When Kelly Jackson-Nash moved to Singapore from Melbourne, Australia, for her husband’s work, she anticipated a few challenges. Culture shock, maybe. Perhaps some lonely days. She did not foresee the biting.
Disturbed by the huge change and mourning her former life, Jackson-Nash’s four-year-old started throwing tantrums and even biting. Her eight-year-old daughter was still coming home in tears more than two months after the relocation.
Jackson-Nash, too, found it difficult to adjust leaving her family and friends behind during that first year. The toughest obstacle was “supporting my kids emotions when I was feeling exactly the same way,” the 42-year-old said.
Four years later, Jackson-Nash and her family are still finding their way in their new home. Singapore has a large expatriate community, but many families stay for only two or three years. Though “my girls have had to become quite skilled at continually making new friends,” they have found the constant goodbyes difficult, Jackson-Nash said.
Relocating for a job isn’t easy, but bringing children along can pose extra challenges. Despite those difficulties, more workers are considering opportunities abroad and many are arriving with an entire family in tow. Getting used to new routines takes longer for parents who have to prepare kids — as well as themselves — for the move. They also have to help children settle in to their studies at school, experts say. “No matter where you come from, you have to find the new norm for the entire family,” said Karen McCann, author of Dancing In the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, based in Seville, Spain.
Relocation can take at least six months to plan but embracing the move before you depart can help you settle in more quickly, said McCann. Prior to making the move, she suggests visiting potential schools and connecting with other expat parents by phone or email. When choosing schools, consider your length of stay and the age of your children.
When selecting a school, it’s important to know whether your kids will benefit from international schools that teach in their home language, or whether they will adapt easily to local schools that hold classes in a foreign language. If you’ll be staying less than five years, and have older children, going to an accredited international school can ease the transition to another secondary school or university back home.
One of the first mistakes parents make is not letting their children — especially those older than nine — mourn the loss of their old life, said Ruth Van Reken co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. “You have to think about how you’re going to say goodbye” as a family, she said. Van Reken suggests collecting keepsakes to bring to the new place, connecting with friends via social media and organising goodbye parties to celebrate the turning point.
Experts recommend expats begin language courses at least six months before arriving to the new country through programmes such as Berlitz, Inlingua and Rosetta Stone. Once there, it’s doubly important to continue language courses, since children often end up learning the new language in school and their knowledge can develop into a source of conflict with parents who never took the time to learn. “When the children really master the other language, they started looking down a little bit on the parents,” McCann said.
Adjusting to education abroad
Kids up to seven-years-old often find it easier to form new friendships and have the ability to learn a new language faster than older children, said Kate Berger, a psychologist in Amsterdam who specialises in expat children. Those between the ages of seven to 9 can feel isolated because they are “grieving their old culture” including friends, family and the language left behind, she said. Kids from nine to 12 can better succeed in a school that’s at least partially taught in their home language and will benefit from feeling like they are part of an expat community with people who’ve experienced a similar move, she said. For children older than 13, an international transition may require additional counselling to help integrate them into the local community.
Christopher Bryan Jones, founder of Tokyo-based expat magazine Metropolis, says even helping his children with their homework offered some surprising challenges. “I didn’t think about how language and culture would play into my ability to be involved in their schooling,” he said.
Subjects, including science and Japanese history, can be especially difficult said Jones who relocated from Alabama in the US more than 18 years ago. These days, top international schools are often taught using the International Baccalaureate system, an exam-based style of teaching that may be more rigorous than some national education systems.
Understanding how holidays are celebrated, whether the school offers a like-minded community of expats and the role of parents in the education process can also help children adjust. “School isn’t just curriculum,” said Van Reken, who grew up in Nigeria and educated her children abroad. “Some kids are taught a different value system at school than they are taught at night.”
Making it work
As kids adjust to the new culture, it’s up to parents to understand how to keep part of their previous culture alive in new ways, says Jones, who relocated right before his two children, now 15 and 10, were born. At home, Jones encourages eating mac ‘n’ cheese, watching classic American movies and speaks to his children in English. He also uses Amazon Japan to get English-language books. Still, children end up having a different view of home than their parents. “They’ll essentially be natives of two cultures,” he said.
Location-specific expat groups on Facebook can be a resource for local childcare options, housekeepers or kid-friendly activities around town. Often, the community of like-minded parents — even ones available over social media — can make the transition easier, Jackson-Nash says.
When others ask Jackson-Nash for advice, she says getting past the first-year mark of moving abroad is a time to celebrate. At that point, settling in is no longer an issue, and the family has already developed routines for anything from grocery shopping to school and weekend activities. The first year, “can be simultaneously wonderful and extraordinarily difficult,” she said.
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