Living abroad alone can be challenging, but living abroad with children can be enough to test even the strongest of families.
Depending on the ages of your children and their affinity to their home country, their feelings can vary from extreme excitement to dread and opposition over having to leave their home and friendship circles behind. Preparing your children for a move overseas can help make the transition as positive as possible.
When I prepared to move to Japan with my son, the process happened so quickly that I didn’t have enough time to adequately prepare him for the transition. I had a job interview via Skype one evening, and we were on a plane headed to Japan two months later. As a result, we experienced several emotional roller coasters and didn’t really enjoy our first six months here.
If you’re interested in living abroad with your family, it’s important to know that each age group will have different needs and require different levels of support. Older children may have a harder time adjusting to moving abroad than younger children, as they’ve probably already established meaningful roots in their hometown. However, they can adapt as long as they are supported throughout the process.
1. Involve your children in the process of moving abroad.
Discussing the move, mapping out a plan, and having them do research on prospective countries can help offset any anxiety they’re experiencing. Involving the kids in the decision-making process—whether it’s house hunting or looking for a new school—can make them feel less like the move is being forced on them and more like they are an active participant in the decision.
Give them as much information about the move as you can as soon as possible. Even in the initial consideration, you want your children to know that this move could be a possibility. Answer their questions completely and truthfully, and try to be receptive to both positive and negative reactions. Even if living abroad could be a significant improvement in your lives, kids don’t always see it that way and will focus on the scary aspects of this change. Try to be patient and understand how challenging even the thought of moving overseas can be for them.
2. Visit your new country beforehand.
Prior to our move, my son and I had never visited Japan before. We arrived a day before work and school started. We were thrown into our new life almost immediately—there was no time to adjust and enjoy our surroundings. It took almost a year for us to explore all that Tokyo has to offer and truly appreciate this amazing country we now call home.
We strongly believe that if we were able to visit Japan as tourists before it became home, we could have adjusted to the transition faster. Even if we were able to arrive a few weeks before, we could have eased into this life here, rather than feeling like we were thrown into the deep end.
My advice? If it is at all possible, visit the new country before you move permanently. Stay in a hotel and experience the place you’ll soon call home without the weight of work and home responsibilities looming over you. It will allow your children to have a frame of reference before the move. Bonus: During your trip, you may find things to do once you’re living there that you know they already enjoy.
3. Bring some of home with you when you’re living abroad.
Our apartment in Japan is nothing like our home in Philadelphia. It was really challenging to feel at home there initially.
One of the first things I did was ask a friend to go to my storage unit and send some of my wall hangings and other items. I had already brought family photos and made sure most of my son’s toys and stuffed animals were with us, but I wanted to try and set up our living space to resemble our old home as much as possible.
That package helped us feel a little more settled into our new life. We began to feel more like ourselves in this new country where not many people looked like us or spoke our language. In our home, we were able to be who we are and more importantly, feel like ourselves.
If you’re able to, bring some sentimental home furnishings, family photos, or items that remind you of your city or home country. Use all of your senses. If you love bright colors, find tapestries that appeal to you. Bring your favorite scented candles or incense, play the music you love, and ask your family to send you care packages of the treats and foods you’re unable to find in your new country. Having your favorite things integrated into the home in your new country will help give your child a sense of familiarity and consistency when living abroad.
Continuing family traditions is important as well. If your family had game night every Sunday evening, try to continue that. You may not be able to order pizza from your favorite spot and get a few movies from Redbox, but maybe you can make your favorite junk food at home and stream movies from Netflix instead.
The important thing is to create some consistency in your children’s lives. Find ways to maintain their lifestyle in your new home country if you can. Sign them up for a local sports team or dance class if that’s what they were into back home. These activities may influence their sense of identity and you don’t want to lose that.
4. Encourage your children to share and process their feelings about the move.
After you’ve moved to your new country and settled in, there will be a period of time where your child will lament over what he would be doing with his friends or could have been doing if she were back home. No matter how amazing your new home is, they will find a way to miss the way the front door of your old home squeaked when you opened it.
Encourage your child to confront these feelings and talk about their grief in leaving their home and their friends. But also ask them to disconnect their sadness from their new city. Does Tokyo really have the worst seafood ever because it’s not as good as the sushi place back home? Or do you just miss the nostalgia of going there for dinner every Friday night?
Help them process their feelings and if necessary, seek help from their school counselor. Counselors in international schools often specialize in helping families and children transition into their new lives. If this is not possible, try to find local resources. Seek out an expat group through InterNations or MeetUp to help find others who are having the same challenges you are.
5. Immerse yourself in the culture of your new country.
When the dust has settled and you are able to find a free weekend, go out and explore your new surroundings. Be a tourist for the weekend: Take a cooking class or visit a museum highlighting the history of the country. This can help you and your children feel more at home.
Taking regular outings to explore the public transit system (if they have one) is another great way to get to know your area as well. You’ll be able to observe and be among the locals rather than being isolated in your car or taxi. Learning the transit system here allowed my son to feel more independent because I allowed him to guide me to our destinations. This gave him a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of knowing his new city.
Also learning the language will help tremendously. When we moved to Japan, the language barrier was extremely challenging and, at times, left me in tears. My son was learning a little bit at school and to help him, I posted notes around the house describing items in Japanese. This was a bonding experience for the both of us and helped us settle in a little more.
Although I am only fluent in getting home in a taxi, shopping at the market, and polite conversations, my son is able to have fluid conversations with his teacher and understand a lot more than I can.
6. Find time for yourself.
The most important thing you can do in helping your child adjust to a life abroad is to take care of yourself. Engage in self-care before, during, and after your move to a new country, whether it’s scheduling a massage, a night out with your boo, or just some alone time reading a book in a park.
Living abroad with your child will be physically and mentally exhausting. You will spend most of your time taking care of logistics and worrying if your children are okay. I can almost guarantee that you will question your decision every other day and wonder if you’re doing what’s best for your family. This is completely normal.
What will ultimately help guide your children to having a positive experience during this transition is if you are just as giving and loving to yourself as you are them. Having a happy and healthy parent is what is most important, no matter what country you live in.