Moving abroad to a new culture and leaving behind all that is familiar can be quite stressful, especially for children. When I asked my son Miguel for tips on how to make our upcoming trans-Atlantic move easier, his answer was simple and common sense:
“Just find me a good place to have fun, and I’ll go!”
He was right–this should be an adventure! Giving children information about their future home soothes the often intense process of moving to a new culture. That brings us to the point of this article: how do we emotionally prepare our little ones to move abroad?
Parents need to prepare themselves for this added layer of responsibility from the very first day of making the decision to move. For us, a family of five, getting emotionally ready to move from the United States to Germany required us to “work” on three different aspects of our lives: our parent to parent relationship, our connection with our children, and our children’s social core. These are the pillars of our children’s development. With a solid foundation, they will be strong enough to endure the stresses of transition.
Where do we start? Parents and guardians must form a united front to support their children before, during, and after the migration process. Take a closer look at your own relationships with your partner and child, and start working on the following to make your transition abroad as smooth as possible:
Parent to Parent Relationship: Before and After Moving Abroad
Parents thinking about a cross-cultural move need to make sure their relationship is based on commitment, respect, communication, and support for one another. They must be willing to nurture and strengthen these bonds even when the process of moving may cause stress and upheaval.
From our own experience, we learned that supporting our children was a top priority but second to the attention our own relationship required. A strong bond between us provided unity for us and our kids.
Before departure, we concentrated on:
1. Communication. We discussed every detail and emotion related to the big move together. We aimed to be as honest as possible to keep emotions in check and avoid misunderstandings. We scheduled fifteen minutes after dinner every day to talk about our new adventure, weighing all the pros and cons. We laughed, cried, prayed and freaked out, but the important part was that we were in this together.
2. Renewing our vows. Please, don’t picture a big party, nice gown and many guests. We simply sat down one evening to remember the many reasons why we were still married and how these would help us achieve our common goal.
3. Agreeing to final details associated with work, house chores, expenses, health benefits, schools for our children, continuing education for both of us, language learning, and traveling. We had to agree to all the relevant things that might affect our family patterns and relationship.
4. Creating a plan that would allow us to have time together as a couple after moving abroad. We needed to be prepared to handle stressful situations while at the same time keeping our relationship passionate.
David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (2009) state that “A new cultural environment can change a couple’s traditional ways of nurturing their relationship” (p. 172). For us, long gone were our weekly dinner dates enjoying one another, eating at expensive restaurants in downtown, while the kids stayed at grandma’s house for the night. In Germany, we traded those fancy dinners for “movie-and-sofa” nights, cuddling on the couch watching our favorite series and having a glass (or two) of good-priced French wine.
Family Time: Building Communication Bridges
“Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don’t see what goes on underground – as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don’t see the roots. We just see and enjoy the beauty. In much the same way, what goes on inside of us is like the roots of a tree.” Joyce Meyer
Building that connection with our kids starts by getting to know their feelings, their opinions about different matters and by listening to what they have to say. It is possible to help them grow physically and emotionally healthy even while moving abroad and being an active family. We needed to develop a bridge of communication to connect our family and grow hefty routes.
For us, scheduling time to spend with the children was always a priority. Here is an outline of what we routinely do to promote communication and understanding at home:
1. Ask meaningful questions. I have discovered so many exciting things about my kids and their school days by asking specific questions, such as “What was the best part of your recess?” Or “What things made you feel less happy during the day?” Kids love to give details about their day; we just need to find the right way to get that information without sounding like a police officer. Be relaxed about it. Give your child time to process questions and find the right answers. In the beginning, the questions felt forced, but after two or three weeks the questions came to my mouth freely and readily during lunch or dinner time.
2. Make your little one feel special. Schedule time for outings and family game nights. To get to know, protect and value your child, you and your spouse need to be present in his life. I recognize that with a big move come many logistical challenges, new job rules, and tasks that will require a bigger deal of our attention than before. But if your children remain at the top of your priorities list–give time to their sports activities, have dinner with them, play board games, and explore nature holding their hands–they will feel valued and loved unconditionally. Remember that in the end, for many cross-cultural children, home is where their loved ones are. It isn’t a city or country; it is family.
3. Value their opinion. Ask for their viewpoint and include them in the decision-making process. We drafted a list of points to discuss with our kids to let them know the details of the impending move. We didn’t hide things but we did give them age-appropriate information. Clear, consistent, truthful facts. Don’t underestimate your children, they have the right to process the changes ahead.
4. Gather fun facts about the place you guys are moving to. Any relevant information to your child’s interests would be greatly appreciated. Does your boy love football? Find a couple of football clubs in the host community and tell him about it. Does your girl love canvas painting? Same thing! For us it was like a sales pitch. Our move would be successful only if our children were content in their new “home.” For that, we needed to help them fall in love with all the good things the new place had to offer. Remember to be honest and include disclosure of “different” or “unpleasant” things that are part of the host culture.
Using books and cultural websites and blogs is an effective way to expose children to diversity and explore the concept of immigration. Need more info? Take a look at https://multiculturalkidblogs.com/2015/09/18/hispanic-heritage-learning-immigration-books/
Our Children’s Social Core
Humans are social beings, and children are no different. Moving abroad implies a change of school, friends, distance from relatives and loved ones. The pain caused by these facts isn’t avoidable. However, it is a pain, that in my humble opinion, when handled the right way doesn’t last forever.
After many years of studying the behavior of globally mobile people and being the mother of three cross-cultural children, I came to realize that closure plays a decisive role in the migration-expatriation process. We need to give our kids the opportunity to say goodbye to the important people, places, tastes, and things of their life. They need to feel the sorrow of saying “adiós” and find a way to integrate into their new culture.
What can we do as parents to promote a healthy closure?
Encourage your child to express their love and gratitude to those who are an important part of his/her life. Relatives, teachers, sports trainers, and classmates have shaped your child’s life for the last several years. A homemade card, letter, or maybe a date out can enable kids to say goodbye to relatives and friends and exchange contact information to keep in touch after the big move. Not enough time to run to the craft store or to visit every single member of the baseball team? Maybe a farewell celebration could be the solution. It doesn’t have to be over the top.
Remember the main goal is to gather with friends and family to recall memories together, share with them some fun and interesting facts about your new “home” and cherish the times to come. Afterward, chatting with your little ones about the different ways of having a friendship could be a useful tool to remind them that the love and appreciation from friends will remain the same even though the dynamics of contact will be different because of the distance.
Another critical issue is consistency. Since moving abroad is a huge change, we need to make sure there are certain parts of our family routine that stay the same. Children benefit from stability, so planning to keep the same activities such as bedtime stories, Saturday morning pancakes, “Pizza Fridays,” and other dates enjoyed as a family, will guarantee that little ones have a strong net to support them when feeling lonely, lost, or stressed about the change.
In the end, the foundation of this process is love, understanding, and hope. As parents or guardians, we have the responsibility to guide our children through these times while nurturing a strong inner core that will help them “survive” the big move. Let’s not forget that once we start this journey, our children will belong everywhere and nowhere. It has been an amazing learning experience for us and I am sure that it will be great for you too. Safe travels!