Happy expat children. An insider's guide
Research suggests that happy children can make or break an overseas move. So, how do you get it right?
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“There is so much to learn when settling down in a new place. You see people and things from many different angles – which, in our globalized world of today, is of unlimited value”
It started as a long-shot. Talk of a new job, maybe not at home. And then the momentum built and, before you know it, you’ve chosen somewhere to live, you know where the kids are going to school, you’ve packed and you’re done. Right? As if. Because, as all expat families know, settling in your new home is a whole new task. Indeed, research conducted by HSBC has found that how well your children settle can make or break an overseas move. So, just how do you raise happy expat kids? We asked you for your tips – and to join the conversation, email email@example.com or share your story on social media.
“Research shows that if the primary carer in a family is happy and positive about the move, the children will usually display similar emotions,” says Dr Megan Adams, senior lecturer in education at Monash University. “Of course, you’ll all have ups and downs. But if you also listen intently and empathise with your child, it helps the child express their emotions. The next step is to share strategies around what children can do if they are feeling unhappy and missing family and friends.”
Much of the literature around transitions focuses on negative effects on children when they’re not given the right support, Megan points out. “But the flip side – and something that’s not often reported – is how successful transitions play out and what this actually looks like. A main focus of my research is developing frameworks and processes that schools and families can have in place to better support and learn from each type of transition.”
Ana Carolina Haracemiv Moreira found that focusing on the positives was a big help when her family moved, first from Brazil to the US, then back to Brazil, then to Switzerland, when she took up a new position for Dow Chemical. “As a family we spoke a lot about the advantages and benefits of living in other countries. There is so much to learn when settling down in a new place and getting to know the culture and habits. You see people and things from many different angles – which, in our globalized world of today, is of unlimited value,” she says.
Her son, Pedro (Grade 11), appreciated his parents’ honesty during that first move to the US. “They told us that the move wouldn’t be easy but they did their best to create a nice environment,” he says. “They were honest and said that the local people knew that we are not from the US and didn’t speak English. Therefore, we understood that my brother and I were going to have challenges at school, in subjects like English and history.”
TRANSITION TAKES TIME
How we respond to big upheavals changes over time, points out Upper School counsellor Katie Richardson. In the honeymoon period, we’re carried through by the excitement of the new and different. But then comes the negotiation phase, where we have to get used to our new reality. “This is where it gets a little bit tricky,” says Katie. “November is usually the month where a lot of new kids coming in find it hard. They’re missing home. They’re missing their friends. The days are short and dark! This is when you really have to check in with them.”
But after this comes adjustment and the ‘mastery’ phase, when, says Katie, you make real friends and become fully integrated. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight, she advises. “It often takes a whole year to really feel that way, even for adults. It’s normal. It’s OK to be halfway through a year and still feel like you’re floating around.”
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“It often takes a whole year to really feel integrated. It’s normal. And it’s OK to be halfway through a year and still feel like you’re floating around”
INVOLVE YOUR CHILDREN IN THE DETAILS
It’s easy to get caught up in the practical details of a move, but don’t allow your child’s thoughts and feelings to get lost among the boxes, and try to get a regular pattern of life established as soon as possible. “Try and get into a routine, even if you’re living in a hotel,” advises Megan. “Going to school, for example, might be the first routine your child has. The child then knows what will be happening there tomorrow, and next week. Have a certain time every day when the child knows that you’ll be there, just for them. And once you’ve moved into more permanent accommodation, prioritise setting up the child’s bedroom so they have their own space to go.”
And make sure you involve them in as many decisions as you can. When Ana and her family made their first move, to Michigan, USA, she and her husband chose to look at schools and houses without their children Felipe (Grade 6) and Pedro, who were then five and ten. But when they went house and school hunting in Zurich, they decided to bring the children, now ten and 15. “Our kids became part of the process,” she says. “This was especially important with the choice of the school: meeting their new teachers, seeing and feeling the environment, and interacting with some of the pupils supported the decision-making process. When we arrived here, the surroundings were already familiar to them – that helped a lot.”
MAKE THE MOST OF THE NEW SCHOOL
Developing a good relationship with a child’s new teacher and the school community is key to a successful transition, says Megan, and a good school will get those partnerships off the ground even before the child has arrived.
At ZIS, the Student Ambassador programme starts recruiting in May for students who are happy to be buddies with new arrivals. They don’t have to be best friends forever, Katie points out, but they’re always there on the first day to greet their buddy, to introduce them to groups with similar interests and to help them find their way around. As the semester goes on, they check in regularly with each other, too. Ambassadors are encouraged to email their buddy before school starts, giving them a great opportunity to ask questions that adults might not have considered, or even meet up beforehand.
There’s also a network of parents ready to welcome newcomers and help make connections quickly. Belgian Chloé Claes, a former Parents’ Association Vice-President (Welcome and Community), jointly responsible for welcoming new parents and their families to school, says if the parents are connected, the children will be too. “It was so nice for me to meet somebody from my own country, who spoke my language, who welcomed me and generally made me feel more comfortable and more at home. I can’t recommend it enough – we are like one big family here.”
The school also runs parent sessions to share any worries or difficulties. “We ask you to reflect on how well different family members are adapting to the change,” says Katie. “That helps make it clear that everyone will transition at a different pace and their transition will be a different journey.”
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KEEP FRIENDSHIPS ALIVE
What should you do about old friendships – encourage your child to keep them up, or try to get them into new relationships? Ana has found that a hands-off, relaxed approach has proved the right choice for her family.
“They use technology to connect with their friends from Brazil, but there is a four-hour time difference so they don’t talk much during the week,” she says. “They use various social media platforms to connect with friends back home. They also enjoy computer games, which is yet another way to connect. I give my kids the freedom and space in making those choices. I believe it’s best when the process is very natural – in fact, one of Pedro’s friends came to Switzerland for skiing and they met for dinner. So, they’re keeping the ties with friends from Brazil and at the same time making new friends here as well.”
SEE THINGS THROUGH YOUR CHILDREN’S EYES
It’s important to understand that different children will handle the experience in different ways – one child might love change, excitement and making new friends, while another might be worried and resistant. Think about what’s important to them, Megan advises, and consider how they see this new environment and the opportunities it presents.
Language was the biggest issue for Chloé’s two children, Thibault, Class of 2014 (2007-14) and Bernard Van Acker, Class of 2019, (2007-14 and 2016-19). When the family first moved to Zurich in 2007, the boys spoke only Flemish, although their eldest had taken some English courses that summer. “I would really recommend some language lessons before they come – just a little bit, so they can communicate on a basic level. And from their perspective, it’s not the country’s language that is so important in the beginning, but the language they speak at school. It’s important to think about what will help them settle the quickest.”
Ana agrees that talking is the best way to know what’s going on in your child’s head. “Sometimes, they just want to talk. When we pick them up from school, they like to talk about what’s going on and, as a parent, you have to make time and pay attention to them. You have to know, and feel, what’s working and what isn’t working so well.”
“Stay close to your kids,” adds Pedro. “Make it very clear to them that you believe in them and that they should keep going and never give up. My parents reassured me, told me to stay focused, keep calm and stay motivated. The advice and support they gave me made me feel comfortable.”