages and culture much more easily.
Join the expat community
As much as you might want to endorse new cultural experiences, it can be very reassuring for your children to meet like-minded kids who are going through the same experience that they are. Making friends from within your local expat community is a great way for all of you to seek advice from other expats, some of whom might have done this many times over.
The fact is that most expat children grow up to be confident, adventurous and well-rounded adults. Their global experiences give them an open-minded perspective on life that will stand them in good stead for their future relationships and careers. With some support and vigilance from you during the early stages, they will soon be flourishing in their new lives abroad.