When relocating with children, what may seem unimportant or trivial to an adult may be of profound importance to a kid. What do kids miss most? Friends and family, pets, a girlfriend or boyfriend, favorite TV shows, favorite hangouts, teachers (believe it or not), sports teams, activities such as extracurricular activities, play dates, concerts, shopping, clothing trends, toys, books, games, etc.
Overall, what expat kids (also known as MKs or missionary kids, military brats, diplomat kids, TCKs or third culture kids, and CCKs or cross culture kids) miss most is: feeling a sense of belonging and feeling a sense of identity. Ask any expat kid “Where are you from?” and watch them go blank. You may be surprised to see this includes your own children.
As adult expats you may have grown up in a stable, rooted environment with few moves until you entered your professional or university life. You know where you are from. You have no doubts about what country you call your “homeland” or where you will return to after your trip. You identify clearly (unless you were also an expat kid) with a nation, a family bond, a mother language, and you have roots. But do your kids? Have you just assumed that your kids consider your place of birth (quite possibly also theirs) their homeland? You might be surprised to find that they don't!
As adults we may not place as much value on these things but for kids this is their entire social environ and their sole occupation. We may think TV, games, sports, shopping can all be easily taken up elsewhere, but we fail to realize how great a part they play in their lives. They live to play and go to school (teens may have jobs). Socializing is a large part of all of these activities. We may think clothing, toys, books or games can be easily replaced, but the emotional attachment our kids have to them may be far greater than we calculated.
Prepare your kids for transition by involving them in aspects of your move:
The choice your kids won't have a voice in
1. Discuss WHY you are moving, why you considered this the best choice for your family at this time. Remember what I said at the beginning of this article? "Unlike our kids, we’re moving by choice (this is one of the most important points I want you to keep in mind as you continue)." Be clear THE DECISION TO MOVE is yours alone to make as parents and providers and a time will come when they will be able to decide for themselves where they choose to live. Kids need to understand their parents make decisions based on what they truly believe is best for the family. They also need to be clear that as you are responsible for your family you therefore have the authority to decide this for all involved.
You’d be surprised to find that many kids, even if they demonstrate anger at your decision, will ultimately find comfort in your decisiveness. A parent that shows they are secure in their decision actually can impart a sense of safety and security to the child, although the child may not actually be able to identify this as one of the things that helped them to feel more secure at the time. (Most of us don't realize this. We just detest you for a while. Expat kids who are reading this will probably not agree. Most of us realize this when we're older.)
If at all possible, can you share a comparable point in your life so your kids can see you do understand how they might be feeling? Even if you didn’t move a lot when you were young share about a time when your parents made a decision you didn’t agree with (or didn’t understand, or caused you sadness, or made your feel insecure) and then tell them how you ultimately came to accept the situation, manage or deal with it, use it to your advantage, or turn it into a positive, etc.
Example: I moved my child back to Bolivia when he was four years old. He had a hard time adjusting to his new kindergarden. One day I told him “You know I was exactly your age when my family moved to Ecuador. I was the new kid at school. I didn’t speak Spanish or understand anyone. I was the only blonde kid. The other kids didn’t know English so even if they wanted to play with me they didn’t invite me to. I felt very lonely and afraid and shy and I spent most of the day by myself. Isn’t that what you are feeling?” Eyes big as saucers: “Yes mommy! Eeezackly!” “Well, you know because I have been in the same situation and I understand how you are feeling, would you let me know when you feel this way so we can talk about it?”
The relief in my child’s face was plainly visible. From that day forward we made it a ritual to talk every day after school as we walked home (and I chose to walk rather than pick him up by car because this gave us this time). His thoughts and fears flowed like a river. We discussed and shared and he opened up completely. He was so relieved to know I actually understood him. The change was apparent almost immediately. Within two weeks he was making friends, actively trying to learn the language, and participating in classroom activities with a sense of pride.
You may not have gone through the exact same experience as your child, but if you think back, there are sure to be times when you resisted a decision your parents made only to find things went well. Share this. Your biggest success in smoothing out this transition is in ensuring your children trust you. If they trust you make decisions you feel will be good for them, much of the fear and apprehension (and resistance) will dissipate.
So can you guarantee things will go well? No. But you can make an attempt and all most kids need is to see their parents are making an effort for them. One thing you can do is give them some choices: