Four Rules for the managing emotional health of transitioning expat children

How to survive moving your kids to a new school, district, city, state or country..Four Basic Rules for Transitioning Children –

Four Rules for the managing emotional health of transitioning expat childrenI can’t pretend to be a child development expert, nor a global relocation counselor, but having transitioned two children through a total of 15 schools over 3 continents in 11 years, I’ve worked out a few basic rules of my own for getting from A to B while minimizing tantrums, traumas and general rebellion. (These rules relate to the emotional transition rather than the physical ones – for my (dubious) wisdom on the rest, see the Basics – Family section or click on the links at the bottom of the page.)

1. Keep them informed, but not overwhelmed.

My mother spent many years working in child development, which included doing the dreaded ‘puberty’ talks. Experience taught her that the earlier you give them information, the less intimidating it becomes and that they only absorb what they are emotionally capable of taking on, so you may have to repeat things later. This advice holds true for relocating; once you know you are moving, include them in the planning and discussions, and let them have some control over their own lives. The amount of information and input will vary according to the age of the children concerned – see the Basics – Family section for more specific information.

2. Move at the end of a vacation, not at the start.

The biggest mistake we ever made was moving to the US at the start of the summer vacation, thinking it would be exactly that – a vacation. Instead, we were swamped with paperwork, house hunting, car and home furnishing purchases and generally no-fun stuff – all with two very lonely, grumpy and unhelpful children in tow. We learned our lesson, and on the next move, we spent the summer in our old location, with the kids fully occupied with friends and us free to do a great deal of the planning, packing and paperwork in the comfort of our own home with internet, friends and leisurely goodbyes. We arrived rested at the new location, with five days to get oriented. It was enough to unpack essentials, register at school and meet a few people before the kids headed into school  and I could get on with the grunt work of establishing a new home. Within days they had friends, play dates and a routine that made them feel more secure, and within six weeks, I was once again Chief Transportation Officer for their many and varied social activities..

3. Fill the void.

For the first month or so in our new location, I plan activities geared around the children, including many things that I would ordinarily avoid like the plague. I do this for two reasons; firstly it helps to remind my children that I once was good at something other than nagging and gets them desperate to make friends and escape family outings, and secondly, it fills the time void with things they have chosen to do in the local area (and hopefully have planned themselves). I also make sure that they have unlimited texting on their cellphones (cue eye roll) and access to email and Skype, so any extra time can be filled moaning to their global buddies about just how lame their parents are. It’s a strange form of normal, but it bridges the gap remarkably well..

4. Expect issues.

The more they transition, the more they understand the process of relocation, but sometimes that works against you, and you get a stubborn, unwilling teenager on your hands who can make your life a living Hell. I’d like to offer sage wisdom to get you through it, but all I can really say is that it is our fault so deal with it as best you can. Robin Pascoe’s excellent books are a great place to start, and in most cases it will work itself out once they start to make friends and establish their own life. If necessary, get counseling for whoever might need it – either with a local family therapist, or via online expat counseling.

Finally, bear in mind that you are under a great deal of stress, and so you will almost certainly be taking this very personally. Sadly, no-one has written the definitive, foolproof instruction manual for raising children in a static environment, let alone a nomadic one, so just give yourself a break, remind yourself that no-one is perfect, and we are all doing the best we can. If you need evidence of how badly the rest of us are doing at the whole global parenting thing, check out the Trailing Spouse blog. You are in excellent company..

4 thoughts on “How to survive moving your kids to a new school, district, city, state or country..Four Basic Rules for Transitioning Children –”

  1. All very good suggestions. Nothing worse than weeks (or months) of children moping during summer vacation, unable to really feel like their new life is starting until school begins. Unless you luck into a neighborhood with children their age willing to befriend the newbies, you’re stuck waiting for back-to-school time. The upside is that expat nuclear families are often closer due to necessary reliance on each other in the middle of turbulent change.

  2. Thanks for the tips!
    We are moving out family from the UK to Singapore in a few weeks… An expat child myself I am not too fazed. As for holidays, my poor son won’t barely have any. His nursery school ends next week, and his new primary school starts just 3 weeks later! The first one we are packing our house (with him and his sisters in childcare) the second is our holiday with daddy still off work) and the third will be getting into things and house hunting I suppose. It is a really good time to move though as he is just starting primary and all his friends go to different schools anyway.

  3. Hi Rachel, very good tips
    We are in the middle of our move to Russia and this time we took the time to start vacation where we live in the US so my son had time to say goodbye to most of his friends. We subscribed to the local pool and he went to a YMCA camp. In your other post ” relocating children 6-12″ I found it is a good idea to create an email so that my 10 year old can keep in touch with his BFF. We kept him in the loop regarding the relocation process but he will not participate in house hunting in Moscow or packing in the US, instead spend vacation with grand parents. So far so good!

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