Relocating Children Abroad: The Myths and the Truths

When thinking about relocations and expatriates’ mobile lifestyle, it has been common to acknowledge related challenges such as cultural shock, adjustment to a new environment, foreign language difficulties, and the slow process of socialization in the host country. Mostly, such discussions concern relocating adults, and when it comes to expatriates’ children, the common assumption is that children do not suffer as much from a transition, as they are ‘flexible’ to adjust, and ‘too young to understand’.

Reflecting on such widespread assumptions, a recent article by Anne Gillme in a relocation-related blog 2Vancouver lists the most prevalent myths that exist about relocating with children.

Children are ‘flexible’ to adjust 

As mentioned above, one key myth about relocating with children is the perception that children are very ‘flexible’ in terms of adjustment and acceptance of changes. Hence, we tend to think that:

  • Children don’t have problems learning other languages
  • Children make friends easily
  • Children will learn firsthand when they are in the new country

Naturally, there is some truth behind the assumptions that kids learn languages more efficiently, are quicker to establish social interactions (probably due to their lack of self-concerns, prejudice, and perceived social restrictions that are acquired with age), and adjust to new settings with less effort. However, these inherent benefits should not undermine the difficulties that children face when relocating.

As Gillme notes in her article, expat parents should not expect their kids to pick up languages without effort, considering the various possibilities of each child as well as the multitude of other changes that have to be faced at the same time.

Practical tip 1: Set realistic expectations and encourage children throughout the language learning process no matter how lengthy it turns out to be.

In relation to friendships and the new environment, parents should remember that exactly as they feel, children also experience several losses: of their friends, extended family, school, home and familiar environment. And like adults, children may have to grieve for their losses.

Practical tip 2: Maintain a dialogue with your children to enable them to regularly express thoughts and feelings.

Practical tip 3: As one of my previous blog entries on transition experiences notes, try to maintain some level of stability through this period of change with the help of sacred objects (e.g. a treasured book, a toy for a child, or a piece of clothing one wears). Moreover, as the expat and specialist in bilingualism Eowyn Crisfield suggests in her blog, for children it is important to bring a part of their old self into the new location. She is speaking about maintaining some cultural aspects or traditions from the place called ‘home’.

Practical tip 4: ‘Learning by mistakes’ should not be the motto for adjustment in the new country. Use cross-cultural training to prepare your kids for some differences, so that they could feel more confident when facing these differences and would avoid embarrassing situations.

Children are too young to understand

A second myth is that there is no need to talk to little children – they are too young to understand.

As Ellen Van Bochaute, consultant in expatriate management and a partner in YEO Management, states in her informative paper entitled ‘What Expatriate Children Never Tell Their Parents’, most expatriate parents have the wrong approach when communicating to their children about moving abroad and the impact that it will have on their lifestyle. Often, with the best of intentions, it feels better not to share ‘all the truth’, especially if the truth might be discomforting. Van Bochaute argues that children experience unique impacts of relocation, due to their role of ‘followers’, because they follow their family members abroad even if they did not choose to go, and they usually have very little saying on the matter. Contrary to the assumption of classical models of culture shock (e.g. Oberg, 1960) that everybody goes through the same stages of adjustment, there appear to be differences between adults and children. As an adult who has chosen to expatriate, you enter the new country in the ‘adventure’ stage, which is characterized by your excitement about the new job, the new place and other positive anticipations that made you accept the offer. As a child, however, you lack all this positive anticipation and excitement, as you have not chosen the transition and, usually, get to know about it ‘out of the blue’. Therefore, children are shocked by the change and are fighting against it. As Van Bochaute puts it, the disconnection between children and their parents emerges because parents look forward and children look backwards. Hence, a few suggestions to help your children cope with the change involve:

Practical tip 5: Involve children as soon as possible in the decision-making process: explain the reasons of relocation, your arguments, and let them explain their opinions and get answers to all their concerns.

Practical tip 6: Make the life abroad exciting: create positive anticipations about the new place, new possibilities and exciting things to look forward to.

Relocation of children is not good for them

Finally, coming back to the myths listed in the 2Vancouver blog, in contrast to several myths that make the relocation of children seem easy and desirable, Anne Gillme notes one that assumes a negative view. Specifically, it is often assumed that by moving your kids around, they will end up unstable, maladapted, and with bad results at school.

Of course, the way in which relocation is managed will influence whether children have a generally positive or negative experience. However, arguing that living abroad is inherently bad is wrong. For example, the population of Third Culture Kids (TCKs), children who are brought up in a different country from their parent’s country(ies) of origin, is argued to have several benefits related to adjustment, cultural intelligence, communication skills and adaptability compared to monocultural kids. In a related vein, my previous blog posts discussed several advantages of people with multicultural backgrounds in organizations and showed evidence for the assumption that living abroad makes you more creative.


Further Reading

Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7: 177-82.

2 thoughts on “Relocating Children Abroad: The Myths and the Truths

  1. Children love to explore new places but I think relocating them is not easy. They love their school and friends they don’t to change them. In fact moving from one place to another will disturb them mentally and I am agree with that children will end up unstable or with bad result in school.

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