Helping children transition to a new home overseas

Moving nerves ... relocating overseas can be a hard transition for children.
Moving nerves ... relocating overseas can be a hard transition for children. Photo: Getty

When we packed up our lives to move overseas my husband and I used to joke that we had decided to have this adventure about five years too late. Seizing the opportunity to live in Europe was easy, but taking a three and one-year-old along was potentially sloppy planning. 

We were wrong. 

Moving overseas with young kids may be logistically difficult, but once children hit school age and are old enough to be aware of what they are leaving behind, the really challenging work begins. Helping them say goodbye and transition to a new environment with new friends and a new way of life requires a lot more emotional preparation than moving with toddlers.

Packing up to start afresh in a new country is not something novel for Joanna Morrison Mayo. Born in New Zealand, Joanna grew up as an expat kid and has called Edinburgh, London, Jakarta and Melbourne all home at one point.

Yet her most recent relocation from The Hague to Perth 18 months ago with her husband, brought with it a new set of challenges - moving their children, Madeleine, now eight, and Jack, six.

They helped smooth the transition by giving their children time to say their farewells.

"We made a conscious decision to say proper goodbyes," says Joanna. The family had goodbye parties for friends, made friendship books for Madeleine and Jack to take to school and visited all their favourite places in The Hague one last time, making a photo book of their memories.

Jet Sichterman, a psychologist specialising in expat children, warns that children can experience a period of mourning for all they have left behind. 

He also emphasises the importance of giving children the opportunity to say goodbye to friends and family as well as keeping tangible reminders of friends or special places.

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"Children leave behind so much in an international move," says Jet. "In some situations it will only be the parents that stay the same, but the more you can add to that, the better it will be for the child's adjustment."

For Joanna and her family, maintaining traditions is an important way to keep connected with the countries they have called home. Their Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments from all the countries they have lived in. "Putting them on the tree brings back lovely memories for us all, and we talk about the places we've lived and the friendships we've made," says Joanna.

When moving overseas with children who are old enough to understand what is happening, Jet advises that the child's age should guide how much advance warning you give them about the move. For a four or five-year-old, Jet suggests, two or three weeks notice is enough, but a teenager can be told up to a year ahead.

Involving children in the move can also help with the transition. Older children can be involved in more active ways, such as helping parents decide what house to live in or where to go to school, suggests Jet, while younger children can be asked for their input about which bedroom will be theirs, or what colour to paint the walls.

While leaving a country and saying goodbye can be emotionally difficult, it brings with it the excitement of the journey ahead but starting again in a new location can be harder for children after the novelty of the move wears off.

Originally from Italy, Mrs Bingles recently relocated from Germany to Australia with her three children aged seven, five and two, and documents her experiences in her blog, moving around mum.

It was the emotional needs of her children that were her focus during the move. "Put their needs before anything else," says Bingles. Find child friendly places, playgrounds, libraries and activities for your children in your new hometown. This can be exhausting, she says, but it means they will settle in better, allowing you to find your way in a new country more easily.

Keeping in touch with family and friends after saying goodbye is important, but spending too much time on the computer maintaining these relationships can make settling in to a new environment more difficult. Some children spend too much time maintaining relationships from their old home at the expense of establishing new relationships, says Jet. "It's important to guard that balance."

It is also helpful to keep in mind that parents and children can adjust to their new home at a difference pace from each other. Parents may be happy that they have moved, while the children are still holding on to their old situation, or it may be the other way around, says Jet, "and this difference between family members may also lead to extra stress within the family."

Moving home can bring up lots of emotions for children – and their parents. Focus on the positives, says Joanna, while still acknowledging that moving can be scary and frightening. "Show your children that although you are in a different country you still care about those you have left behind, but also embrace your new location and all that it has to offer." 

The time it takes to settle in to a new home can depend on the temperament of the child, says Jet, but after two to three months children should be showing positive signs of adjustment.

While moving with children is challenging, many parents and experts agree the following can make the transition easier:

  • Emphasise the positives and be enthusiastic about the move.
  • For younger children, a few weeks advance notice of the move is fine, older children can be told 3-12 months ahead.
  • Give children the opportunity to say a proper farewell.
  • Find age-appropriate ways to involve children in the moving process.
  • Highlight the benefits your new location has to offer.
  • Make sure children have something tangible from their old home to hold on to.
  • Try to time the move to coincide with breaks in the school year.
  • Sea and air freight can take months to arrive, keep a few comforting items in hand luggage and suitcases.
  • Stick to a familiar routine wherever you are in the world.
  • Don't try to do too much too soon when you arrive at your new home, have quiet weekends with lots of family time.
  • Maintain a routine and sense of normalcy in the lead up to a move.
  • Keep talking with your kids and be honest about your own feelings.

Mihal is an Australian freelance writer, mother of three and has been living in the Netherlands for the past 6 years. You can follow Mihal on Twitter @mihalgreener