How to help your child adjust to life abroad

Moving abroad can be a big adjustment for anyone - and it's even harder when the move wasn't your choice. So how do you help your children settle in when your family makes the move?

How to help your child adjust to life abroad
Photo: Pixabay

Frequently we think of children as easily adaptable – and in many ways, it's true.

But, as any parent who has experienced it knows, moving is hard on them. Starting at a new school, making new friends, adjusting to a new town, perhaps learning a new language…it's a lot for a kid to handle!

So how can you make the transition as smooth as possible for your children? The Local joined forces with Tinitell, a Swedish company which makes mobile phones for kids, to ask expat parents for their best tips. (Use code THELOCALKIDS for 20% off on Tinitell, too!)

1. Set up playdates, but don’t force it

Photo: Pixabay

Having to make new friends can be one of the most stressful challenges for kids when moving abroad, and it can be particularly tough in a country where they might not even speak the language. Rather than assuming your child will make friends at school, you can step in and actively plan events.

“Having playdates and parties where your child meets and spends time with classmates helps them find friends that will last,” says Julie, an American mum living in Paris.

But at the same time, remember that you can’t choose friends for your child.

“We learned that we cannot pick their friends and we should not push those connections,” says Justin, an Australian father of two. “Looking back we realize that their current friendships came naturally and it was their effort and their decision. No matter how much you want to make things easy for them, don’t try do it for them.”

2. Keep close contact with your child

Dawid's two sons wearing Tinitell phones. Photo: Tinitell

Letting kids explore their new surroundings on their own is important, but so is maintaining close communication.

Dawid moved with his three children from Poland to Shanghai to Hong Kong and then to Sweden all in the space of five years – and always being there as a parent was key to making it work.

“We make sure they have the freedom to discover the new environment, but we also keep in close contact during the day,” he explains.

But after his two boys – ages 8 and 10 – managed to break several phones, Dawid found a different solution for maintaining “constant communications” with his sons.

“We discovered Tinitell through some friends. It’s a mobile watch-phone with no screen, and it’s easy enough for even our five-year-old daughter to use,” he says. “The boys really have fun playing with it as a walkie-talkie, too.”

Photo: Tinitell

Tinitell is worn on a child's wrist and also features a GPS locator managed by an app on the parent's smartphone.

“We are always within reach when they need us and we can always make sure they are safe and happy,” Dawid concludes.

Find out more about Tinitell – use code THELOCALKIDS for 20% off

3. Make it their home, not just yours

Photo: Pixabay

Kids get very attached to their living place, routines, and the things they know. Feeling safe and at home is of utmost importance to their healthy development, and home should be a sanctuary.

“Moving with a four-year-old, we knew we needed the right setting to build security,” says Ela, a mother from Bucharest. “We tried to make our son feel excited about his new room, and have a mix of new things and things he was attached to.”

Ela recommends involving your children fully in the decorating process, so they can feel it’s really theirs, based on their own preferences.

“We’ve also kept elements from the past that can give him comfort and continuity, like his favourite toys, pictures on the wall, his bedsheets and the nightlight,” she says. “These things all make it so he feels safe at home, especially during the night.”

4. Prioritize your child’s interests

Photo: Pixabay

Similarly, involve your child in the moving process and settling in as much as possible.

Nina, who recently moved with her family to Guatemala, has learned that you can excite your child even before the move by researching together.

“If your child likes animals, you can research what animals you can find in the new country,” she says.

 “Let kids have their say in how they want to live, too, if possible, and prioritize finding their interests in the new country, like finding a new football club right away.”

5. Celebrate traditions from home

Photo: Pixabay

While you should definitely try to help your child integrate in their new country, there’s no reason not to include some fun from back home.

”Start your home country’s traditions in your new neighbourhood,” says Cindy, an American living in Sweden. “For example, we started a trick-or-treating event in our neighbourhood in Sweden ten years ago. The first year there were just 20 kids, and now there are 300 involved.”

