The Impact of International Moves on Children – and what Parents can do to Support their Children: Part 2

In the first part of this series (read more here) the concept of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was introduced. Children that move country frequently due to parents work or studies have a unique sense of identity and will develop different skills than their peers. But a childhood impacted by international moves also comes with risks, challenges, and negative impacts termed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

This part of the series looks at children’s’ needs in more detail and how parents can support their children during a move and while living abroad. Meeting their needs will benefit everyone in the short term (smoother transitions) and long-term (resilience and mental health).

To get a bird’s eye view of how they apply to children moving and living internationally needs have been grouped into three categories: wellbeing, expression and connection.

Need for Wellbeing: sustenance, safety, rest

Children need to know that their physical needs for sustenance, security and rest are being met, so they can relax and focus on growing, exploring, learning and playing. When they feel there is insecurity, they will become anxious. This may be expressed as grumpiness, being extra clingy, or crying more – making a difficult situation such as moving to a new country even harder. When they feel the adults in their lives are in control and confident about logistics and food they can relax and concentrate on adapting and exploring. Their curiosity about their new home will in turn draw you in and further spark your sense of adventure.

These needs are especially prevalent around the time of a move. Things for parents to consider right before a move are:

  • Let your kids know the plans for housing in the new country.
  • Know what your immediate options for food will be before you arrive. Will stores near us be open? What restaurants are nearby?
  • Pack favorite snacks or know where to buy them locally – this will give a sense of familiarity in the unknown.
  • If you are moving to a country with a higher security risk than you’re used to, talk to you children about how you will all keep safe (in an age-appropriate manner).
  • Find out before you go what they will need for school (uniform, shoes, supplies) and bring these things or know where to get them upon arrival.
  • Transitions are emotionally and physically exhausting for everyone. Give your children and yourself grace and patience during this disruptive time.

Need for Expression: autonomy, play, contribution

Children of all ages learn through play and movement and need opportunities to do so. They also have an inherent need for autonomy and to feel like they are making a contribution. You can meet these needs by involving them in decisions, giving them choices and asking for their help with things. Feeling like they are an important part of your move and making it go smoothly will fill them with confidence and ultimately also contribute to building resilience as they see that they can learn to do new, hard things.

A key point to remember is that your attitude impacts how they will perceive the entire adventure. While it is fine and healthy to share your concerns and struggles (by naming what you are feeling you are helping your children build their emotional literacy), a positive attitude of curiosity and adventure will spark the same in your children.

  • Before your move do research and brainstorm together to make a list of places to visit and things you all want to do.
  • Involve your children and ask for their help. The slightly longer time it might take to complete a task will be paid back in confidence built and increased competence for next time.
  • Give them choices where feasible to give some sense of control in what feels like an out of control experience.
  • Making the move a positive experience will help offset the potential negative effects of frequent transitions.

Because their environment changes so much when moving having a stable, safe and reliable family unit is critical to TCKs healthy development and growth. Only when they are seen, supported and understood will children be able to take advantage of all those amazing benefits and be ready to fully bring their gifts to the world.

Now more than ever the world needs people with innovative ways of solving problems, curiosity, fearlessness, and a love of diversity. The world needs healthy, strong Third Culture Kids.

Need for Connection: love, community, belonging

Humans have a need for connection which includes love, caring, and feeling a sense of belonging. During a move parents become stressed and busy with a million details of settling in and trying to make a life in a new place (be it a new host country or after repatriation). They may be emotionally drained and have no capacity left to comfort and care for others. If they find living in the host country especially challenging this level of stress and strain may continue for the duration of the assignment, impacting the whole family.

The feeling of being part of a community is drastically curtailed when we move. We become disconnected from our “tribe” which is experienced as a deep loss. A sense of belonging is a deeply ingrained human need that must be met in order to feel whole. Having a strong sense of belonging within the nuclear family helps fulfil this need while building connections and communities in a new place. This is one of the greatest risks of adverse impact on your children but there are things you can do to mitigate it:

  • Take care of yourself. Adults also have all the needs described here. During transition we may neglect them, to the detriment of our health and that of our family.
  • Be considerate and understanding with yourself, your partner and your children.
  • Stop everything and just be with your child. A few minutes can make a huge difference.
  • Build a sense of belonging within your family through rituals and routines.
  • Actively work towards becoming integrated into new communities, e.g through school, sport, clubs, volunteering, hobbies, etc. 
  • Understand what it means to grow up moving often and how that may impact your children for the rest of their life.
  • Educate your children about TCKs and keep a conversation going about their experience.

With their needs met and feeling seen and understood your children will forge ahead into your new life with playful curiosity. Follow their lead and enjoy the adventure together.

About the author: Anna Seidel – As a TCK herself, Anna works as a Global Mobility trainer and supports families living an international life and is fiercely passionate about promoting awareness of the challenges and opportunities children face growing up abroad and helping parents to raise their children with confidence and ease.

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