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Oregon Family Magazine

Considering a Move Overseas?

11/01/2020 10:17AM ● By Christa Melnyk Hines
Whether you’ve been assigned to another country for work or long to globetrot with your family for other reasons, you may wonder how realistic an international move is, especially with kids.

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.

According to four-time expat Jessica Drucker, an expat coach and author of How to Move Abroad and Why It’s the Best Thing You’ll Do, nearly nine million Americans have made the leap to live in another country.

“American expats would make up the 12th largest state in the United States if counted together,” Drucker says.

Know Your “Why”

Before pulling up stakes and moving your family abroad, consider the reasons why you want to relocate to another part of the globe. Perhaps you’d like to introduce your children to another culture or language.

Or, maybe you’d like to “find somewhere with a slower pace of life where you actually have time to see each other; where a student having weapons at school is unheard of; or where you can travel to cities and countries nearby that would have been impossible to find time to visit while based in the States,” Drucker says.

Emily Maher, an author coach, teacher and a mom of a six-year-old, has lived in Bogota, Colombia for the past 10 years. She says she dreamed of living in a place that was “stimulating and exciting” ever since she was a child.

“When I was in my 20s, I moved around a lot within the United States and other countries, but never quite felt at home until I met my husband and we fell in love in Bogota,” Maher says. “I loved how the culture was warm and caring on the one hand and yet it was urban and stimulating at the same time.”

Consider Age and Temperament

To determine how well your kids might adjust to an international move consider their age and stage of development. A teenager who is centered in their peer relationships may have a harder time adjusting to a new country compared to a young child whose parents are the center of their universe.

If your child is more of an introvert, research suggests they may struggle with more nervousness or anxiety in the midst of a major change.

“There are also surprises,” says Katia Vlachos, an expat transition coach currently based in Switzerland and the author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment. “Perhaps the introverted child will be better able than the extroverted one to deal with the unavoidable loneliness of the first few weeks after the move. You know your child best.”

Planning Essentials

Whether you’ve been gifted time to plan your move or if your move is immediately pending, it’s crucial to get your paperwork and finances in order before you go.

“This may include residence and work permits, financial and tax matters, medical matters, other kinds of insurance, bank accounts,” Vlachos says.

The amount of paperwork and the timing to process that paperwork can vary by country. Break up big priorities into smaller tasks and creating a timeline for yourself with what needs to be done when and by whom.

“If your move is sponsored, it’s important to be proactive—pay attention early to what kind of support your employer is providing or could potentially provide,” Vlachos says.

Schooling

As you research your new destination, learn about the school system to determine what will be the best fit for your child or teen. Many American, British and International schools follow a similar curriculum to the U.S. and can make your child’s adjustment easier, while also teaching the local language. But these private schools can be expensive, especially in large urban areas where the cost of living is higher.

“You will also land in more of an expat bubble, whereby you are meeting families of fellow expats more than locals,” Drucker says. “This can feel great to have friends who understand your difficulties, but can be harder to fully integrate over time.”

If you and your family don’t speak the local language, consider hiring a tutor. And keep in mind, younger kids generally learn other languages easily and are likely to adjust quickly in a local school system. 

“If you are moving to a country where you know that the level of public school education is similar (or better!) to what you expect back home, then consider enrolling them in public school,” Drucker advises.

Expect a Few Bumps

Transitions are challenging no matter the circumstances, but culture shock, language barriers and general uncertainty around the unknown may have you second-guessing your decision.

“The adjustment phase can be hard. It can be hard when your kids look to you for answers and you don’t have them or if you are going through culture shock and they are not. You can feel a little left behind, like why can’t you adjust and they can?” Drucker says. “It is a lumpy, uneven process with ups and downs and there will definitely be times where you doubt why you ever did this to your family in the first place. That is why it is particularly important to know your ‘why’.”

To help your kids adjust, get them involved in activities they already enjoy in your new home. If they love soccer, for example, explore options for a soccer program. Not only will this help them connect with new friends, you’ll also begin to meet other families.

“Parents are often surprised at how much more quickly their kids integrate than they do. They are in school, so you meet other families. They learn the language faster than you do, consume pop culture more quickly and just generally integrate much more easily,” Drucker says.

Bridge the Gap

“Something that’s critically important, but most people don’t think about when they move, is reflecting on how to make sure the family will feel at home,” Vlachos says.

Thoroughly research your destination to get a sense of what daily life is like where you are headed, including the climate, people, history, social norms and values.

“Building this familiarity helps create a sense of home much faster,” Vlachos says. “As you research your new home, think of the elements of your current life that you would like to include into your new life. What will you miss the most? Your house, your rituals, the food, the music? Research will help you identify the best ways to maintain a connection to the elements of home that mean the most to you.”

Beware of getting too attached to your way of seeing or doing things which can make you feel isolated in your new location.

“If you hold too tightly to the perspective of where you came from, you may always feel awkward,” Maher warns. “Question your beliefs and know your real values. People will accept you for who you are if you’re confident in who that is. Then you can choose what you like from both cultures.”

As the mom of a son, Maher says she particularly embraces the family-centered nature of her adopted country and the tight bonds typically formed between mothers and their sons in the Latino culture.

“But I also like being casual and authentic about the way I look and express myself, which is far more American—blue jeans and sitcom sarcasm,” she says.

Acknowledge Sacrifices

You and your children will likely feel the pain of saying goodbye to close friends, family, and familiar routines. You may miss out on major celebrations and life events like funerals, weddings, or anniversaries that you otherwise would have attended. Vlachos recommends acknowledging and allowing yourselves to grieve these losses.

Tap into Resources

Gather as much information as possible through books, magazines, and online resources.  “Remember, millions of people have gone before you and many have created content to help you follow in their footsteps. The resources are out there for you to find,” Drucker says.

Reach out early to other expats in the country or city where you are headed. Expat groups in specific cities and countries can be found across Facebook and are excellent resources as you research housing, schools, typical transition issues, cost of living, climate, and social norms.

Follow local bloggers to discover as much as you can about your destination. You might also consider hiring an expat transition coach, who can share their experiences, while delivering timely, expert advice. They can answer your questions, address specific challenges, and ease the stress and uncertainty surrounding a move abroad.

Celebrate Rewards

“The world is only going to be more and more connected,” Drucker says. “Giving your kids the gift of being global citizens with global connections and an ability to operate in a global environment is only setting them up for the kind of success the future requires.”

Freelance writer and former military brat Christa Melnyk Hines lived in Germany as a child and remembers those four years as some of the happiest of her life.