How do we protect our expat children?

I attended an interesting workshop this week at my children’s school on the topic of bullying. This is obviously a subject that all schools have to deal with, whatever type of educational establishment they are and wherever they are in the world. But being an international school there were some issues – not all of them related to bullying –  that came up that are perhaps more unique to our children and which have really started making me think.

It’s pretty tough for our kids. First of all, we drag them away from their friends, family, school, home, possibly even pets, and take them somewhere completely new. Often they have had no say whatsoever in this move but it has been presented to them as a fait accompli. Of course many of those whose lifestyle has been a global one ever since they can remember will be aware this is coming and be prepared for it. Nevertheless, any international move is always going to take its toll on a youngster (not to mention the rest of us!).

So they get somewhere new. They start a new school, they make new friends. And then the next thing they know, those new friends start leaving. So they feel the wrench again. And again. And again. Life at an international school is often one leaving party after another. And that can have quite an impact on someone – especially an emotional teen.

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International School life – it can be fun, but it can also be tough.

The reason this came up in the bullying workshop was because one of the signs that someone was being bullied, so we were told, could be that they told you they had no friends. But one of the mums pointed out that with five children having just left her daughter’s already pretty small class, it was quite possible that she really did have no friends. It really brought home to us all how difficult this life can be.

One of the teachers running the workshop has had a lot of experience in international schools and she had some good tips on how to help our children deal with this sort of constant emotional pounding. First of all, she said, acknowledge with yourself and with your child that this is part of international life. There is no getting away from it, friends will leave. If you are lucky you may have one or two that stay for the duration of your assignment; but at some point either you will go – or they will. This is part of your life now and as a family we have to accept it. There is no point in pretending it isn’t going to happen.

Secondly, she said, let them know that you also feel this way. You are sad too when friends leave, you miss home, some days you may want to leave. Talk to them about culture shock in an age-appropriate way and – if they are struggling at the beginning of your time in a new country – assure them that things will get easier over time.

Although we didn’t dwell on this topic for too long as we were straying from the main subject of the workshop, enough was said to make us all realise that this is an issue that we all needed to tackle. As well as the tips from the teacher, I also think it is worth talking about technology and how we can continue to keep in touch with friends even after they have left (or you have). Just because they are in another country doesn’t mean you will never speak to them again – or even see them. The world is a shrinking place and you never know who you will bump into in the future. And of course think about all those wonderful places you will have to visit in the future!

There is a lot more that I could say on this topic, but there is also a lot more already written. So to finish I want to share a few links to other sites that you may find useful. Firstly is the  Expat Child website, which has sections focusing on the different age groups (although I found the 9-12 year old section a lot more relevant for my 8 year old than the 4-8’s section). Here, for example, is one article from the site about Expat Child Syndrome.

Then there is a website called International Family Transitions, which includes a number of articles and links on the subject of moving with children.

And another interesting expat website, Expat Family Health, has this article on Helping Your Child Adapt Abroad.

Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, the Pixar movie Inside Out is highly appropriate for families moving overseas (although the film is actually about an American family moving to another state within the same country). You might want to think about when you watch it with your kids – eg possibly not just after you have arrived somewhere new and they (and you) are feeling particularly emotional. But it can be a great way to open up discussion about the move.

Do you have children at an international school? How have you helped them cope with the constant comings and goings? Or perhaps you were an international school child yourself – if so, how did you feel when friends moved on leaving you behind?

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17 thoughts on “How do we protect our expat children?

  1. This is something that we have been talking about recently. Our eldest remains very attached to the UK and I am not sure he will ever fully accept being away from what he sees as “home”. It is causing some interesting discussions about what we do in the Summer vacation as the older two boys are finding it hard to think that we wouldn’t return to the UK this year. Friends leaving each year is tough – especially when it is the person they have most in common with. Unfortunately we are in this situation again this summer and with very few westerners where we live there is quite a limited opportunity for friends from a common background.

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    • It really is tough – I am thankful that both my girls seem to have found “best” friends who will be here for the same duration as us. As for returning to the UK or not, my personal feelings are that I think it can be helpful for children to keep that connection with their home if possible as it will make it easier to settle back there when you return. Of course you may not be planning to return for a while so this may not be in your mind! Plus it is always tempting to make the most of a foreign location for holidays – we are lucky here because our UK summer is the SA winter, making going home an easier choice 🙂

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  2. All very good points. I like to think that the resilience it builds in our kids is one overwhelmingly positive tick on the ‘pro’ side of moving and international schools. I’ve watched how easily int’l school kids absorb new students into their classrooms and friendship circles, perhaps because they are so used to people coming and going. I’ve also seen how confident my own kids are at introducing themselves to new people and finding common ground with them. All of these could be personality traits, but I do think they are enhanced by their surroundings. That said, my oldest is a middle schooler and our long term plan is to make sure he is in one place for high school. Moving kids in high school adds a whole new level of angst to the equation. For them and us!

