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Moving with kids can be rough.
New schools, new friends, new homes — it’s a lot for a kid to take in. If you’re also moving overseas, these issues can be even tougher.
There are a lot of ways that we can help kids adjust to a move. But what works for one kid may not work for another, and what works for a child at age three definitely won’t work at age 13.
Whether you’re moving with kids across town or across the world, I hope some of these tips will ease the way.
Give Kids Space to Experience Their Feelings
The best advice I’ve received about moving with kids is to simply allow them the space process their emotions.
There’s a tendency we have as parents to focus on the positive, which is fine, but it can also backfire. Moving from any location is a huge transition, especially for a child who likely has no say in the move. It is absolutely natural for them to feel grief, anger, sadness, or fear.
When they express negative emotions about the move, avoid the tendency to brush off their feelings. This can inadvertently invalidate their concerns — concerns that are perfectly valid.
Think about how you would feel in the following scenario:
You come to your partner and say, “Honey, I am really sad tonight. I miss my family and friends back home, and I am so tired of not being able to speak the language. I don’t have any friends here, and I’m lonely.”
They respond by saying, “Oh, come on, our new country is great! You just need to put yourself out there more.”
Not super helpful, right?
Acknowledge, Validate, & Support
When moving with kids, focus on acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings. This encourages them to see you as a safe place to come to with big emotions.
Once the move has taken place, particularly if you’re moving overseas, there are likely fewer resources and trusted community friends. This makes it extra important that your kids see you as a safe landing spot for their sadness or anger.
Model How to Handle Frustration and Sadness
Modeling can go really far. By showing your children that you also have feelings of sadness, loneliness, or fear, you can demonstrate how to respond to big feelings appropriately. Moving with kids inherently involves big emotions — teach your kids how to manage them.
For example, you might say, “I was so nervous about moving here. I worried I wouldn’t make any friends, or that I’d get lost on the subway! It was really hard at first, right? But now we have so many friends, and I love that we get to explore new places every weekend.”
Helping Babies and Toddlers Adjust (Ages 0-2)
You’re in luck — it’s often easier to move with a baby or a toddler than it is with an older child.
Most kids in this age range won’t realize the magnitude of the move. But they will pick up on your own stress and anxiety, so it’s extra important to take care of your own needs right now.
I remember flying (by myself) with my 10-week-old newborn from Virginia to Bogota right after she was born. I was a nervous wreck. I had a diaper bag packed to bursting and I anxiously rehearsed every step of the move in my head ahead of time.
Turns out she slept the whole time. It was honestly the last peaceful flight I’ve taken since my kids were born.
You know what was more stressful? Arriving in Colombia to a house full of boxes, with no designated changing table or sleeping area. As a new mom who hadn’t been able to “nest” before baby’s arrival, it was really hard to develop a routine when I was also trying to unpack a house.
The best thing you can do to help babies and toddlers adjust to a move are to maintain routine and consistency.
Maintain consistency in their sleeping space with familiar bedding or their favorite night-light. If shipping allowance allows, bring their favorite rocker or bookshelf.
Continue healthy sleep habits — a dark room, a firm sleep surface with no extra bedding or pillows, a white noise machine, and an appropriate bedtime and nap schedule.
Think outside the box — perhaps you can introduce a kid-safe aromatherapy spray into their bedtime routine that you can continue to use throughout the move.
Help kids know that even if their environment changes, their family life stays the same. Continue using the same lullaby before bed or maintain the habit of going to the playground after lunchtime (even if it’s a new playground in a new city).
Don’t relax the rules
Don’t relax the rules just because of the move. Kids this age need to know that mom or dad are still in charge.
We parents have a tendency to start relaxing rules during times of stress. In actuality, this is exactly when our kids need a firm reminder that their parent will take care of them and keep them safe.
After we moved to Guatemala, I found myself giving my oldest tons of leeway with the little things. But we were dealing with scary and dangerous tantrums, and I needed help. After speaking with an expert from Hand in Hand Parenting, she showed me that my leniency was creating uncertainty for my three-year-old. With a new baby sister, a new country, a new preschool, and a new nanny, she had no idea who was in charge anymore. I needed to set more limits, even in areas that I thought were trivial. In other words, I actually needed to offer FEWER choices.
Maintain healthy habits
Continue feeding healthy foods. Of course, there will be days when it’s all you can do is keep from losing your mind — that’s okay. But over the course of a big move, continue with the same healthy eating habits you had before the move.
While moving with kids, go easy on the outside stimulation at first, and make sure you’re spending lots of special time with the kids to provide a sense of safety and stability.
Help babies and toddlers stay connected to loved ones through regular video chats, and by looking at family pictures together. Also consider having family members record themselves reading storybooks aloud, or consider one of these or these.
Take care of your own needs so that you have the mental energy to care for your kids.
Moving with babies and toddlers can sound overwhelming, but I promise that this is one of the easiest ages to transition a child to a new city.
Helping Young Kids Adjust (Ages 3-9)
Don’t underestimate the depth of grief and anger that young children can feel after a move. I’m amazed that after a year of living in Guatemala, my four-year-old still occasionally bursts out, “Mom, I really miss our house in Boston! Remember my fish? And do you remember Tommy at school?”
Make it a game
With this age group, it can help to make a game of the move. One of my Foreign Service friends told me about how she pretends that they are explorers going on an adventure each time they transition to a new country.
