Moving abroad with children; what to expect, how to prepare them and how to support them.
When I started writing ExpatChild.com back in 2012 there wasn’t much information on moving overseas with kids. As I wanted a kind of guidebook to relocating with children, I decided to write one myself!
This episode will be the start of a kind of series about this very topic: how to help your children have a smooth move into expat life.
We all want the best for our children, and we all want them to experience the easiest possible transition, so in this episode I’ll start by sharing just a few of the amazing benefits your expat child can gain. You’re setting your child up to become a well-rounded, globally relevant and internationally aware adult.
Then I’ll talk about timing: what is the best age to make the move abroad with your children? Is there a ‘best age’? And I’ll explain how different age groups cope and adapt. And also, the time of year can have an effect on how swiftly your child will adapt to their new expat life, so that’s something to consider too.
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Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat in this episode - which will be the start of a bit of a series - I want to take a look at how to move abroad with children, which considering that that is what ExpatChild, my main site is all about, I'm surprised it's taken me this long to get around to doing it! There is a hell of a lot to cover in this topic. Bearing in mind that ExpatChild.com has been running since 2012 and there are literally hundreds of articles on site about this, it's going to take quite a few episodes to cover everything I want to.
The reason I started ExpatChild in the first place was because I couldn't find anything online at all that was a kind of guidebook to moving overseas with children. Yes, you could find specific information about which school to choose in Berlin, or where it's good to live in Paris and so on. But there wasn't everything all together and so I decided to put one out there!
So as I say, there's a hell of a lot to cover and in this episode, I'm going to just focus on when is the best time to move abroad with your children. As in what is the best age to move overseas and what is the best time of year. And as I say, this will be a bit of a series, but I haven't quite worked it all out yet, mainly because of the uncertainty that I mentioned in the past episode. Life has been a little bit busy around here!
The initial reactions that I received when I first announced that we were moving overseas with our then five year old were differing, shall we say. Some people were very, very vicious about it. "How dare we take our child to some unknown country where they wouldn't have friends and family and wouldn't have anybody around that they knew, that they could speak to." Very narrow minded and obviously, if you have a very close family situation in your home country, you will notice this. I didn't. So it really made very little difference to me.
As ever, your family and your move is yours and yours alone. So what I say here and for one client I may have, will be entirely different for you and your children and for the next client I have.
So if you are considering a move overseas, please book a call with me to get personalised one to one advice. I can advise you so much better when I know your personal situation, your personal wishes, your needs, your visions, what your children are like; all of that individual data, if you like, is what helps me help you.
I'm going to start with five reasons why raising children overseas is just fantastic. Understandably, the idea of uprooting your family from their home and moving them across the other side of the world can be incredibly daunting. And that's on top of all the stresses involved in the practical side of moving home in the first place. You have a heap of expat guilt piled onto you; your own guilt as a parent, other people's versions of the way that children should be brought up and so on. But there are so many benefits to growing up overseas. Some families are very, very judgemental about moving anywhere other than their hometown, and some think that even moving a child more than 30 minutes away from their grandparents is Wrong with a capital W. Ignore them! That's it, just ignore them. This is your life. You are doing this for the right reasons.
You wouldn't be listening to this podcast if you thought that anyway. But I can almost guarantee that you will know someone like that in your circle of friends, family and acquaintances. And if you don't, you soon will. As soon as you announce the move, these people will rear up. People do like to judge other people's choices, especially when it comes to raising children. Apart from everything else, these very narrow minded people assume that expat children will resent their parents for taking them away from familiar surroundings. But familiarity isn't everything. Don't you think that opening their eyes to what the world is truly about and has to offer is more important than spending your entire life in the same village? Of course you do! Otherwise you wouldn't have any interest in me and my work at all.
And yes, you may even have some concerns about moving away. That's natural. It's a parent thing. It's parental guilt as I just said. We want to do what's best for our children, of course we do, but there aren't any guidebooks for everything. Apart from ExpatChild, and me!
In reality, expats generally find that their children adjust to their new lives much quicker than they expect. And the benefits of moving can drastically outweigh the possible hurdles that you and your family may face along the way. Please don't dismiss the chance of a more fulfilling and advantageous life for your children. There are undeniable benefits to an expat lifestyle. So what are these benefits? These five benefits? There are hundreds - I'm reducing it to just five!
