So, you’re either moving overseas or thinking about doing so. I can guarantee you’re feeling massively excited about the opportunity AND extremely nervous about making the leap into the unknown.
If you have kids, I’m 100 PERCENT SURE much of your anxiety centers on them.
Even though you’ve thought this through and are sure it’s a great opportunity for you all, you know they will be nervous about the change and upset about leaving friends and family.
How will they react? Where will they go to school? Is all this upheaval fair to them?
You might also have your own worries about bringing kids up in an unfamiliar environment without your support network.
Be reassured, An international relocation is a massive opportunity for the whole family, including your kids.
Read on for tips on how to prepare your kids for expat life.
What is a TCK?
Before we start, let’s clear up the definition. If you haven’t already heard people use the term TCK or “Third Culture Kid”, you soon will. There is a whole body of research dedicated to studying the effect moving overseas has on kids.
In a nutshell, Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are kids who grow up away from their home country or that of their parents.
Their first culture is the one they experience at home with their family. It might be based on the culture of a particular country if their parents are from the same place, or more than one if not. The children might or might not have been born or lived there.
The second culture is that of the country they live in. They might be influenced a lot by this culture if they are in local school and mix with local kids, or less so if they attend an international school.
“Third Culture” refers to the shared experience of growing up abroad. It’s essentially a mix of cultures, as experienced by kids who attend an international school, for example, or clubs that involve other kids who are away from “home”.
As they grow up TCKs often identify more with other kids who grew up overseas, wherever that was in the world, than with peers from their home or host countries.
One of the outcomes of growing up like this is TCKs get used to altering their behavior according to the culture they are in at the time. There may be one set of rules and traditions at home, for example, and a different set at school. They might have to behave differently again when they are in a host-country environment.
Learning how to adapt their behavior to suit different environments is one of the many life skills your kids will pick up living an expat life
“Do we involve the kids in the decision about whether or not to move?”
We live in the 21st Century, and many of us are used to involving our kids in family decisions. Some people feel very strongly that their kids should have a say in whether or not you move abroad in the first place, and that you should also consult them about future moves.
There is a lot of research on TCKs that shows the more kids are involved in decisions, the easier it is for them to cope with change. Research also shows that if kids feel they have some control they are more likely to see change as a positive experience. There are also less likely to suffer the negative effects of being a TCK such as finding it difficult to form lasting relationships.
There are no hard and fast rules. You know your kids best. Here are some things to think about:
- What happens if they really don’t want to go? Is not going an option?
- How mature are your children? Are they able to see the pros and cons of the move? Will they be able to see the bigger picture such as what it means for your career, for your family’s financial future, for their own development?
- Is it fair to include them in such a huge decision? Do they understand all the factors involved?
Even if you decide allowing your kids to have a say in the decision about whether you move or not is too much responsibility for them, it is essential you have a two-way discussion, listen to their concerns and involve them in other decisions about the move. Can they help you choose where to live, for example, or the sort of school they want to go to?
“When should we tell them?
So, you’re definitely moving, but the kids don’t know yet. When is the best time to talk to them?
There are no hard and fast rules about this either. It will depend on how old they are, what else they have going on in their lives and how they cope with change.
For younger children, think about waiting until you have three months to go before you talk to them. 3 months is a long time for a young child and they will have plenty of time to adjust and get involved in preparations for the move.
For tweens and teens, you’ll need to consider how to minimise disruption to their education as much as possible. It might be that they lose focus at school once they know they are leaving. They may be more able to understand your reasons, though, and see the potential benefits of the move.
How to talk to them about the move
As a parent you know you can’t just talk, you also have to listen. Anticipate their questions and arm yourself with information. Have a map or globe to hand so you can show them where their new home will be.
Make sure you’ve done some research and know some things that will excite them. If they have particular interests such as sport, or wildlife, make sure you show them some websites so they see they can pursue their interests in your new country.
Listen to their concerns and reassure them that they can help you decide where to live, where to go to school, what clubs they would like to join.
They are likely to want to know how they will be able to keep in touch with friends from home. Be careful about promising trips back too soon, but reassure them you will all come back for holidays, that friends will be able to come visit, and they will be able to use social media to keep in touch.
What to do if they react negatively?
