Moving abroad with kids - who is the move abroad for?
In the rush and excitement of planning and preparing for the adult's move abroad, it is easy to assume that the kids will adjust and adapt as “that’s what kid's do, right?”
Wrong! Kids generally need stability, familiarity and continuity around them and a move abroad is exactly the opposite of that for them. The move abroad is never driven by the kid’s wishes. Adults may claim that they are emigrating to seek a better life and opportunities for their children but ask your self this. Does your potential move abroad mean that you feel your opportunities and lifestyle will be sacrificed in favour of a better one for your kids?
It is an unavoidable part of the process of emigration that kids will get dragged around the world, more often than not against their deep-felt wishes, in order for their parents to achieve their own goals and fulfil their dreams.
This is not to say that even considering a move is wrong. Many kids end up thoroughly adapting to their new culture, surroundings and lifestyle. Kids in general are like sponges and they will absorb huge amounts of information through living abroad at an early age.
If they are abroad long enough, they will undoubtedly become bi-lingual with deep roots and connections to their new country, which in many cases will have become their true ‘home’. At the very least, exposure to different sights and sounds, languages and cultures may well make them more open-minded and better able to understand the world and their place and role in it.
In moving your kids abroad, you will also run the risk that, if the move is successful and permanent, your kids ‘go native’ and lose their attachment and identity to the UK completely. It can be disconcerting for parents to watch their children adapt to their new surroundings and culture more readily than they themselves can.
Emigrating will have huge consequences for all the family. As a result, it is very important to give all members of the family an input into the decision-making process. Of course, very young children will not be able to articulate their thoughts on the matter but, in this instance, and even with older children, the parents have to act as their 'defence lawyer', fighting for their interests on their behalf.
This can be at odds with your own views and wishes. If, as adults, you are very committed emotionally to a move, how can you act impartially in working out what is best for your children?
Who said being a parent is easy!
You will know your children better than anyone else. You will know how they react to new situations, whether they are outgoing or reserved, whether they enjoy exploring and discovering new things or whether they like the comfort of their own home and the security of familiar things around them.
There is a general acceptance that younger children tend to adapt to new situations more easily. This is because, until about the age of 12, the world of children is still fully entwined with that of their parents. If they have their parents and other familiar items around them, they are better able to respond and adapt to new situations and surroundings.
When you move abroad, it is also worth remembering that the family and friend support network will disappear completely. Even in today’s society, where moving away from home, following work and becoming independent is much more prevalent than it was in the past, many people still have their extended family as an important part of their lives. Leaving the kids with the grandparents may seem like it is giving time to that mutual relationship to deepen and flourish but it sure helps to have an evening or weekend off now and again!
If you need someone to pick the kids up from school or take them to a birthday party, it is surprising how important this ‘free help’ is in being able to conduct a hectic life, balancing work and home. Part of the reason for the move abroad may be to try to rebalance this lifestyle and make it more family-orientated. Many busy parents feel guilty that they are not able to spend quality time with each other, let alone their kids. Especially in the early years, a close relationship with involved parents is generally considered to be the best possible start that parents can give their kids.
Unfortunately, work can often necessitate that, from as young as six months old, babies grow up spending the majority of their time in professional care. Even when parents get home, it is difficult to find quality time as after-school clubs, homework and dinner get in the way. It is a difficult treadmill to get off and emigrating can seem like the best way to achieve this.
Once, as a parent, you have reached the conclusion that a move abroad is in the best interest of all of the members of your family, what do you need to consider to help prepare your kids for what will be an enormous change for them?
Moving abroad is a big step for any couple, but when there are children involved, it is even more important to get it right. When it comes to children everyone seems to have advice. Some friends and family will tell you to 'go for it' as, after all, children are adaptable. Others will make obvious point that all children, especially young children, thrive when their little world is completely predictable, right down to a precise bed time in their suitably darkened room.
Both are right. Children do need a routine but they can often adapt much more quickly than most adults.