She adds that it’s also a great way to meet the neighbours – it takes a village, after all!

6. …but don’t go home right away

Photo: Pixabay

While it’s helpful to incorporate toys and traditions from home, to make the transition to life abroad easy, it’s actually best to avoid going back ‘home’ too soon.

“It’s easier to totally adjust than partially,” says Sylvie, a Dutch mum. “I don’t recommend going back home for the first half-year to a year.”

If your child moves and then two months later gets to go back and see old friends, chances are it will be even harder to settle in abroad. Ideally you should make sure your child has a stable foundation in your new country, with interests and at least a couple of friends, before you visit your old home.

7. If you’re adapted, they’re adapted

Photo: Pixabay

Finally, remember that children’s well-being is largely a reflection of their parents.

“With kids, it’s not about what you preach but how you act,” says Sean, father of two. “If you’re in a good place, they are there with you.”

This was his family’s approach when they moved from Sri Lanka to Sweden.

“We made the effort to understand the culture, learn the language, interact with locals, and get as close as possible to the Swedish way of doing things,” he explains. “It’s easier when parents make the effort to integrate themselves into the community. The more I try, the more my kids try, and it’s like we cheer and help each other.”

What are your own tips for helping children adjust to life abroad? 
Get in touch and let us know!

Want to give your child a Tinitell? Learn more here

Use code THELOCALKIDS for 20% off on your purchase!

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by Tinitell.

Tinitell was created by a young team of Scandinavian designers and engineers, and it's designed specifically for kids from preschool to preteen ages. It comes in a variety of colours and is available both in Europe and the US – click here for more information.






‘It’s a grieving process’: The difficulties of moving home from Europe

The pandemic and travel restrictions have caused many people to question their residency abroad. But the decision whether to stay or go, as well as the process of returning home is not an easy one, as Emma Firth explains.

'It's a grieving process': The difficulties of moving home from Europe
Departures sign at Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

It’s a grey day in the middle of British winter and I’m standing in a playground overlooking rows of Victorian terraced houses. I hear middle-class English accents all around me, as parents eagerly tend to their children who are dressed in anything from a school t-shirt and leggings to waterproof suits.

I imagine the scene, on this day, at this time across the North Sea in Copenhagen. What would it look like, what would it sound like, why do I feel so different standing here?

Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Photo: AFP

It’s been six months since my young family and I moved back to Sheffield, England after three and a half years in Copenhagen. It has been a strange and difficult process, not helped by the restrictions of a pandemic and various lockdowns but also because I never expected moving “home” to be hard.

When we relocated to Denmark in 2017, there were many hurdles to overcome as we learnt about a new country, culture and language through mistakes and perseverance. But behind it all was the thrill of uncovering each layer of our new home and the reward of a constant learning process in even the most mundane of tasks. 

Discovering how to use the communal washing machines when you didn’t know what setting to use; trying to make yourself understood at the supermarket when looking for the unpronounceable ‘grød’, (porridge) later realising it’s sold as 'havregryn' (oats); waiting to be served at the chemist without realising you need a ticket.

And then you are home. None of these hurdles exist because you know it all. Plain sailing, you would think. But jarring against that sense of familiarity is the realisation that you’ve changed. Everything feels the same, except you.

“This is not talked about enough,” says Dr. Melissa Parks, a coach for expats and global nomads. “Moving home can be more challenging than the move abroad because you think it’s a comfy process and like home.

“You need to think of it as a new place. Be prepared to feel discomfort, to feel out of place.”

Almost two years ago Melissa returned to her hometown of Seattle after ten years living in Spain and the Netherlands.

“When we left Amsterdam I remember crying out of nowhere. Even if you have all the tools in the world you can’t make it pain free. For me it was helpful knowing the emotional rollercoaster was normal and being my own cheerleader through it all, but it was still really hard.”

