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Tips to help children cope with moving to another country

Updated 2 Dec 2014

Our guest writer shares her experience of moving from Japan, where she had two kids, back to her homeland of Malaysia, which was completely new to her children.

At age 12, a regular Malaysian girl, I started my moving journey. My first move was to a local host family so I could a prestigious school. During my high school years, there were several more moves back and forth between host family and home. Then, in 1995, I embarked on my first international relocation to pursue a pre-university diploma in Fujian, China.

About a year later, I moved again, this time to attend university in the USA. In the following years, I moved between the USA and Japan, and in 2010 I finally moved back to Malaysia. This time, I was joined by my two sons who were born in Japan. Many people have envied my travels, but as a person who is resistant to change, I didn’t enjoy these adventures at all. I perceived moving as a disturbance to my perfectly stable life.

While moving can be disturbing to adults, it’s even more traumatic for children. For the most, children have very little control over changes in their environments.

After my most recent move from Japan to Malaysia, my perfectly happy three-month-old and three-year-old sons started showing symptoms of nervousness, agitation, sadness and anxiety. My baby cried for what seemed to be no reason at all and he was cranky during his feeding and sleeping time. My oldest started having temper tantrums at his new daycare and lost interest in his favourite toys and games. They clung to me like koala bears and cried as soon as I walked out of sight.

These are just some examples of adjustment symptoms children experience with moving. Luckily, most symptoms usually go away after six to nine months – if this doesn’t happen, it is perfectly normal to seek help from local mental health professionals.

Here are some tips for parents to help their children cope better with a big move.

  • Discuss aspects the move with your children – for example, how long it will take to pack up your home and how your belongings will be transported. Letting them know some details helps with better mental preparation.

  • Let then say goodbye to their friends. Start learning about the differences your family may encounter and teach your children to be observant and respectful of these differences. Talk about what the weather will be like, how the local dress codes and greetings may not be the same as they’re used to and what sort of cultural changes to expect.

  • Reassure your children that even though there are differences, there will always be similarities as well. As human beings, we all wish to be treated with love and respect.

  • Observe possible mood and behavioural changes and be open-minded about possible negative feelings. Acceptance is the best way when dealing with children’s negative feelings. Most of the time, children deal better with challenging situations when these feelings are accepted and supported.

  • Spend time talking about the effects of moving and watch out for emotions children display during these discussion. Reassure your children that their emotions are normal – many people will suffer some level of grief during such a big change. It is more important to help them find ways to cope with changes. For example, let them make some simple decisions at home. Get in touch with your children’s new teachers to check on their progress in school.

  • Give your children have a way to contact their old friends and family members abroad.

  • Try to keep as many daily routines as possible the same as they were at home, slowly integrating new activities into their lives. Spend time exploring local places, engage in hobbies and activities your child enjoys, and make new friends – finding a new favourite restaurant or playground and joining local families in celebrating local holidays events are just some activities that help in the transition.

  • Last but not least, as parents we mustn’t forget to takes good care of ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally so we can help our children.

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