Look, kid's - it's your new home!
Among the thousands of Brits who relocate are hundreds of children who will probably be told about their parents' decision to move abroad, but will rarely have a choice in the matter. Adults like to believe that children are very adaptable, taking everything in their little stride, but the reality is often different and many children, particularly teenagers, may well view your 'fresh start' as a very stale alternative to staying at home. Yet it can be a fantastic opportunity and experience for your kids. How well children adapt to change depends partly on their age and personality, and there's a lot you can do as parents to help them enjoy their new life abroad.
Keep them informed
As soon as you've made your decision, tell your children. If at all possible, allow at least six months for preparations. Involve them in as many parts of the process as you can and never assume they don't care or aren't interested.
Look at books, maps and websites together, and talk about what you discover – this could be an education for you, too! Children need different information depending on their age – for instance, a nine-year-old may want to know about local football clubs and TV shows, while a teenager might have questions about what is important to them – for instance, opportunities for going out and shopping.
If you can, go on a family reconnaissance trip beforehand. Show your children where you will be living and its surroundings, and include a tour of their new school. If a visit isn't possible, show your children photos or a video of their new home and school, and do all you can to give them an idea of what to expect. Experts agree that the best time to move is during the summer holidays so that children have time to settle in before the stress of starting a new school, but don't have too much time to get bored. Avoid moving mid-term – starting a new term or new year at school is much easier than going in halfway.
Talk to your children about their worries – young children have vivid imaginations, and when faced with the unknown they fill in the gaps with things of their own invention – and answer as many questions as you can. Most of all, stay positive and upbeat about the move, even when you're feeling panicky or stressed-out. Children pick up any negative vibes straight away and quickly tune into adult fears.
Learning the lingo
If English isn't widely spoken in your new country, set up language classes for the family before you leave. This is especially important if you plan to send your children to local schools – just being able to say “Hola, me llamo Kirsty” will do wonders for your child's confidence on that first difficult day.
Once you've arrived, keep up the language classes outside school until your children can fend for themselves. Make sure they can say their telephone number and address in the new language.
Psychologists recommend saying a proper goodbye to your home and your loved ones, so organise one farewell party for your children's friends and another for relatives. Make sure your children know when they will see friends and family again. Be realistic – if you're moving a long way away, it could be months before you return to the UK or the family comes out to visit you.
Set up ways of keeping in touch – email is the easiest and cheapest, and the MSN Messenger is ideal for teenagers. Prime friends' parents to remind their children to stay in contact with yours and make sure your children correspond. This might take perseverance. Don't be surprised if the friends or your children gradually lose interest in each other's lives – this is a common reaction.
Spend as much time as possible with your children when you first arrive – explore local shops, parks and attractions together and make the most of the first exciting moments. Be enthusiastic and point out all the new and exciting things. Gloss over or ignore any initial negative points.
Introduce them to other children nearby (ideally children already at the new school) and get involved with local clubs and sports activities so that your children feel part of local life. Go out of your way to meet people – fellow expats will probably be your first friends and will help with settling in. As time goes on, try to also meet local people so your children feel part of the new country.
Be prepared for tears, loss of confidence and tantrums – it's normal for children and teenagers to feel very angry. Do your best to remain positive, at least in front of the children. Remember that culture shock affects everyone who moves abroad and each family member will react differently to the relocation. As parents you have an extra-difficult task – not only do you have to be supportive for your children, but you also have to cope with your own disorientation.
But bear in mind that in spite of the doubts and difficult moments, most families sail through those first choppy months and go on to thoroughly enjoy their stay abroad. Indeed, many of them decide never to return home!
If you do return to the UK, expect your children to suffer from 'reverse' culture shock, whatever their age. Younger children may not remember their 'home' at all and kids of any age will find it tricky to re-adjust to life in the UK – teenagers have particular difficulties. Be as supportive and positive as possible, just as you were when you went abroad in the first place. Acclimatising doen't happen overnight, but in time your children should settle back into life in their home country.
MILTON KEYNES TO MIJAS, Spain
Julie and Stuart McColgan swapped their village home near Milton Keynes for a property in the sun on Spain's Costa del Sol in 2000. At the time, their daughter Katie was five – “probably the best age to move abroad,” says Julie. The McColgans didn't feel they needed to do a lot of preparation beforehand because they were familiar with the area through their twice-a-year visits to Stuart's relatives, and Katie had already made some Spanish friends. But, in spite of Katie being used to the sights and sounds of Spain, moving there was a big shock to her system. Julie noticed how her previously confident daughter became shy and reserved – “She even found going into a shop difficult”. The Spanish language was another barrier for Katie, who felt lonely and very homesick for friends left behind in the UK. “Never underestimate how important your children's friends are to them,” advise the McColgans. Food was another prickly issue as Katie is a vegetarian – a major obstacle when eating out in meat-loving Spain.