Another brilliant Foreign Service colleague described how she makes a treasure map for her kids before a move. The kids check off “landmarks” on the map, like going through airport security, when the plane lands, and when they arrive at their new home. In the backyard, she buries a small treasure for the kids to find after arrival.
“Practice” new experiences first
It can also help to do “dry runs” to new schools or childcare locations so kids can get a sense of the place in advance of the actual start date. Contact the school to see if you can hang out on the playground for a few hours or even meet the teachers before the rest of the kids arrive.
On a practical level, you can rehearse various stages of the move in advance. With the younger ones, practice packing a backpack for the plane with their favorite toys. Then, role-play going to the airport, going through security, taking off, getting your bags, and driving to your new home. This can make some of the actual travel less scary.
Help kids connect with new friends
For the first day of school, try sending your child in with something to share with the other kids. This might be a bag full of American candy, or even just a soccer ball to throw around during recess. This gives your kids something to talk about and provides an opening for meeting new friends.
Another great idea from a fellow Foreign Service mom is to help the kids find a penpal in advance of the move. This gives kids a chance to ask questions and build a connection to their new country before they arrive. Reach out to school guidance counselors, online expat groups, or your “CLO” (that’s Foreign Service lingo for “Community Liaison Officer”) to find a good fit.
Helping Tweens Adjust (Ages 10-12)
In some ways, these kids are still little and will find relief in some of the suggestions from the 3-9 age range, like turning the move into a big adventure and practicing a dry run before the first day of school.
But these kiddos also need to feel some control over the move. Researching and learning about their new country can remove some of the fear around the move and give them a sense of empowerment.
One of my genius Foreign Service colleagues recommends making a little booklet about the really cool aspects of their new country that they can share with friends at school.
If you’re a homeschooling family, consider turning it into a learning activity:
- Make a travel brochure advertising the cultural highlights of their new home
- Make a PowerPoint presentation about the history of the country
- Make a booklet with restaurants, shopping, and places to visit
- Create a “bucket list” for the new country
Tweens need to feel connected to other kids.
It’s also important to respect that moving abroad and leaving friends can be incredibly difficult for kids. Some kids will cling to their old friends. Others will pre-emptively cut off all contact or even avoid making friends in their new home because “we’re just going to move again anyway.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out to school guidance counselors or therapists if you see problematic behaviors that don’t resolve after a few months.
If your child is amenable, try to arrange some interest-specific activities, like scouts or a soccer team, that will help them make friends. I don’t recommend signing up for more than one or two activities until your entire family feels more settled. But a few well-chosen activities can provide structure and a source of new friends.
Helping Teens Adjust (Ages 13+)
For this age group, the key word is INDEPENDENCE.
Practically, this means that your teen needs to find ways to be independent in their new country. More so, they need to feel like they have a sense of control over the move.
Giving teens a sense of independence will also help them feel safe enough to take (reasonable) risks, instead of holing up at home. For example, if a teen is nervous about using foreign currency or they don’t understand the public transport system, then they’re unlikely to go shopping with new friends.
Teens want to fit in. Figure out how local teens navigate the social space, and help your teen find their own path through this maze.
Ideas to help teens gain independence after a move:
- Ask your teen to research restaurants, events, and shopping that they want to try, and then make it a priority to search these places out after arrival.
- Have your teen plan your first vacation or long weekend away, even if it’s to visit friends back home.
- Find ways for your teen to move safely around the neighborhood or even the city. Can they get a local driver’s license? A metro card?
- Install Uber on their phone so they can go to a friend’s house without an adult needing to drive them everywhere. (This obviously depends on your teen, your location, and your family.)
- Provide opportunities to learn the basics of the local language so they can at least order in a restaurant, give directions to an Uber driver, and go shopping by themselves.
Show Teens Your Vulnerable Side
For older kids, it’s okay to show your frustrations and uncertainty at times. Teens have such a strong need to look cool and to hide their vulnerabilities, and it can help to show your teens that even adults struggle sometimes. This makes it okay to not know what to do at times, and models how to figure things out.
So the next time you’re fumbling with the payment kiosk in the parking lot, which keeps barking at you in Spanish, narrate your problem-solving:
“Ack, it’s yelling at me. I hear you, you stupid machine! Insert ticket here…where? Not this slot, not this slot…okay, here we go. Okay, now enter payment. Um, how much money do I have in cash…shoot, it won’t accept bills over 100 quetzals. Does it take cards? Let’s find out…ugh, of course, my American credit card is being rejected. I’ll need to call the bank to unlock it. Again. Okay, we need to go find a shop that can make change. And maybe get ice cream.”
This may or may not have happened this very afternoon after I left the vet’s office with a howling cat. We made it home…eventually. 😉
Moving With Kids – Focus on the Big Picture
When things get tough (and I promise, they will), look back over your list of reasons for moving in the first place.
Remember what it is you want to get out of this experience — even if you’ve been forced to move because of family or work circumstances.
You might need to tweak a few things, but avoid changing too many things too quickly. Perhaps you need to adjust the extracurriculars to make more family time or add in some language tutoring. Maybe you need to help your teen find a local job. Don’t be afraid to get creative, but resist the urge to be reactionary.
Whatever you do, just keep communicating with your kids and allowing them to feel whatever it is they’re feeling about this transition. Don’t gloss over the hard stuff — it’s part of life, and our kids need to learn how to handle these issues.