Remember, their first reaction might not be positive, but give them time to process. Their reaction might be different once the initial shock is over, they’ve had time to get used to the idea and have more information.
It can be particularly difficult for a teenager as they naturally like to feel that they have control of their own lives. A big move might seem very daunting to them, especially if they haven’t moved before.
Try to listen and see this from their point of view. You might not be able to change your decision entirely, but you can involve them in decisions about their new life and give them reassurances.
It might be useful to have some books and websites about TCKs available so they can find out more about what they are getting into.
If you are moving with kids you are guaranteed to have thought through the pros and cons and made the decision knowing it will be a positive one for the whole family. Keep that thought in mind at all times. Don’t let guilt cloud your judgment.
If you are the parent of a teen, you’ll be well used to the emotional ups and downs. Ask yourself, if you weren’t arguing about this, might you be arguing about something else?
Choosing a school
When it comes to schooling, there are a few options. Most expats send their children to international school. But don’t forget, there are also local schools, boarding schools, and homeschooling. So if you can’t find a school you like, there are alternatives.
If they go to international school they will meet kids who are going through exactly what they are going through or at least will remember it well. The schools are likely to have excellent integration programmes too. Kids come and go all the time. They know how to help them to settle quickly.
Investigating the options for schooling in your new location should be a top priority as many schools have waiting lists.
As well as online research, try to connect with people who live there, as local information is invaluable. If you can, visit the schools before you make your decision. It’s much easier to get a feel for the school’s culture in person.
Helping TCKs settle in
Younger children and babies are, without doubt, the easiest to settle. Find out how geared up your new home is for young children by talking to contacts you might have in your new country or ask on expat forums. Remember, apart from access to decent healthcare and basic baby supplies, all your baby really needs is you.
Think about the time of year you are planning to move. Summer holidays tend to be very quiet as many people have extended holidays with friends and families back home. Being in an unfamiliar place with no friends and family for the long school holidays can be a challenge. If you have to do this, do some research. Find places to go that your kids will love, maybe find some camps they can attend. The key to settling in is staying positive and busy.
Bring familiar things from home, especially for their bedrooms. You might have to do some careful planning to make sure you can fit this in your suitcase, or at least air-freight. Familiar bed-linen and toys will go a long way to make their new place feel like home.
If your kids have a hard time settling at first give them (and yourself) permission to be sad and miss home sometimes.
Keep life as stable as you can. Stick to your family values. Keep communication channels open. Listen to your kids and let them vent. This is their way of dealing with the change. Focus on the present. What can you do at this moment to help them with this specific thing that is bothering them?
Making new friends
Encourage your kids to join clubs and pursue activities just like they did at home. Don’t worry if these activities are in a language your kids don’t understand. It’s truly amazing how adaptable kids are, especially when they are doing something they love. Try different activities until you find a good fit. You might be surprised how quickly they settle and get into a routine. In some ways, it’s a lot easier for them than it is for you.
If it takes a while though, try not to worry. Some children react to change by hanging back and observing for a while. Give them time to adjust. If they don’t make a new friend immediately, remember kids come and go all the time at international schools. Their new best friend might be on their way.
Staying in touch with friends and family at home
Your kids are, of course, likely to miss their friends and family at home. Likewise, grandparents might find it difficult to adjust to you being away, especially if they have been close to their grandchildren.
Technology helps. It’s fine to connect with people at home using What’s App, Skype and Facetime as long as you are attempting to meet people in your new home too.
If you have teenagers, it’s likely they will be keeping in touch with their friends from home using social media and online games. Again, don’t worry too much about this. It’s good for them to keep in touch with their friends from home, and it might make their adjustment easier. Just make sure they are also going out and meeting new people and giving themselves the opportunity to form new friendships.
A last word about preparing your kids for international living
Part of the difficulty of helping kids to cope with a big change like international relocation is what works for one child might not work for others, depending on so many factors including their age, history and how they cope with change.
If you have more than one child in your family, you’ll want to discuss the move with them at the same time, and you’ll want them to live in the same house and preferably go to the same school. You’ll have to find a way of working out what support each child needs and trying to provide that for them individually.
In the end, though, try not to doubt yourself. You made the decision to move for the best reasons. Your children might not see that yet, but they will. Family life is full of ups and downs wherever you live.
Stay positive. International living is packed full of awesome opportunities. You will find them!