Six Tips to Support Your Child During an International Move

Published on: June 13, 2022

Image: Canva

Moving can be stressful. We often overlook our children’s feelings of separation anxiety and fear of the unknown in the excitement of starting a new chapter in a new place. School counselor, Melissa Stonehouse, offers advice on how to support your child and help them to cope during a move.

By Melissa Stonehouse

I am sure that we all appreciate the many advantages and opportunities that become available when we move abroad, but there are also many challenges. One of the biggest ones faced by international families is ‘the big move’, whether this is the initial move from your home country or moving from one host country to another.

This change is a significant life event for everyone involved. There are layers and layers of stress, excitement and anxiety, all intertwined with the logistics of packing up everything you own and moving your family and all that stuff across the world!

When I talk to families who are actually in the process of moving, I relate to their situation from many different perspectives. First and foremost, as a mother of three children who has supported her own children as they transitioned into another new country, culture and school. Second, over many years as a teacher, recognizing the wonderful advantages for children attending international schools, but simultaneously observing what a big adjustment changing schools is for children—learning their way around new campuses, becoming familiar with new routines, and building new friendships.

Now, as a counselor, I see how these moves with all their positives and opportunities can also have a significant impact on a child’s wellbeing. It’s very easy to get swept away in the excitement of the move and forget that starting this new adventure means that, to some extent, your previous one is ending. This can be particularly hard for children who aren’t the decision makers when it comes to the family’s move, and make them feel as if their sense of personal control is under threat.

Big changes in life often come with a feeling of loss. When we talk about moving, this is usually the sense of loss we feel from saying goodbye to a country and culture in which we as a family have created a home. Physical changes in houses, routines and favorite places can be hard to process, but more often it is losing the connection with friends, teachers and other members of your community that can leave us feeling sad and distressed.  

To help your child cope with such changes during a move, here are some tips for supporting them:

1. Acknowledge the loss

Validating your child’s feeling of loss will help them deal with the move / Image: iStock

One of the great ways that you can help normalize these feelings for your child is to talk about how you are feeling. Articulating things like ‘I’m really going to miss Sunday afternoons with our friends when we move’ will reassure them that feeling a sense of loss when moving is normal. As a parent you always want to help your child feel better; this is completely natural. So when your child is sad or telling you how much they will miss something or someone, it can feel supportive to counteract with positive statements about the new country. However, despite good intentions, responding to ‘I’ll miss going to my tennis class’ with ‘but you’re going to love the beaches in Thailand’ may actually invalidate a child’s feelings, and perhaps make them feel guilty about not being equally excited about the move.  

2. Prepare together

Take the time to do some research together about the new country, such as finding similarities and differences. Perhaps learn a few words in the local language and explore school and activity options. For example, taking a virtual tour of your child’s new school if one is available on the school’s website can be a fun way for them to explore their new school and acclimatize. They can even share this experience with friends and family.

3. Maintain connections

For third culture children, the question of ‘where are you from?’ can potentially raise a sense of worry and confusion. By maintaining connections with your home country and other countries in which you have lived, you are creating your family’s own subculture, building on your child’s unique sense of who they are. There are so many ways that you can do this. Some examples are cooking meals at home that you would have eaten in previous countries, having artwork or photographs from these countries displayed around your home, and perhaps talking about events that are taking place in your previous place of residence. This can really help children feel proud and connected to ‘their story’.

4. Create a family bucket list

Make a bucket list of things that you want to do before you leave, photographs you want to take, places you want to see and things you want to re-experience. Most importantly, include time to say a proper goodbye to friends and family on this list to give yourself and your children closure and a positive ending. 

5. Continue relationships

It’s important to teach children that relationships can be maintained even when you are separate. There will be change, but there are great ways to maintain communication. If they are anxious about leaving friends and family behind, they can practice calling and emailing before you leave so that the relationship is already beginning the transition, and become comfortable connecting in this way. This may also benefit some family members or friends you are leaving behind who are not particularly confident with the use of technology as a communication tool.

6. Model good self care

As international travelers, we are all used to being reminded to put on our oxygen masks before helping others. When dealing with stressful situations, it’s good to do the same. Remember to take care of yourself, be mindful of your own feelings, and share these strategies with your children. Mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation can be great ways to reduce any stress, and doing them together can also be a wonderful way to bond as you tackle this transition as a family.

Image: author

About the Author

Melissa Stonehouse is the resident primary school counselor at Bangkok Prep. She has an MSc in Psychology, a diploma in Counseling, and a BSc in Geography with qualified teacher status.

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