Your children will experience more of the world. Thousands of young adults choose to take a gap year and travel the world as a break from education. Or more importantly, to broaden their horizons and experience the world beyond their home town. Travelling genuinely gives people a hands on learning experience of the world that they live in. Travelling also teaches us a great deal about our limitations, our passions and ourselves. Yes, the whole finding yourself through travel is real and can be experienced at any age, by the way. I was backpacking solo in my thirties. I can highly recommend it! While travelling, in the true nomadic form rather than in the tourist form, can do so much for someone's outlook on life, can you imagine how much extra actually living overseas does for this? There is a much deeper connection to the world when you have lived in a whole other country for some time. And it doesn't matter how old you are, you'll get the same benefit if you're five years old or forty-five years old.
Additionally, there is a growing trend of employer who are paying increasing attention to well-travelled job applicants with global experience.
If nothing else, the ability to drop into conversation, interviews and so on that you went to school in Beijing or Bangkok - sets you apart from all the other applicants and makes you memorable and for all the right reasons.
Your children will become more understanding of other cultures and backgrounds. One of the most beneficial aspects of raising children overseas is the opportunity it gives them to meet and integrate with people of other cultures, of other backgrounds and of other beliefs. By introducing diversity into your child's life from an early age, they are more likely to grow up tolerant and respectful of other people. And this kind of mindset is so important in today's diverse economy. And due to their life in other countries and their expat education, this will already be second nature to your child.
And if you happen to move to a developing country, your child will see for themselves the enormous, huge differences in poverty and wealth, health, infrastructure and all kinds of other aspects to living overseas. All these kinds of things that we may take for granted if we never leave our home country. For example, not having electricity for a week; not having water that comes out of a tap, and, of course, much, much more. You will be setting your child up to become a wonderful, well-rounded, globally relevant and internationally aware adult. And what more could you ask for than that?
Your child will gain a more diverse and unique education. Depending on their age your child may have already received some form of education in your home country. Uprooting a child from their current school and curriculum can seem like a bad decision. And this is another one that some people really do like to judge you on. However, studies have shown that students who have lived overseas during childhood are more likely to attain a university degree than those who have not.
And even if they don't go to university. Oh, shock, horror. Yep, university isn't for everyone, folks! And yes, I know I have a rather controversial attitude towards education - I don't believe that school is everything - you can learn so much without being in a formal school. But what you learn outside of school, mixing with people from other countries, other cultures, speaking other languages, is something that you cannot learn in school. The kinds of things your child will be learning are, as I just mentioned, how other people live, about other cultures, about other ways of life. These are far more useful in life than how to multiply fractions or... Well, OK, let's not alienate you all in one go! But learning about other countries is incredible because you are living in that country. You're not just reading about it or watching it on a screen.
Your children will learn other languages. Now, not only will travelling benefit the quality of their education by being more rounded, it will also expose your children to an entirely new language. Children are far more able than adults to learn a new language quickly, especially when surrounded by children who speak in different tongues. This is particularly notable, considering that being bilingual is one of the top qualities looked for by employers today. Even if you're moving to a country where your mother tongue is spoken - I'm going by English here - there is still quite a big difference. American English is very different from British English, and so there is still a learning curve.
The other way that they'll learn languages is by mixing with other expats because expats will come from all other countries. My daughter had friends from Spain, from Russia, from Germany, from South Africa. The languages spoken were so varied amongst her friends that she picked up quite a bit of various other languages unrelated to the country we were living in.
And number five, in the benefits to moving overseas with your children: your family will become much closer as a result.
Now, this may not be one of the first things you consider when planning a move abroad, but it is true. Moving to a different country can put a great deal of emotional strain on any family, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the place you're moving to. The family unit becomes more dependent on the others with no other friends or family around. Most expat families find that they spend even more time together as a result, giving the family more quality time to bond and become even closer than before.
You'll have family adventures that you have never dreamt of. Camping out in the Sahara; seeing lion cubs in their natural environment rather than in a concrete cage in a zoo; swimming with truly wild dolphins rather than seeing the poor things do tricks in an aquarium, and so much more.
As I say, there are so many benefits to moving and living overseas with children, but those are my five favourite ones.