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    • We decided we would move home when our daughter reached secondary age. In American terms that means middle school. We might extend by a year but even then she’d be joining the school when friendships are already formed, and this in a school where children aren’t used to welcoming new children in the same way as in international schools. I do hope though that if nothing else they always look out for the “new kids” in whatever future environment they find themselves in.

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  3. Our family has moved 6 times. Some of it in the US, some overseas. I’ve been a big champion of attending a local school if you can, instead of automatically looking for an international one. Mainly because it has worked for us, but also for this very reason you describe: there is less risk of friends constantly moving. Your article has brought this back. Thanks for the helpful links!

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    • Thanks Sine, there are pros and cons. Attending a local school may mean they are the only new ones and their classmates are not so willing to welcome them (of course it doesn’t necessarily mean this at all!). I’ve also found joining an international school has worked really well for me, as it has been very easy to meet others who have also recently moved here and are in a similar situation. But I think as I recall you saying, the length of time you are likely to be somewhere can make a difference.

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  4. Very thought-provoking. I went to an international school and I do remember a lot of people leaving and many periods of feeling friendless purely due to circumstance. Now that I’m an adult I can see this contributed to a strong sense of independence and also taught me to make new friends everywhere and anywhere, but it was touch at the time. Knowing this is what makes me feel quite reluctant to put my son in an international school here in Sweden. There are several other factors too, but I think I prefer the idea of him building up a more fixed community around him as we are hoping to stay long term (ish). Fortunately, as in most of Europe, there is such a mix of nationalities here that I don’t worry about him being the only “different” kid in school and being bullied because of it. I don’t preclude changing my mind about it in the future though!

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  5. I am honestly dreading the first time we need to make a big move. Our kids were so small last time they don’t remember, but now we have firmly established roots. Just this week two friends have told us they will likely be gone by summer and this is already a wrench. Thanks for the useful resources I am sure they’re going to come in handy soon #myexpatfamily

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    • I think preparing them helps. Make sure they grow up knowing that at some point you will (probably!) move on, that is a natural part of expat life. This is what it was like for me as a child, leaving somewhere was never a shock as we always knew it was coming. Ditto going to boarding school.

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  6. Pingback: How do we protect our expat children? | Chronicles of Serbia

  7. Great post Clara, and such an important topic! Like Keri said above I feel so sick at the idea of moving with the kids now! But even if we stay out here forever they will still experience everything you have mentioned above. The expat world is a tough one for us adults and therefore it is just as, if not tougher on our little ones. Great links there too! Thanks for linking with #myexpatfamily

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    • For me it has got harder to move the older they get. Moving when they were toddlers, even up until they were 5 or 6 wasnt so bad. But once they form attachments to people and places it just gets harder…my advice would be to think about schooling as well, eg if you are going to move somewhere think about doing it for when they start school or when they are due to move up to Juniors/Secondary/Middle School etc. But hey there are many of us TCK’s out there who have survived ok so it can’t be all bad 🙂

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  8. Some really good resources here and lots of food for thought – thanks! I always think the most important thing for children in international settings is to have the chance to say goodbye and grieve their lost friendships. Whether they are staying or going the changes are momentous. THings are easier these days than in the past though, out older two are still in contact with friends from former postings through my facebook connection with the parents.

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    • I agree, I have only kept in contact with one friend from the International school I went to as a child, and that was because she was English so we were able to meet up (and our parents were, and still are, good friends).
      There is also another dimension to this which is the child who never moves on and just has to keep seeing her friends leave. One of the girls in my daughter’s grade 2 class is the child of South African teacher at the school. I think it’s pretty tough for her, to never be the one to go….

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  9. Do you know I moved to another county at 15 and found it so hard, yet if we had to move to another country for work, I would consider moving. I suppose there are pros and cons to this, your children must have had some wonderful experiences. I think being moved from your friends at a young age makes you so much more independent and confident, well it did me anyway, I hope they have had the same great experience x

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    • Definitely pros and cons. Whilst we are having some fantastic adventures, I do worry about their education. I know they are young still (which is why we are doing it now), but even at this age falling behind can have a lasting impact. However I still think the pros make up for the cons, the opportunities they are getting outweigh the disadvantages. I hope!

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