Preparing for a Move

three women on a moving truckHow do you prepare your kids for moving? An Interview with Expat Psychologist

How do you prepare your kids for moving? Nick transcribed an interesting radio interview with Rachel Melville-Thomas, a child psychotherapist and expert on expatriate issues, and co-founder of

“I was just idly listening to a local radio station in Switzerland today (local, but for English speakers in the region i.e. it’s a station for international people, called World Radio Switzerland, based in Geneva) and by coincidence they interviewed a psychologist named Rachel Melville Thomas about moving, how to prepare your kids for it, what to expect from them etc. It’s great that TCKs and moving families are getting coverage like this, especially in a region where there are a lot of families who work for international companies and organisations and who therefore are highly mobile.

As I listened to the interview, I typed up the questions and answers, because I thought there are probably quite a few people who would be interested in reading about it.

Q: How big a deal is it to move country?
A: Any kind of moving is a big deal, whether it’s within a country or internationally. Children like things to stay the same, they like to have a sense of familiarity. Even if parents build up the move, if they say it will be exciting (for example they say that they will be living in a bigger house, they will be able to do activities like ski or ride elephants in India, they will be able to see new things), children won’t be convinced – they like the familiar.

Q: When you know that a move is coming up, how far ahead of time should you prepare?

A: It depends on the age of the child. Young children are more or less happy where you are. In this case 2 or 3 months before moving, start practicing with the toddler for the move. For example, I know of a father who, every day after work, played ‘moving toys’ with his 2 year old. They took a toy truck and the father asked “what should we put in it? This block? This toy?” Consequently the child was prepared for the move and it went well.

Q: What about if the child is say between between 8 and 10?
A: A child at that age can cope with possibilities. Tell them as soon as you have a firmish idea, because they have a ‘radar’, they can know that something is up – no whispering behind closed doors, they’ll pick up on it!.

Q: And what about adolescents/teenagers?
A: This is the hardest group, their whole being is wrapped up in friends and their peer group, activities in that particular geographical place. For some of them a move will be like ripping out the center of their lives. Telling them isn’t the hard part, it’s about how you manage the reaction. One thing that should be avoided is glossing. Parents tend to gloss – they look on the bright side and don’t pay attention to grief. Adults have a wider picture, in other words they can see that the move might make more income for the family, or give a greater cultural experience. This is something that children might not see. Parents worry that their kids won’t take it well, so they can go into ‘hyperdrive’ i.e. they point out only the positive aspects to the move and gloss over the bad bits. There is a school of psychology that says positive thinking is all you need to handle life’s difficulties. But it doesn’t work! I don’t agree with it, especially not for children.

Q: So how do we help kids cope with grief and losing friends?
A: When a parents tells their child or children that say their job has moved, that they have to think about going somewhere else and leave where they are, find a new house etc., the child at this point may have a strong reaction. They might look cross, disappointed, disgruntled, and it’s then that parents will go ‘but but but’ – they begin to gloss. Parents SHOULDN’T do that, they should just say ‘I know’ when a child says something like “but it will be hard to leave my friends behind”. They should then leave it for a while (a few minutes, hours, days), let the child process it, give them time and space. Let them think about it and hopefully come up with justifications themselves for the move. Also for some people who have recently moved, you will find that sometimes kids like school or the new place, sometimes they don’t. For example I was speaking to a girl in Switzerland who said “Switzerland’s really rubbish isn’t it?”. I didn’t really respond, I didn’t say “how can you say that about Switzerland?” and later the same girl said “mind you, the mountains are nice and the chocolate is good.” It’s important to let them come to terms with the move, without you constantly trying to drill home the positive points.

Q: What about separating from friends. Do they need a farewell party, or should you visit places they are fond of?
A: I always say that good partings make good arrivals. Help children acknowledge what a special place they lived in. Take pictures of favourite places where you lived even if it’s boring things like a park or a shop. With these pictures make an album or book of special places that they can take with them. Make sure that you get e-mail addresses and addresses from people. Take pictures of the actual house or apartment you live in. Some people don’t realise they might want to do this until it’s full of boxes for moving and everything is mess and disorganised.
HOST: I guess that might even help the parents.
RACHEL: Your children will only make as good a move as you are able to foster for them and parents are also coping with loss and change. It might be very hard to put that plastic grin on your face. It’s fine to say to your kids things like “I feel sad about saying goodbye to ____ too”, or “I will feel sad about not living near the local swimming pool, etc.”.

