Moving to another country is an exciting and life-changing experience for both adults and children. However, it can also be challenging and stressful, particularly for expat children who leave behind everything they know and love.
Social adjustment is a critical aspect of the expat experience and parents should take proactive steps to help their children acclimatise to their new surroundings. I see this daily in my work as the director of an online school that teaches Dutch to expat children. However, I also have experience in this regard as an expat myself and mother of two children who have lived in multiple places around the world.
Here are seven tips for parents to help their children with the social adjustment process.
1. Encourage open communicationOne of the most important things parents can do to help their children adjust is to keep the lines of communication open. Being open and honest about the challenges of moving to a new country is essential so your children feel prepared and less anxious.
You can prepare them by talking about the new host country, such as sharing attractive things about the country. You can also talk about the move in general, telling your children how the move will look agenda-wise, what kind of neighbourhood you will live in, and so on.
For example, our online school once prepared a presentation about the new country tailor-made for the children’s particular interests, which included things like sports.
Please encourage your children to share their feelings and experiences with you and ensure they know you are there to listen to and support them.
2. Find opportunities to socialiseOne of the most significant challenges for expat children is making new friends. Parents should actively seek opportunities for their children to socialise with other kids, such as joining a local sports team, attending language classes, or participating in after-school clubs. These activities help children make friends and provide a sense of structure and routine, which can help ease the transition.
If you have the opportunity to visit the school or various sports clubs in the host country, you can ask for contacts so your children can connect with peers before the move. When we moved from the Netherlands to Curaçao, my husband presented our daughter’s Instagram to her class before she joined the school. It was heart-warming how many girls reached out to her.
3. Embrace cultural differencesIt has been proven that the more positive the parents’ attitude towards the host country and language, the more likely it is that the children are open to the new culture and language.
Every country has its unique culture, customs, and traditions, and teaching your children to embrace and appreciate these differences is essential. Please encourage them to learn about the local culture, try new foods, and participate in local celebrations and festivals.
By doing so, they will not only gain a deeper understanding of the country they’re living in but also feel more connected to their new surroundings.
4. Be patientAdjusting to a new country takes time, and parents need to be patient and understanding during this process. Don’t expect your children to feel completely at home right away, and know that they may experience a range of emotions as they adjust to their new life. It’s also important to remember that every child is different, and some may take longer to adapt.
In the well-known expat adjustment cycle, it takes approximately one year to get to know your new host country and adjust to its culture and customs. It takes two years to really feel you are living in your host country.
5. Provide a sense of familiarityEven though your children are in a new country, providing a sense of familiarity and continuity is essential. This can be as simple as maintaining family routines, such as regular mealtimes or weekly movie nights. Parents can also bring items from home, like favourite toys or books, to help their children feel more comfortable in their new surroundings.
6. Meet up with other expatsMeeting up with families in the same situation has been constructive in our expat life for both the parents and the children. You have all been through the same experience and can easily relate to one another. In most countries, there are expat societies or special groups where you can meet people from different backgrounds or in some cases even from your home country.
An extra tip is to discover similar experiences through reading. For example, both of my children have the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, which talks about the challenges and struggles of living outside of your passport country.
7. Seek professional support, if necessaryIn some cases, expat children may experience significant difficulties adjusting to their new life. In these instances, you can seek professional support from a therapist or counsellor who can provide specialised support to help children cope with their emotions and adjust to their new environment. I would recommend always choosing a therapist or counsellor specialising in expat or multicultural children.
Plan ahead and be patientIn conclusion, social adjustment is an essential aspect of the expat experience for children and parents can take proactive steps to help their children acclimate to their new surroundings. I believe that a family that is excited, well-prepared and open with their children throughout the moving process can live in harmony in many countries.
That being said, as an experienced expat, I also know it’s not all sunshine and roses and that it is important to take steps to ensure that your child can feel at home in their new environment.