How to help children get settled after an international move…

I wrote a previous post about how to assemble a life once you arrive in your new country.  It explored and discussed the details of the quantifiable and tangible items we had to acquire and resolve once we arrived on an island off the coast of Spain.  It discusses all the necessary concrete matters when starting a new life somewhere to include housing, cars, and bank accounts.   

And while executing on all those matters is critical to getting established, there is a parallel process happening that deals with getting a family settled in a different way while embarking on international living.  This is the process of creating a life, a sense of community, and a feeling of security for kids after they have been uprooted and left everything familiar.  This process is much more nuanced and vague, but more crucial in many ways when trying to help children feel established.  It involves many invisible details that require considerable time, sensitivity, and intuition. 

This part of assembling a life for our kids was what occupied most of my emotional and psychological space as a parent once we moved.  It is a less quantifiable process, but significant and consequential.  Children thrive and explore when they feel safe and secure. It is our job as parents to create an environment that allows for this, so they can get on with the business of being a child. 

My work as a mama was to help establish this sense of well-being in our kids after they moved across the world and experienced such a monumental life shift . It is, of course, an on-going process, but here are some of the countless ways we worked to create that comfort for our family in our new international life.

A Rainbow at our new house…

Creating a Home (Not Just Finding a House)…

Sure, we could find a house, but how do I turn it into a home that felt safe and comfortable?

After a demanding house hunt, we found a house that we were going to rent for a year.  It was not perfect, but had a lot of fun features including a large pool, room to spread out, and beautiful views.  The kids were really excited about it! 

It came with minimal furnishings, and we needed to do a fair bit in terms of buying and finding items to make it comfortable.  We liked how austere it was because it felt clean and uncluttered.  This allowed us to make it our own because it was like a blank canvas that we could paint on.  We didn’t want to accumulate many belongings because we knew this was going to be a temporary home. But we wanted to personalize it and make it our own.  Also, we had just liquidated our entire house in California, so the last thing we wanted to do was go around buying much of anything.  I wanted to be deliberate both economically and environmentally about any new purchases or belongings. 

So we methodically went about getting what we needed to make the house feel warm and personal.  This was an adventure because we did not know our new town, or where we would find what we needed. This search was a great opportunity for us to drive around and get to know it while we looked for items to personalize our new space.

You spend a lot of time together as a family when moving to a new country…

Kids Personal Spaces…

When you are traveling as a family you spend a lot of time together. So having an individual space that each of the kids could call their own and withdraw to for some alone time was important.   I made sure that everyone could curate and make their room feel cozy and personal.  We have developed a rhythm over the years where everyone spreads out and goes to their separate corners and rooms in order to find solitude.  When traveling together everyone needs to be able to have alone time to recalibrate.  I wanted to make sure the kids felt like they could nest and create spaces they wanted to be in.

My teenage girls went to a few local and charming boutiques in our new town and found some colorful pillows, candles and art.  They set up their closets, cosmetics, books and journals.  Our eight year-old organized his art supplies and shell collection.  All three kids also brought a few sentimental belongings from home that they made sure to put out.  Within two weeks the kids’ rooms felt loved, lived in and personal.

We also bought bikes, surfboards and a basketball hoop that allowed us to do the familiar things we loved both around the house and in our community.

It required some work, some resources and a fair bit of driving around to get settled in our new house, but it created a comfortable refuge to return home to. It also allowed us the majority of the summer left to explore the island. These details of setting up a home, when everything else is new and unfamiliar are important and meaningful for kids, and I know having a comfortable home made a difference for them as they worked to get their footing in their new country.

Nourishment (Not Just Food)…

When you are a family of five, food, cooking, and feeding takes up a lot of time and consideration.  Because we were eager to try new cuisine, we ended up eating out a lot and trying dozens of exciting restaurants.  We try to force ourselves to never visit the same restaurant twice and be adventurous when eating out. 

But, of course, we also had countless snacks and meals where we were not eating out.  I would use these mealtimes to punctuate our day with routine, a sense of stability and to normalize and structure their day.  When we were at home, I tried to have meals serve as an anchor and would serve breakfast in the morning and cook dinner every night. There is a lot of research that illustrates how important eating dinner together as a family is, so I made a point of making it happen most night of the week. Feeding growing kids is not only important biologically, but also psychologically in terms of regulating their nervous system and mental health.  This was a meaningful way to help balance and maintain many parts of their well-being, particularly after so much change.  

When we were home in California, we would have dinner as a family as much as we possibly could.  We had a routine of setting the table, sitting in our usual spots, and a tradition of sharing our best and worst parts of the day.  Sometimes meals are longer and we linger about, but often they are short because everyone is busy. However, we always try to share a bit of time and keep this routine.  After moving, in the midst of all the upheaval and transition, we kept this same tradition, and it served as a predictable and reliable place to connect and process. 

