If you find the thought of moving internationally by yourself intimidating, how would you feel about doing that with a family in tow? Family moves are trickier than single moves because of the numbers: more of you are moving. This means: more needs, concerns, desires, emotions, and challenges to take into account throughout the process. It includes more complex negotiations to make the decision to go, and many more things to take into account as you plan, make the move, and settle in. You may be very excited about moving, for example, but your partner might be reluctant to leave their job or friends and family to follow you. Or your children may be less than thrilled to leave their friends, go to a new school, and learn a new language. You understandably would worry that they won’t thrive or will hate you forever for uprooting them.
That said, if you’ve just been offered an attractive expat opportunity, have just accepted one, or are considering making such a move in the future – and you have a family – don’t be intimidated. It is possible to make a great move with your family without losing your sanity, ruining your relationships with your partner and children, or other disasters. Many families manage to do that. Here’s how.
1. Get everyone on board
Surveys show that unhappy families are the most common reason why expat assignments fail. It’s crucial, therefore, to get everyone on board with the initial decision and committed to making the move a success – first and foremost, your partner or spouse. This does not mean that both of you have to be equally motivated to move, but you must both feel empowered to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Getting your children on board, depending on their age and maturity level, is also important. Even if they didn’t have a say in the decisionto move, you can involve them in the process and allow them to take responsibility for other areas and decisions (such as the choice of home, school or extracurricular activities). This will make them feel more positive and invested in the move, which will help them adjust more easily to their new life.
2. Pay attention to timing
Timing can play a big role in how your family adjusts to its new life. This is particularly important if you have school-age children. Moving at the end of a school year is ideal and helps them avoid the struggles of ‘landing’ as the new kid in class mid-year. Allow them enough time to ‘digest’ the news of the move as well as to say proper goodbyes (to family, friends, and favorite places). Generally, the younger the child, the easier they adjust after a move, and teenagers need the most support to cope with transition challenges. Even if you don’t have full control over the timing of your move, try to think creatively, taking into account pros and cons of different options. For example, if you have to move in the spring, but think it’s best for the children to finish the school year in your ‘old’ location, then maybe one of you stays back with them until school is over.
3. Discuss and align expectations
Take time to think through the implications of the move for each of you and how you will address them as a family. Discuss all that with your partner and children (if they’re old enough). Consider all areas of your lives: health and physical wellbeing, family, friendships, work/career, home environment, financials, support system, social life etc. What challenges are you likely to face – each individually and as a family? For instance, are you moving to a culture that’s very different from the one you are used to? Will you have a hard time learning the local language? Will your partner be able to get a work permit or visa? What kind of support and resources can you line up to compensate for those challenges? Can you organise cultural training, language lessons, career coaching or other? These discussions will help you be on the same page, anticipate challenges down the road, and will result in fewer tensions and surprises.
4. Take concepts of home into account
Moving your life from one place to another and adjusting to a new environment is all about creating home. But home means different things to different people. For you it may be a specific location or landscape (I feel at home anywhere that’s close to water). Your partner may need to have a circle of close friends or belong to a community to feel at home. For your children, it may be as simple as being part of the local football team or enjoying pizza nights with you every Friday. Do you best to take into consideration what each of you needs to feel at home when you make decisions in every phase of the move. Doing so will help you settle in smoothly as a family and end up with happy, well-adjusted travel companions.
5. Stay connected
Finally, even the most thoughtful, considerate ‘movers’ can’t anticipate every challenge. Transitions, including international moves, usually involve some uncertainty. Make sure that your family stays connected throughout the transition. This will allow you to support each other and become more resilient; it will also make it easier to diagnose and tackle problems early on. If you check in with your partner regularly, you will be more aware of their feelings and the challenges they face; you will be there for them. This will strengthen your relationship and avoid one of you feeling disconnected or resentful. If you encourage your children to express their thoughts and concerns about the move – and share your own – they will feel acknowledged and understood, but also will be able to process their losses and become more resilient.
While nothing is going to make your expat move completely smooth and easy, following these five basic principles will help you avoid the biggest pitfalls.