Moving Your Family Abroad

Any Relocation is Difficult, but Global Relocations with Your Family can Present a World’s Worth of Challenges

Global KidsRelocating overseas can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that pulls your family together at the same time it expands everyone’s horizons. But expatriate life also presents difficulties that can strain on both parents and children, especially those who don’t know what to expect when adjusting to living overseas. Of course, when you and your family know what’s coming, the adjustment is much easier.

The “Family Bubble”

Whether your family is relocating to Mexico for a month or Denmark for a decade, you’re likely to run into the “Family Bubble” phenomenon soon after you arrive. When you relocate overseas, you leave behind the entire support network that helps you manage your family’s needs on a day to day basis. There are no in-laws, family friends or old neighbors to watch the kids while you run to the store and the nearest aunt, uncle or grandparent is probably thousands of miles away. Without them, nuclear family members have to look to one another to do all the things – practical, social and emotional – that your extended family used to. This, combined with the culture and language barriers that are likely to keep both kids and adults cut off from the local community, pulls families closer. That’s the upside. The downside is that, even if a family comes together flawlessly to adjust to their new surroundings, the adjustment that comes with living overseas can put a lot of stress on you and your children.

There are ways to pop the family bubble, though, and relieve the pressure. You won’t be the only expatriate family in the area, and while they can’t replace you old network, expatriate communities tend to be very close knit and supportive. Connecting to other expatriates in your area isn’t that hard. Check the bulletin boards at your new gym or church for activity postings. You can even begin searching out support online, at expatriate message boards and in expat chat rooms, before moving overseas.

According to Robin Pascoe, author of several books on global relocation and the force behind , your kids will do their part to branch out from the nuclear family as well. “Children are great at bringing home new people, with parents,” who you can begin to build a community around.

Who Am I?

Children are notoriously sensitive to the changes that come with moving. Even small adjustments to their routine can confuse and frighten kids. When they find themselves between their old habits and new places and customs, suddenly they feel like they can’t answer two very basic questions: who am I? And where is home?

The younger your child, the less of the problem these questions are. Until about age 12, kids’ lives revolve around their parents. So as long as you and your spouse don’t change, their adjustment to living overseas will be relatively smooth. But older children are more vulnerable; surrounded by unfamiliar languages and sites, they can be become confused about how they’re supposed to act, what others expect of them and where they fit in. Most kids won’t be able to articulate these anxiety producing issues, leaving parents to grapple with their depressive behavior and reluctance to engage with their new surroundings.

Maintaining some of the routines you had before moving, as well as talking to your child about their feelings can both make a world of difference. Little things – like setting the table the same way you did before you moved, packing the same lunches or keeping the same furniture and decorations – can help to reassure your son or daughter that as much as things are changing, they’re staying the same.

When kids question where home is, explain that home is both a physical and an emotional place: home is wherever mommy and daddy and the family’s things are, but it’s also wherever they feel safe, loved and free to be themselves. As for identity, kids can understand the truth: that they’re American (or Canadian, or Australian as the case may be) but because of Mom or Dad’s job, they’re living in another country right now.

The Other Parent

Traditionally, global relocations occur overseas because of one parent or the other’s job. And while it’s a great professional opportunity for the spouse whose been assigned, moving overseas likely means that the other spouse (known in expatriate circles as a “trailing spouse”, or “accompanying partner”) has to give up their career and improvise a new role for themselves in an entirely new country.

This adjustment to living overseas can be particularly daunting for expatriates who are already struggling to navigate through their new environment. The spouse who keeps working is likely to be surrounded by colleagues who speak the same language and immersed in a work environment that’s similar to what they were used to back home. The trailing spouse is left with fewer resources and more responsibilities when it comes to the nuts and bolts of everyday living: getting the kids to school, cooking and shopping.

Adjusting to a new professional reality overseas can be just as scary for adults as adjusting to a new home environment can be for children, all the more so since it’s likely that the local language will make it impossible to re-establish old career paths in new countries. Experts recommend that expats in this situation investigate the opportunities that are still open to them: multinational corporations operating locally may prize the experience of a professional from home, as can international non-profit organizations and local entities. Moving overseas can also afford unique entrepreneurial and freelance opportunities.

That itch to get back to work, though, should be balanced against your kids needs. Diving in too fast can have a negative impact on children who are still adjusting to the move warns Pascoe. “It’s fine to work,” she says. “But give the kids six months to settle in…My message is: when you have uprooted a child to a new country, don’t disappear on them. [At least] one parent should be available, emotionally and physically.”