Dr. Parks refers to it as a grieving process and says it can take around 18 months before feeling at home again. I gulp as she says this.

She adds, “a natural reaction can be, ’what can I do to fix this? What can I do to get rid of this feeling?’ But you have to give yourself time to go through the grieving process.”

It turns out that making direct comparisons and questioning the decision, as I have done on many occasions, is really quite unhelpful.

“It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing,” says Katherine, who writes the blog ‘Bad Days Abroad’ and helps internationals contemplating a move.

“Some of the struggles I hear come from people’s false expectations. But not expecting it to be as you remember it – even feeling the same way – will help.

“And don’t get upset when your home friends and family can’t relate to your struggles. It’s important to connect with other internationals who can understand what you’re going through.”

Making the decision

For Danielle, who has lived in Copenhagen for the last ten years, the dilemma about whether to move home to England was an agonising one.

Eighteen months ago, she and her now ex husband set up the logistics to move back to be close to family. They got places at the local school for their children and paid £8000 to secure a rental property, with the aim of later buying.

“We’d invested everything into the move and we were ready to go, but it suddenly just felt so wrong in our stomachs.”

While visiting the area to sort out furniture, they decided to pull the plug, one month before moving day. It meant losing the £8000.

“It just didn’t feel like we could belong there again. Even though there was that huge pull of being close to family, we ended up making a big U-turn and chose Denmark for its quality of life, well being, opportunities for the kids, and mindset of the people.”

Gråbrødretorv, Copenhagen, April 2020. Thibault Savary / AFP

Luckily, Danielle hadn’t formally left her job or sold the Copenhagen apartment, so the reverse decision was possible and it helped the family commit to Denmark longer-term.

But it hasn't left her completely free of the dilemma, especially while visiting home is off the agenda with current travel restrictions.

“I’ve been struggling with the fact that my choice to stay maybe creates more distance and erodes the closeness I have with my family over time, although we have maintained good contact so far. But this year has been incredibly cruel with the tragic death of my cousin and then my Nan and not being able to attend their funerals or be there with my family. 

“The distance is made ten times worse with the pandemic. I would otherwise be travelling back every six weeks because I’m a teacher and can do that.”

Living between two cultures

The idea of being able to live between two countries is helpful for many internationals, whether they decide to stay or go home and it’s something that is temporarily on pause due to the pandemic.

When author Jayne Tuttle returned home to Australia in 2014, after ten years living in France, she was back in Paris six months later. With the exception of last year, she has kept up the pattern of returning for long stints ever since.

“Somehow along the way I made peace with the fact that our life as a family would exist between two countries. That stopped the agony of feeling ripped away from the place I love most. After all, it’s just a place.

“I read in French, listen to French, dream in French. Just as in Paris in the later years I accepted my Australianness and stopped trying to act French, in Australia I keep my little French person close to me.

“I don’t care any more that I don’t quite fit into either culture, which used to plague me. Just as I love the abstract world between the two languages, I love the strange world between the two cultures.”

People wonder through the narrow streets of the Montmartre district of Paris on October 6, 2017. Photo: AFP

That acceptance, of being between different cultures, seems to be the crux to finding peace with where you’re at, either abroad or having returned home. Danielle refers to it as an “agony” she has learnt to live with. Dr. Parks calls it “being a triangle”.

“You’re not a square like the people in the country you’ve come from, you’re not a circle like those in your home country; you’re a triangle. So find your other triangles.”

There is an online community called ‘I am a Triangle’ for this very reason.

The ‘Danes in Sheffield’ group are my triangles it seems. Meeting with them, albeit at a distance, has helped connect the language and culture I’ve just left, to the new yet familiar one I now face.

Leaving a country is a difficult and sad process but this is completely normal and also, completely fine, because with it, comes so much more.

You now inhabit a new culture, a new network, perhaps a new language that will enrich your life for years to come – especially once we can all travel again.