I want to now move on to talking about when is the best age to move with children, because this is one of the questions I get asked most often. Is there a best age to move overseas with children?
well, well, yeah - basically, the younger the better. But I don't want to just put that in your head as only moving overseas with youngsters. We all want the best for our children, of course, and we all want them to experience the easiest possible transition, and the easiest transition is when they are very, very young.
That's not to say that you can't move with older children. Far from it. Basically, the younger your children, the easier it is to move overseas. I'll outline the general principles here based on different age groups. However, if you'd like to talk about your specific concerns and have questions, please do get in touch. Let's discuss your move and I'll guide you through the key points that you need to be aware of.
So, as I say, the younger the better. Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers; very small children under about the age of five. Easy peasy! They are completely reliant on their family unit for everything; for relationships, for trust, for social and emotional stability, for food, for hugs, for entertainment. They don't need anything other than you. As long as their parent is happy, the child is happy. As long as the child is happy, the parent is happy. Moving a child at this age will not cause any significant difficulties at all because they haven't learned to be their own person yet.
All relationships outside of the family unit are in effect, superficial. A child who has formed close bonds with other family members, such as grandparents - if your parents look after your children regularly every week, every day or so on - they will create a relationship. If you only see your parents once every six months or so, the children won't have anything more than a superficial relationship. I'm sorry, that is the truth. So a child who has a deeper relationship with grandparents and other family members or friends will have the capacity to miss them, even at this age. But Skype and FaceTime really help, and the children will adjust very quickly to the new circumstances. It really is the easiest age to move. Oh, and you don't need anywhere near as much stuff as you think you may imagine. So please don't worry about moving with all the toys and baby equipment you think you may need. You really don't!
Once your child goes to school full time, things can get a little trickier. So that will be four if you're in the U.K., five, six, seven. By the age of eight, a child is developing a much greater sense of self.
The family unit is still critically important, of course, and always will be because they still need you for their routines and stability. However, they now have their own unique likes, dislikes, fears and emotions and their own capacity for self-expression... as I'm sure you have noticed! At the same time, the child is starting to form closer relationships with their peers. And at this age, those relationships are 100 percent reliant on frequent contact for sustainability. What that means is they need to have close face-to-face contact with their mates. You've probably noticed how hard it has been for your children of this age group during COVID and the lockdown restrictions. And this is why. They need to see their friends in real life.
The emotional and social connections are strong enough to be missed during absences, but at this age they don't really have the capacity to wait around, if that makes sense. They want to see their friends now. And they can't really carry on great conversations on a screen or on a telephone.
Moving away at this age almost always means severing friendships completely. Because they're still too young to keep in touch independently via social media, telephones, etc.. So you can expect a lot more reluctance and opposition towards your move, but it is soon passed. It won't be something that will be held against you forever, shall we say.
Many expat parents I've spoken to tell me that they experienced more difficulties when they moved countries where their child was aged about nine or 10 years old. Now, as ever, all families are different. So while one family may have absolutely no problem at all, another may find many constant battles ensue with their 10 year old. Every child is different - it depends on the makeup of their social life, their school life, if they do a lot of clubs and such, you may have more difficulty persuading them that the move is a good idea. But again, life will continue.
And then we move on to teenagers. Oh, my god, moving overseas with teenagers! It becomes a lot more difficult to predict how your child... offspring? Teenagers aren't really children, but in a way they are. So it becomes a lot more difficult to predict how they might react to an overseas move. Some are hideous, some are remarkably easy. And yes, I'm referring to the move here, not the teenager! Well, you know, most of the time!
At this stage, their reliance on the family unit is generally far less. They are battling to get away from you; they want to be grown up, they want to be seen as an adult. It's the age old battle of two ages in one individual: the child who still wants to snuggle on the sofa and the "Go away, I want to be an adult now!" It's the joys of teenage-hood.
Teens are exploring their independence and sense of self, and this may or may not be possible in a new country.
I've mentioned before the difficulties that my teenager experienced in South Africa because she wasn't able to be fully independent due to the dangers over there and the lack of public transport. So you may run into battles like that. Teenagers also have very solid friendships, telephones, social media and often social lives that far outstrip ours as adults. Teenagers feel that their friendships are so much more important and valuable than their relationships with the parents. And yes, we know that's not true, of course, but we have to stand back and let them learn to fly.
We have to stand there as the solid rock that they can come back to when necessary. If you add a first love scenario into the mix, however, you could be in for a very rough ride. So handle it very, very carefully.