We moved abroad when our children were aged just one and two. We were given some good advice (and we even took some of it, though sadly not all!). Here are some of our
Top tips for emigrating with young children
• Try to explain to them early on in the process what is happening, even if they are very young and make them feel involved
• Make sure inoculations are up to date before you go. Learning to navigate the healthcare system in a new country takes time, and often involves paperwork. This just makes your life easier. Bring your health visitor red book and ask your British GP for a print out of your family’s medical records to take with you
• Take their favourite toys with you, even though it may be cheaper to buy them again when you get there. In particular, use some of your hand luggage allowance for their favourite soft toy
• Take as much as possible of the familiar things your child uses each day: the cot, pushchair, high chair etc. If this is not feasible, then at least take the cot bedding
• Find out if the brand of baby milk and bottles you child uses are available in your new country (and how much they cost). If they aren’t, calculate how much you will need until they no longer want a bottle of milk at bed time and get it from the local supermarket before you go (obviously check the use-by dates). This will seem wildly OTT until you need to settle your child, at which point it will be a God-send
• Take photos of the most inane things that make up your children’s world: Their room, their friends, the grown-ups they know, the places they go to, the kitchen in their old home. Even photograph their toys. Print the photos and put them in an album that your child can keep it in their new room. More than anything else, this helps children to feel that the world they knew is still real and provides an important bridge to their new life.
• Be around a lot for your children when settling into your new life. You may be the only familiar face they know and if they can see that you are calm and happy, then they will be too. This is the most challenging thing of all to do because there is so much to do with setting up a new life abroad, but anything you can do will help.
• Try to ensure you can get a decent broadband connection - a webcam and a skype account lets your family keep in touch with everyone back home. That’s good for you and great for your children (who may be too young to read emails or use social media!)
It is important, and fair, to make sure you include your kids in the conversations about the potential for a move abroad as soon as possible. Making you kids are aware of the issues, such as leaving their current school and their ‘best’ friends will not be an easy task. When you go on a viewing trip, make sure you include time to explore the places and things that will be of greatest interest to your kids.
If possible, try to visit at least one or two possible schools as a way of giving your kids an insight into what their new life will be like. Take them to the beach, the local park and other child-friendly places as a way of demonstrating some of the new things that their life will consist of.
In your discussions about the move, try to accentuate the positive aspects of the move. Kids have a fear of the unknown but if they are helped to focus on the potential benefits then their acceptance may be easier to obtain. The fact that you, as a parent, will be spending move time with them will be a positive aspect to stress.
Quality family time spent exploring new fun and cool places is something they will be able to look forward to (of course, any promises about more quality time spent together have to be followed through!). Make sure you spend time encouraging them to talk about their feelings about the move. You can then use this information to help you prepare them better by addressing their major concerns.
If their fears focus on leaving their friends behind, you can try to make sure that they can keep in touch as much as possible through email, skype or social media. At the same time, you can try to get them to focus on new the new friends they will make.
If your kids have concerns or worries that you have no particular answer for, make sure you are honest about the fact but also work with them to research possible solutions. Ignoring concerns and fears can lead to bigger problems further down the line as well as making the kids feel as they are not being thought of in the decision making process.
Setting the parameters of the move is important as well. If you are moving abroad with work, the move may well last only a couple of years. If you are moving for lifestyle reasons you may well intend that the move will be permanent. It is important for the kids to get a sense of how final the move is.
If you are moving to Australia, Canada or New Zealand, unless you are moving to the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada, language should not be an issue. However, if English is not your first language, or you are moving to a non English-speaking country, you will need to place yourself in your child’s position and imagine walking into a class full of children who all a) know each other and b) speak a completely unfamiliar language.
Everyone has joined a new school and found it daunting but just imagine how much worse it would be if you had no way of communicating with the other kids. It is certainly true that kids can be very cruel to those who don’t fit in. Whilst it is also true that kids generally have a greater capacity to learn a foreign language than adults, those first few weeks and months may prove traumatic.
However, imagine being able to speak to the other kids in their language even in a very basic way. It would be a huge benefit and would dramatically speed up both the speed of adjustment and the overall experience for your child. It is important for all members of the family to try to learn the language prior to departure but it would be most useful for the kids to learn it as it is a much greater ‘leap into the dark’ for them. Given the range of materials around to help learn a language such as DVD’s, books and magazines, it can be made a fun exercise.