Katie's parents weren't surprised by her difficulties – Julie was also finding adapting to their new life in Spain a challenge – but they were careful never to let their own problems show and adopted a very positive attitude, constantly reassuring Katie. This paid off and, six months later, their daughter's happy, confident personality returned. Katie has clear memories of moving to Spain, but hardly remembers the problems she had. Six years later, she talks of Spain as her home and loves the warm climate, the outdoor life and friendly people. When asked if she'd like to return to the UK, she says, “Yes – but just for a couple of days”.
IRELAND TO Australia
In October 2004, Andrew and Noeleen Shine, together with Alex, 14, Jack, 7, and Hannah, 3, left southern Ireland for a new life in Brisbane, Australia. Before they moved, Andrew and Noeleen were careful to be ultra-positive about the move, especially to the younger children, and played down the enormity of the decision they had made. Noeleen firmly believes this is one of the keys to making relocation work: “After all, if you're crying all the time, how are the kids going to feel?” Noeleen also points out that you shouldn't give your children too many choices, especially if your relocation plans are definite. “Make it sound like a big adventure, but avoid dramatic farewells at the airport,” she advises.
The novelty of living in the hip and happening city of Brisbane, where there's plenty going on, helped the family through the first few weeks and the children enjoyed choosing their new home – permanent accommodation was the Shines' top priority.
Not surprisingly, friends and school were the biggest issues for the children. Pre-school Hannah has had few problems, but Jack still misses his best friends in Ireland and Alex found it hard making new friends at her high school. The Shines have offered constant reassurance through this time, bought a dog for Jack and pointed out to the children that they're missing their friends too! Noeleen and Andrew firmly recommend making a real effort to join in with local life and mix with local people because this helps the children move on and accept the move as definite.
The children love the Australian lifestyle – the outdoor scene, 'barbies' and the pool are particular favourites – and Alex enjoys her social life. Topping the list of things they miss about Ireland are snow in winter and their family, although a constant stream of visitors means they keep in touch. Some 18 months later, the family feel totally at home and have fitted in so well that Noeleen believes the yonger two are “real little Australians”.
Quick ways to settle them in
- Pack a box of their favourite things (toys, books and photos) to send on ahead so it arrives soon after you do.
- Take along a selection of 'must-have' toys in your personal luggage.
- Make it your top priority to find permanent accommodation – try not to move house more than once during the first year.
- Spend as much as you can afford on accommodation – your children will be much happier in nicer surroundings.
- If you aren't shipping your household goods from the UK, buy or rent furnished accommodation so you don't spend valuable family time shopping for furniture and fittings.
- Spend quality time with your child decorating their new bedroom.
- As soon as you can, set up a family routine – this is reassuring for everyone and gives structure to your new life.
- You can expect your child to be extra-clingy and tearful – so be ready to dispense plenty of hugs and kisses.
What about schools?
Choosing the right school abroad is a major concern for parents and a big worry for children, so look at the options carefully. In most countries you have the choice of international or local (state) education.
International schools teach in English and usually follow UK-type curriculums so your children will feel at home and if you return to the UK, your child's education won't be interrupted. Standards of education are generally pretty high and it's a unique opportunity to meet other nationalities and cultures. On the other hand, international schools are expensive and some are 'expat bubbles' which means that children can have little contact with local society.
Local schools help your children (and you) become part of the local community, learn the language and gain better higher education and employment prospects in the country if you're staying long-term. State schools are also free. But some children, especially teenagers, may find schooling in another language difficult, both academically and socially.
Children are notoriously prone to accidents and illness, so access to healthcare abroad is essential. Before you leave, find out about healthcare provisions in your new country and what you need to do to make sure your family is covered. The UK has reciprocal health agreements with all EU states and around 40 other countries, but not Canada, Turkey or the USA. Each family member needs a European Health Insurance Card to qualify – visit www.ehic.org.uk for details. What you get varies considerably depending on the country – you may only be entitled to emergency treatment (see www.dh.gov.uk for full information), so comprehensive medical insurance is essential for all the family. If you're working and making social security contributions, your family may be entitled to health care under the state system. Provisions and standards are excellent in some countries and poor in others, so you may need supplementary private health insurance cover. Do not leave home without adequate medical insurance!