Alternatively, you could have an absolute dream of a teen and you'll have no problems at all while you battle with the 10 year old. As I say, and as I keep saying, everyone is different and all you can take from this is the general overview. To get a more detailed, precise and individual guide, please book a call. There'll be a link in the show notes or you can drop me an email at hello at Expatability dot net.
So how well will your child adapt to the new life abroad? Let's look at adaptability and age groups now.
As an adult, moving overseas presents a wide range of opportunities for anxiety, from learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, making new friends, negotiating your new normal - all sorts. For a child those factors remain in play, but their adaptability varies greatly and they will have different things to be anxious about.
Of course, babies and toddlers will adapt almost instantaneously. All they need is a parent, warmth, food and routine, which can easily be maintained anywhere in the world. The disruption to their life is minimal. At the age of around four to seven, when formal schooling comes into play, the child can usually enrol in a native school anywhere in the world and start learning at the same rate as their peers. At this stage, while they might miss their transient friendships for a little while, even learning a new language comes naturally and adaptability is fair to good. And I've said this before, though please don't simply drop your child at whatever age into a school with a different language without a lot of preparation and language skills. It is quite simply cruel to expect full immersion with no preparation to work without a lot of pain.
From the age of seven, a child becomes even more reliant on routine. Now, this may seem a very strange viewpoint, but if you see routine as a stable boundary, which allows them to explore the world at their pace, it makes more sense. So by having your routines in place, you're giving them the opportunity to explore their world, knowing where the goalposts are. The flexible, resilient and sponge like nature of their younger personality starts to be replaced by learned patterns and behaviours, meaning that they may find it harder to adapt to a new life. At this age, around about seven, eight, nine, 10, they are starting to become both self-aware and socially aware. So will start to become more anxious about making new friends, about learning a new language, and about negotiating unfamiliar places.
Making sure that you maintain the familiar routines in the home can make their transition so much easier. Remember, you need to be the safe place, the safe home to come home to, the big hugs, even if they don't want you to do that at the school gate.
Once the child reaches their teenage years, their worries and anxieties are basically the same as in adults with so, so many added extras! But with the advanced ability to reason and to conceptualise. Emotions tend to run high, as I'm sure you have noticed... Those anxieties need to be treated with kid gloves. You are going to need resilience, patience and the ability to withstand a lot of drama.
I have loads of fantastic tips to help you get through life with teenagers. Just hop on a call with me. I could be here forever, otherwise.
So I've generalised very, very greatly here about different age groups as it's all I can do in a short time, naturally. But your child's individual level of social and emotional literacy, their ability to process, understand and express social and emotional needs is a crucial factor in understanding how they may react to a move.
It isn't necessarily age that defines everything, but the individual experiences your child is used to and their individual personality. Everything all knits together. You know your child best, and it's important to remember that general principles don't always accurately predict outcomes.
So we've looked at the different ages of children and how they may adapt to a big move, and now I want to look at timing. When is the best time to move abroad with children? Well, that's a bit strange. Surely any time if the age is right? But bear with me here.
Getting the timing right is important for many facets of your child's life. And by this I mean all kinds of timing. One of which is the age at which they move for the very first time. And I want to emphasise that first time. A child who moved overseas for the first time as a toddler and then moved again as, say, a seven year old and again a few years later, will manage the whole event in a completely different way from a child who moved for the very first time, aged 11. And even more, again, if someone is moving for the very first time as a teenager.
Timing, in the sense I want to talk about now, can be defined as choosing the best time for doing something in order to achieve the desired effect. And that desired effect is a smooth move and a child adapting well to their new life.
Getting the timing right is a key factor for success. It's knowing when to do something. For example, moving to the UK when your child is 14, 15 or 16 will not necessarily be a success because the schools are really strict on accepting pupils in the middle of the crucial exam period that these age groups have to cover.
So the timing elements I'm going to look at here and what you need to do when you plan your move are: timing as in the right time of your child's life - their age, and timing as in the time of year. Yeah, it does make a difference.
Now we are adults. We are responsible for our decisions and our actions. As parents we are also responsible for the decisions we make for our children, on our children's behalf. It is our choice to move abroad, not our child's. So we need to give them as much help and support as possible. This may seem blatantly obvious, but you would be horrified at the number of people who really don't consider it that much. And I think they do this because they have this belief that all children are resilient. It is a phrase that crops up time and time and time again. And it isn't entirely true. It's way too complex and lengthy to go into now, but I just want you to be aware that moving overseas is really great if done carefully and with a lot of preparation.