Familiarity with things around them is a very important part of maintaining the security and stability that kids require. Your kids will undoubtedly have favourite toys, books, clothes and games. Take time out to reassure them that most of what they are really attached to will be coming with you to your new home.
Keeping in touch with friends and family is much easier given the range of technologies available but it is worth checking whether your new country as fast internet connections and good telecommunications in the region you are proposing to move to. Often, the quality of technology can be surprising in countries. Many countries have no developed fixed-line network so the uptake of mobile communications has been made easier as there is no legacy network to replace.
If your kids have a strong interest in a particular activity or hobby such as horse riding or judo, try to find out how easy it will be to continue with it in your new home.
For kids at an age where exams become important, it is vital for them not to feel that all their hard work in the build up to exams in the UK will be wasted. Many countries will not have the option of international schools so you will need to research what the local education options are.
Learning a new language and a new syllabus at exam age is difficult for even the brightest of kids so it will require great thought about what is best for your child. In some cases, and where finances allow, putting your child into a boarding school in the UK may well be the best option.
Otherwise, you will have to explore the options very carefully to ensue you don’t gamble unnecessarily with your child’s education and future.
Finally Made It Abroad
After taking a careful, well-judged decision to move, and having sought to include the kids in the decision-making process, it would be extremely unlikely if no issues were to arise in the first few weeks and months in your new country. From the kids point of view, they are likely to suffer two ways. In the early stages of the move their parents will be struggling to adapt and to create a new home for the family meaning that, in all likelihood, they will be spending less time with the kids.
At the same time, the kids will be feeling vulnerable, isolated and unsure of their new surroundings. This will be true even if, at the same time, they are excited about their new home and surroundings. They will require constant reassurance from their parents about their new situation and what the plans are for the future. Giving them a stake in the decision making process such as where to live and the type of house to buy will give them confidence and will help them ‘buy’ into the move.
In any country, kids often provide one of the best ways for parents to make new friends. It can be through chatting at the school gate, joining in activities at the school or through getting to know the parents of your kids' friends. Try to spend time getting involved with the school. It will not only allow you to understand what the school system is like and ensure that your child is getting a good education but will also broaden your social horizons.
Another good way of helping your kids to settle into their new home is to reward them for the move. It can be something as simple as a new toy or a new bed, perhaps a set of goalposts for the garden, a trampoline or a new bike. If it helps to make them feel good about the move then it will invaluable.
Celebrating myriad different festivals is one benefit of moving abroad but it is also worth taking time to ensure that your kids get continuity in the things they used to look forward to the most. Christmas is an obvious one, though celebrating in the hot sun on a beach does take some getting used. Also, birthday's are a useful way of getting to know local kids - try inviting the neighbour's kids as well as new classmates to a party and try to incorporate elements they might be familiar with from home.
Other Issues To Address
Kids react in different ways – some kids will be excited by the move, others will find the whole process very dislocating and upsetting. Teenagers are often the least likely to adapt well to the idea of a move. They will already have an established lifestyle with their own friends and a degree of freedom and they may have a boyfriend or girlfriend which can complicate the picture. The move abroad offers the prospect of taking this all away. They will have to start all over again in a strange country where they feel that they may well struggle to fit in (a natural and powerful concern for teenagers).
Be prepared for uncooperative or disruptive behaviour. Your kids may become more argumentative and aggressive or withdrawn and depressed. They may well argue more with their brothers or sisters; their sleep patterns may be disrupted and they may begin to eat less as well. It is not uncommon for kids to react negatively to every aspect of their new life, finding fault in everything from their new school to their new house.
This pattern of behaviour can be extremely frustrating to deal with especially as it will come on top of your own struggles with the move as well. There is no quick fix. It will take patience and understanding as well a strong positive attitude from the parents to bring the kids round to the merits of the move. As is so often true, time is a great healer. Once they begin to come to terms with the language and start to make new friends, their process of acclimatisation will be well under way.
The optimists are right: Children ARE adaptable! Whether you do some, all or none of these things, your kidswill be ok in the end. You’ve picked this new life for the good of your whole family, with effort and careful planning, it can be an exhilarating and liberating experience - just make sure it's for the whole family and enjoy it!