There are a lot of grocery stores and places to buy and shop for food in Spain.  In addition to the tiny markets on every street corner, there are four big grocery chains.  There are also beautiful street markets every day of the week in various parts of town.  As a family we would go grocery shopping together, visiting the big stores, as well as all the little markets.  This was a fun and educational way to get to know the culture and patterns of a community.  The kids would get a basket and put things they wanted to try, with labels we could not read and fruits and vegetables we were not familiar with. 

I believe this ritual around shopping and meals served as a meaningful tradition and practice. It reminded them that while we were a world away, we had the same practices in place that would always sustain and nurture them.

Engaging in our regular activities and routines helped keep us grounded in our new country…

Activities…

After moving, I explored and looked into activities for the kids right away!  I was primarily focused on camps and experiences that were close to our new community and school.  I wanted them to meet kids that they would be starting school with and that lived close by, as well as working to connect with people and build a community.   While we would be branching out to other parts of the island eventually, I knew we wanted to create a home base in our surrounding area. 

I signed my son up for basketball camp and soccer (football) right away.  Basketball is his favorite sport and I thought it would be an easy way to connect him with some new friends. However, the camp ended up being a bit of a disaster! It was an eight-hour day of training during a heat wave in Spain, and there was not one kiddo or coach who spoke English. He tried to be a good sport, but he was not thrilled to be there and felt overwhelmed.  He is a kiddo who is usually comfortable trying new things and making new friends, but all of these factors proved to be too much at once.  The language barrier was more intimidating than I had thought it would be for him in a way that didn’t intimidate our teenagers as much.

At first his reluctance to go back to camp threw me, but I knew that it was so normal and to be expected given all the transition he had just gone through. It made sense to have slightly less tolerance for new settings and challenges with all the newness surrounding him.  I think it’s important to encourage kids to stretch, but also to honor when it’s an overload.  We scratched the camp and stayed close to him that week.  (Eventually he joined a team and made some great friends!…more about that later.)

I signed my daughter up for a tennis camp that was located across from her school.  As luck would have it the first day, she met two girls her same age that went to her new school.  The night following her first day of camp she was texting with three girls in her grade.  Within days she was connecting with classmates and making plans to meet up that week! 

I tracked down a boxing class for our 16 year-old which was an activity she loved in California.  She ended up loving it and has been attending now for several months.  She figured out the bus system right away and goes throughout the week which allows for a lot of independence and connection with her new community.    

Friends…

Connecting with friends was a priority, but it was summer, and we knew no one and were not sure how to connect with other kids. 

Before we moved, I never had any social media.  But someone had told me that Facebook was great for expats so I signed up and have to say that it has been invaluable. I joined multiple groups for expats that regularly posted meetups for families going to our same new school. Within a week there were half a dozen families reaching out in the same position and eager to meet other kids.

We met one family with three boys who were also moving from overseas and looking to connect.  My son hit it off immediately with them.  On orientation day at school instead of going in alone, he sat on the steps of the school for a photo with several boys he had met during the summer. 

I had the goal of the kids having one familiar face on the first day of school and it happened for both of the kids by doing a little focused outreach.  Meeting a few kids was helpful in allowing them to not feel so alone and like an outsider in both their school and community.  Meeting friends is challenging no matter where you are, but starting from scratch in a foreign country has unique challenges.  Simply meeting a few people and having familiar faces was very helpful and reassuring.

While we moved abroad to seek out adventure and novelty, providing stability and comfort was still extremely critical for our developing kids. Finding pattern and predictability is so important for kids after a life changing move abroad. Paying close attention to each child and talking openly about what everyone was feeling was essential. Through all the changes I am hopeful that attention to the subtle – and not so subtle – ways kids feel grounded served to mitigate much of the unease and apprehension. 

Tending to this has allowed them to eagerly seek out adventure and experiences in their new home which we will share more about in future posts.

As a psychologist for 25 years and a mom to 3 here are some other important ways to help kids adjust and thrive after a big move…

  1. Keep a routine-kids thrive when things are predictable and there is pattern in their daily routine, especially when there has been a lot of change in other areas of their life.

  2. Talk A LOT as a family-kids need to process their feelings and emotions about what is going on in their life. It’s also ok to share age appropriate information about what the transition has been like for you as the parent as this helps them understand that all feelings are normal.

  3. Involve kids in all aspects of the move-keep communication open before, during and after a big transition and allow kids to help with all aspects of the transition and move as this gives them a sense of control and agency.

  4. Keep in touch with friends and family back home-keeping in regular touch with the people they care about back home through calls and FaceTime will help them feel like they are not so far away and that the people they love are still accessible.

Written by Dr. Colleen T. Crowley, International Family Life


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