So the right age, the right time of your child's life - I've already gone through this and you need to take your own personal situation and family and location into consideration and call me if you're still not sure.
As I say, generally, the younger the child, the more adaptable and open to change they are and are therefore much easier to move. And babies are supremely portable! Older children may be more resistant to the idea of moving to another country due to leaving friends and of course, the more complicated issues in terms of education, but on the other hand, they understand a great deal more about different cultures. They will retain far more and can gain much more from the experience.
Regardless of age, the more time (huh, timing again!) the more time and effort you spend planning your move and involving your children in your plans, the more likely you all are to have a smooth move.
So what is the best time of year to relocate overseas? If you have a choice about when you move... I mean, if it's not subject to work demands or you have to start a job on a certain date, then there are a few things you can look into to help make your decision.
Firstly, school terms. If your child is of school age research, school term dates and your chosen school's enrolment procedures. When does the school year start? Is it August like many American schools? Or September like British schools? Or maybe even January like schools in Australia and South Africa. Is the country you are moving to one that's considered an expat hub such as Dubai or Singapore? If so, most expats go away throughout the summer holidays, meaning that you won't meet anyone until they return at the beginning of the school year.
Even in your home country, starting a child in a new school in the middle of the school year can be challenging. It really isn't fair on them unless you have no other choice. Imagine starting them in a new school, in a new country, in the same circumstances. We do want to try and make it as easy as possible for them. And having them start school at the beginning of a school year is a really good move. There will be new friendship groups being created at the start of the new term and it will be so much easier for your child to fit into these than it would be if they started in term two or three.
If you can't move for the first term, the next best thing is to start them in the term before the long summer holidays. In England, we call it the Easter holidays - it'll be different elsewhere. It's a fairly short term. It's quite intense for them and therefore quite tiring. After that first introductory term, they will have a few friends; they'll know who they are; they'll know roughly where they are, and they'll be able to start in the new school year knowing the lay of the land and some of their school mates.
But my main tip here is not to move at the beginning of the long school holiday. It's better to remain in your familiar country as long as possible. Your child won't be able to meet any fellow schoolmates during the holidays because they won't be there. And you'll have many weeks attempting to settle in, unpack and find your way around a new country while keeping your children entertained. It's far better, if you can, to move towards the end of the school holidays so that your child can start school shortly after arriving and begin their new life as quickly as possible.
So these are just some of my tips for successfully moving abroad with children. I have squillion's more, I really do! Some I will prepare into future episodes such as how to prepare your child for the move, how to support them in the first few weeks and months, and well, why don't you get in touch and let me know what you would like to hear about? Drop me an email.
My objective here is to give you food for thought, give you questions to ask yourself, and to emphasise the importance of research, planning and timing.
Children of different age groups require different kinds of support. And even children within the same age group will need different things. You know this. You know how different your child and their friends are. You know how different the children in your individual family are.
I've spoken to quite a few people over the years who could have potentially made life very difficult for their children, and for themselves, simply by assuming that the oft quoted 'all kids are resilient', crap is real. And this is the biggest mistake and biggest assumption that anyone can make.
Please don't assume all children are resilient and accepting of everything life throws at them, particularly expat life. Proper preparation for the move abroad is vital. Please take a little time to explore some of my articles on ExpatChild.com to gain more insight into all aspects of moving overseas with kids.
It would be a little bit daft to assume that moving your family to another country would be really simple. It may well be. It's likely that your children will find the idea daunting to start with and the actual move a bit difficult to adjust to. It's equally likely that they will just take it all in their stride and you will wonder what the hell you were worrying about. They always have the power to astound us! You may have one child who struggles while the other two adapt immediately.
The benefits of an expat lifestyle are endless, and there is every reason to expect your new country will swiftly become your new and beloved home.
We're always told that we learn by making mistakes. However, many mistakes can be avoided by learning from others who have made the move and who are ready to help you. How about you learn from my experiences and my mistakes? And yes, I've made quite a few! I am here to help you with your move overseas with children. Just get in touch and let's chat. I'll be back again with another episode in a couple of weeks. Bye bye.