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How to make a Happy Expat Kid

18 February, 2011 10:50  Erin Erin

Baby with puzzle globe. © Anetta - FotoliaBecoming an expat arouses all sorts of fears. What if I can't learn the language? What if I can't find anywhere I like to live? What if nobody likes me?
Take those fears, and now imagine you are 10.

Children of expats are lucky to join in on these cross-the-world adventures and most will be better people for the experience. This can be hard to explain to the child you are uprooting from their extended family, school, social group, and everything they have ever known. Considering expat kids don't get much of a say in the matter further compounds anxieties about expatriating.

But for all the fear involved, there are copious first-hand accounts and studies that show children adjust more quickly and completely then their adult counterparts. Age of the child plays a large part in determining their acceptance of this new "adventure". In general, children are more open-minded and outgoing- making them ideal travelers. While nothing can completely prepare a family for every aspect of moving aboard, planning and preparing will help guide them in the right direction.


The first step to getting your child established is often picking a school or childcare organization. Along with the obvious educational benefit, the structure of school offers a soothing routine, built-in set of friends, and a crash course in how to interact in a new culture.

In preparation of leaving your current home, it is important to collect and preserve important documents. Each child should have a virtual portfolio with sections on:
Health (inoculations, allergies, etc.),
Education Records (transcript, education history), and
Identification (birth certificate, passport).

These files should be updated semi-annually to ensure they are complete and current. Also maintain information on how to obtain official paper copies of all documents. Note that if these files are in another language then the country you are moving to, you will need a certified translated copy.

Find a School

The first step is to determine exactly what you and your child are looking for. A public school? A private school? A religious affiliated school? An international school that caters to your child's nationality? Is there a language requirement? Does your child need to complete specific courses or have special needs?
Ask your child these questions as well. Keeping them part of the process will help them feel more in control in a situation that can seem completely overwhelming.

Once you have determined the type of school, you will need to check out your options. An internet search should be able to help you find what your new home offers. Parenting and expat forums are invaluable resources for recommendations and finding other parents you can connect with and share information.

If you are being moved by your company, the HR manager monitoring your move can usually offer advice and information on schools in the area. Your co-workers are also important resources for finding real life issues and positives in the new arrangement.

Before committing to a school, take the time to visit it with your child. Ask questions about the costs, services provided (particularly for expat kids), the curriculum, extracurricular's, and expectations. It is important that it be a good fit for your child's happiness and success, hence your entire family's happiness and success.


If there is a language barrier in the new country, it is important to get the kids started as soon as possible. The younger the children, the easier they will catch on. Children who learn multiple languages early are said to be the world's only "true" bilingual's.

If you already speak the language, start slowly, but start talking to them in the foreign language. Start at the beginning- the alphabet- then work through simple words and phrases. If they can arrive in their new home ready to communicate even a few words there will a tremendous boost to their confidence. If you don't speak the language, there are many tools available.

While total immersion usually can't happen until you arrive in your new home, you can offer your child informal education tools like TV programs, movies, and radio in the foreign language. Globalization has made even the most uncommon languages attainable. If your child is of reading age, read children's books, local newspapers, magazines, even TV guides to get them looking at the written word. It doesn't really matter what it is, as long as your child is interested in it.

To further enhance their languages skills and possibly make a friend, a penpal is an age-old system of connecting people around the world. Modern times has updated the system from letter-writing to e-mail writing and video calling on online services like skype. Popular sites in which to meet exchange partners include:,, and In the best case scenario, soon-to-expat-kids can make friends with current expat or local kids and have more information about the place they are moving.

Languages classes are yet another option. Online courses allow you and your child to start before you leave and practice together. The sites and Babbel are helpful for getting started. Or you can evaluate software language courses like on the site

Staying Connected

At the same time as you are pushing forward into new territory, it is important for your child to stay connected to those things that make up their identity. No matter how long your child is abroad, there will always be a piece of them that belongs somewhere else. That connection may be with the comforts of home, the personal relationship with friends and family, the culture they are leaving or a combination of all three.

"Home" is much more than just a place. And moving to another country will be challenging. American children moving to Europe may be surprised at the smaller size of homes. Japanese children moving to Australia may be off-put by the sprawling nature of the land. Try to bring some "home" with you to give the new environment some familiarity. Bring some sentimental furniture, immediately put up pictures of your family around the house, arrange their bedroom as they had it at your last residence. Upgrades in home life also help to ease the transition. Buy a gift for their new room that can only be opened on arrival. Family pets often are a huge comfort to transplanted children.

It is a common pitfall of expat kids to initially rely on their old social circle after they have moved abroad. If your teenager is spending all their time skyping, not only do they feel left out of the old circle's life of parties and social gatherings, they are failing to adjust to their new surroundings. On the other hand, a certain amount of communicating with old friends and family is necessary to battle loneliness and isolation. It is up to you and your child to find the right balance. By creating a blog expat kids can vent frustration, brag about new experiences, and chronicle their new exotic expat life.

More than missing the house you lived in or the people left behind, there may be a aching miss for the entire country and culture you left. To ensure your child doesn't lose that national identity, an important part of their own identity, try transplanting an activity, sport, or something essential to your nationality to keep them aligned. For example, a Canadian expat living in Shanghai felt her children were losing out on a piece of their Canadian identity by not ice skating. She found a rink in Shanghai and a group of Canadian expats and reinstated this traditional Canadian activity in their expat lifestyle. The maintaining of a national identity is often as important for the parents as it is for the children.


The next steps you take are less exact, but just as beneficial as choosing a school and picking up the language. To move away from social norms and embrace a new set is taxing to adults and children alike. A big part of successfully transplanting a family is the mental game of psyching yourself up. Being an expat kid is a positive! They get to see the world, possibly develop a second language, and enrich their character. Expat kids are usually more mature, independent, flexible, and adventurous than their counterparts. The experience of being an expat kid can give them a better life.


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