If you have a young family and are thinking of relocating, one of the worst things you can do is to Google it. Type in search terms about the effect the move may have on your children, and a number of high-profile reports will appear, noting the correlation between the number of house moves a child experiences, and difficulties in later life, which range from ill health and anxiety to difficulty in forming long-term relationships.
But it’s not as it seems. In fact, look beyond the headlines and a clearer picture emerges. It is the frequency of the change that causes problems, not the degree of cultural or social change. Moving to a new country can of course be extremely beneficial, giving your young family valuable new experiences, a broader perspective of the world, and exposure to different languages and cultures – preparing them for life in a way no classroom ever could.
The psychological effect of moving on children is clearly nuanced, and it is not the job of this article to go into academic detail. But our experience of helping families relocate has armed us with some key tips for young families. Follow our advice the experience of moving abroad can be hugely positive for everyone.
Before you go
You know how much preparation and effort goes into your move. Long before the plane takes off, you will start the process of getting ready. Along with your spouse or partner – and, in some cases, the HR/mobility specialists at the company – you will be working to ensure the success of your time abroad. Yet the temptation is often to relieve the children of this burden – which instead means they are less prepared and the transition can come as an unsettling shock. You’ve had months to prepare yourself mentally, while they may have been largely insulated from what was going on.
Instead, it can be much more beneficial to involve them as much as possible:
- Let them know of your plans sooner rather than later
- Encourage them to learn about the host country, language and cultures
- Ask them to make decisions (eg what items/toys to take with you)
- Talk about the forthcoming time as an exciting new chapter
- Let them help in the packing process itself
- One caveat, however, is to avoid the mistake of raising expectations too far. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Education is everything
Make finding a suitable school a priority. Begin researching, choosing and talking to international schools as early as possible, and bear in mind the following points:
- If your move is not permanent, you may prefer schools with a curriculum similar to the one back home. This will help minimize the disruption when your children switch back at the end of your assignment. Qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate may be a flexible option since they are consistently taught across a number of different countries.
- Older children are less flexible than younger children, both in terms of language and in their progress through the curriculum.
- The best schools often have the biggest waiting lists – don’t assume that all will be available, but give yourself the best chance by acting early.
- Think carefully about the school location and the distance to home (and your place of work). It is important for your children to make friends, which is easier if they live near others in their classes.
- School hours vary in different countries, and may not fit neatly with your working hours. This emphasizes the need to choose a school that does not involve a long commute or complex bus journey, if you will not be accompanying your child.
Most research can be done online: you can find information directly from prospective schools, and can also gain invaluable first-hand advice from other parents who share their experiences on social networks.
New home, sweet home
For children – especially younger children – the presence of a few familiar items can be hugely important. If you involved your children in decisions of which furnishings, pictures, soft toys, etc to bring, it’s a good idea to have a few key items with you, rather than shipped separately, so the new accommodation instantly has a sense of familiarity about it.
Set the right example
It’s hard work integrating into a new culture or community – but both you and your children will have a more fulfilling experience if you make the effort. So it’s important that your children see that you and your spouse or partner are doing the same.
Also bear in mind that you will not only be more sensitive to the different culture and ways of life than your children are – but you will also understand why it is different. It will help your children to adapt and integrate if you explain why things are done differently.
Back down to earth
It is harder for children to understand and to prepare themselves for the future. So it’s important to get them ready for the inevitable change when you approach time to go back home. (This will be easier if you have encouraged your child to maintain links with family members and friends back home during your time away.) Particularly, you may wish to remind them:
- The ex-pat lifestyle can be a privileged one – these privileges may not be available back home.
- The world they left a few years ago will have changed: friendships may have to be rekindled.
- Fitting back into the home country school curriculum may not be seamless: they may excel in some areas, but struggle in others
Take time to explain why these points are important, and you will have the best chance of a pain-free repatriation at the end of the assignment.
Your enthusiasm is contagious; if you enjoy the process leading up to your international assignment, it is likely that your children will be positive about it too. The years spent overseas should be an invaluable and fulfilling experience for all family members, and this is more likely to happen if you communicate well, plan ahead and make the effort together.