Q: But at some point you do eventually look at the brighter points.
A: When you’re talking to children, they have a very powerful internal life, a strong sense of how things are in their minds, their feelings. Pointing to outside things such as treats, rides, mountains, the surrounding culture and son is only a tiny part of their experience. To feel secure and happy they need an inside feeling of security and comfort that the external things just can’t meet. Some people just throw out stuff when they move and say “oh we’ll get some new stuff” which isn’t necessarily a good idea either.

CALLER, MIKE: I grew up as military brat, we moved every 3 years more or less.
Q: What difficulties did you face?
A: Well there was definitely the stress of moving a lot. Changing school, for example in one school you might be at the top of your class, but in your new school you were at the bottom. Changing friends was hard as well of course. I think it’s made me strong in the long run, but it certainly was hard at the time.
Q: Would you put your children through the same thing now? Would you move them around?
A: No I wouldn’t want to. My wife lived in the same house, in the same small town until she grew up. I didn’t have that, but I want it for my children.
HOST: Thanks Mike for your comments.

Q: Time to talk about more serious issues. Mike thinks he’s a better person for it, but what happens sometimes with some children? Can there be serious ramifications?
A: Yes, some will find it very distressing and disturbing. It effects their ability to develop well and can have an impact on their behaviour and habits.
HOST: Is this more likely to happen with older children?
A: Well I think so. A child’s peer group becomes supremely important around 8 and so any disturbances that effect that group are usually more important at an older age.

Q: What signs should parents look out for – what are some signs of not coping?
A: Most signs are behavioural, for example a child not wanting to leave the house, he or she isn’t interested in outside activities. Sleep patterns may be disrupted, they might not eat properly or lose their appetite. Also old habits they’d got rid of come back, such as in young children bed wetting or sucking thumbs. Children can also have more coughs and colds. Their immune system goes down. All of these are signs of strain. Generally it’s not simply the move that results in this, but it’s also difficulties adjusting to the new situation. In many countries you will have the language of origin if it’s English (either it will be spoken in the country, or the child will attend an international school where the language is English, even if outside of that enclosure people speak another language) but in some places where there isn’t the familiar language, in particular in school, children might feel left out.

CALLER, KEVIN: I moved to Paris at 25, I married a French girl actually. We lived there for 7 years and had two sons. We then moved to Germany when our sons were 5 and 6. We had two more children there. We then moved to Switzerland when they were 5 and 6, so the older ones were 10 and 11. But I wanted to say that it’s not just a question of kids, also spouses. The moves were really tough for my wife. Because she wasn’t stable, it created knock-on effects for our kids. There was a language change twice – first from English to French and then from French to German. The kids were confused, they didn’t know what language to speak. Kids adapt very well, they can put up with a lot. But a couple has to be stable.

RACHEL: A move puts strain on the whole family. You can see stresses popping up all over, which children can pick up on. It requires an enormous amount of tolerance from the non-working partner to working partner and vice versa. The working partner (often the man) wants to get on with life. It’s very exciting, with new stimulating challenges. He or she may come home to find his or her partner unhappy, disgruntled or depressed and might say “what’s wrong with you, go out and meet people”. Women’s relations with other women are scientifically proven to help their health in the long-run. One thing that may upset women is social input. The need to find a new support group as quickly as possible, through activities or school-based things perhaps, but they also need to stay in touch with their old support group. One thing I’ve gotten into recently is Skype, which I think is great for keeping in touch with old friends. Women need to find someone close to them, their mother, a sister, someone you trust. At the inter-spouse level it’s also important to avoid glossing and to be prepared to accept grief and work through it.

Q: What steps should be taken if parents think kids aren’t coping?
A: The first thing to do is pay attention to the child. Try asking politely what’s wrong. However the child probably won’t be able to say much or open up. But giving them space to do so can work. For example sympathising with them helps them feel like they have an opportunity to talk and open up – children look for a way in. You can give that to him by saying something like “oh it’s not going quite as well as we thought it might”. If parents are so positive about the move, how, as a child, do you say it’s not going well? The child thinks “they’re so happy with it, I can’t let the side down”. Talk to their teachers as well to see how things are going at school. They can also have friends outside of school, so get involved in activities, sports or otherwise, in your own language. They need to have home bases in their life.

Q: What time of timescale can you expect for transition? What if say after 12 months the child is still unhappy?

A: I think in Kevin’s example the kids adjusted pretty well. You should expect that 6 to 8 months after moving they might still be wistful or sorrowful and that’s fine. However, if there are still behavioural (sleeping/eating problems), some kind of functional breakdown at this time, you need to find help.

That was the end of the interview, but apparently the same psychologist will be back again next week, presumably at the same time. If I catch the interview again, expect another post along these lines!”

interview courtesy of TCKID

photo courtesy of Sean Dreilinger

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