Moving Abroad? 7 Things Your Child Needs To Hear You Say

Guilt and the expat childAdmit it… You feel guilty.

For the third time in 4 years, you have to move. For you, it might just be OK. But for your kids?

They’re 6, 12 and 15 years old. The younger starts grade one, the second is heading to high school and the older one is right in the middle of her teenage years. All important steps in their life.

You feel guilty because this is going to be very hard on them.

Sure, they’ll get priceless life experience, unique cultural insights and precious skills.

Very useful…for later on. But for now, they’re going to suffer. And you’re responsible for it because you’re making the decision, as parents, to change their world.

I know. I’ve been there.

An international move is full of changes. You know what you lose. You’re not sure what you’ll gain. And before fully reaping the benefits of a new experience, you’ll have to mourn those losses.

Yes, mourning the losses.

In fact people deal with this kind of loss in exactly the same way as when a loved one dies: the emotional stages and responses are the same.

Moving abroad triggers a form of grief.


I call it expat grief.

Children don’t grieve like adults. That’s the popular belief.

Even when there is a death in the family, they can keep on playing, laughing and fighting. They may cry or look sad for a moment and carry on regular activities shortly thereafter. This comes, from the fact that children are living more in the present compared to adults who are more time conscious according to renown psychologist John Bowlby in his book “Loss, Sadness and Depression”.

Because children don’t externally exhibit the stigma of sadness or despair in such a pronounced and consistent way, we assume that grief in childhood is short-lived.

That’s wrong.

Children grieve. It’s a mistake to believe that they’re insensitive and forgetful.


From 4 years old and onwards, John Bowlby concludes that “they mourn in similar ways to adults”.

Expat children are no different. They’re not grieving the death of a loved one but they go nonetheless through lots of losses that they’ll have to mourn.

If this grief is not recognized and acknowledged, children might suffer later on from unresolved grief. This can result in behavioral problems ranging from anxiety, guilt, excessive anger to self-destructive patterns, substance abuse and school difficulties. Children may actually give up connecting with others. When they become adults and still haven’t solved their grief, they may face severe depression and/or relationships problems.


You feel guilty…

because grieving is painful. You know it. You’re going through it as well.

You feel powerless because the best thing you can do to help someone grieving a loss is to bring back that loss. You could potentially do it and cancel the move. But you won’t…

However if you understand what’s happening in your children’s head and if you’re willing to invest time and energy, you’re going to give them a gift for life.

Why? Because we’re confronted to loss all the time. Learning how to deal with losses in a healthy way can prove to be an invaluable skill.


So do something about it.

Grieving is inevitable. What does “healthy grieving” mean?

Healthy grieving means

  • First, accepting that a change has occurred in your external world and
  • Second that you’re required to make corresponding changes in your internal world to reorganize your attachment behavior accordingly.

(Adaptation from Bowlby of Anna Freud’s definition)

The 4 tasks of mourning are:

1/ To accept the reality of the loss

2/ To work through the pain of grief

3/ To adjust to the new environment after the loss

4/ To emotionally “integrate” the loss inside yourself – give it a little place in your heart – and/or reinvest the energy in other activities

(adapted from the work on mourning the death of a loved one from professor of psychology William Worden)


Expat grief covers 2 types of losses: definite and ambiguous.

  • Definite losses are clear-cut losses: you can’t get them back and you know this without a doubt. Ever.

Some examples are the loss of a house if it’s sold, the loss of your routine, the loss of shared events (like the soccer matches with your team), the loss of opportunities (like performing in the school musical).

In other words, definite loss has closure.

  • The other kind of loss is ambiguous loss, as named by Pauline Boss, leading therapist who has been studying grief and loss for more than 3 decades.

They can cover the loss of school friends, the loss of frequent interactions with the extended family and even anticipated losses like the loss of celebrating birthdays together or attending family gathering for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Ambiguous loss is particularly stressful because there is always hope. While the children are moving to another country, they’ll still be able to keep the contact with their friends. Not on a daily basis as they used to but through social media, Skype or visits. The persons are physically absent but psychologically present.

The insidious, draining thing about ambiguous loss is that there never is closure.

In this process, what are the 7 things your children need to hear you say?

Here are the lessons I’ve learnt from studying grief and talking with my kids.

1. “I’m always here for you. You’re not alone”.

Being fully present – physically and mentally – is one of the best gifts you can do for the grieving person. This is a general feature for children and adults alike. We all need to be heard and comforted by a warm and understanding person.

It might be difficult for you to hear the pain of your children but know that your attention and your dedication will be a major source of comfort for them.


2. “We’re changing country, language and culture but this is what we’re not going to change.” (list of all that’s going to remain the same like for example breakfast together)

In the midst of change, there’s an extra need for continuity. I believe that in the transition period, the child should remain with the major attachment figure (which is usually the mother but could be in some cases the father or a nanny). It’s not a good idea to change family structure and location at the same time.


3. “I feel for you.”

What grievers need most is acceptance and non judgmental listening. That’s the motto of grief specialist Therese Rando.

But how do you express both in a compassionate way?

The classical “I understand how you feel” can backfire because your children may argue that you’re not at their place and have no idea of what they really feel (which is true). They could have the impression to have their feelings dismissed.

In my experience, I found that the most valuable help was for me to listen to the child and certainly to refrain from justifying our choice. Just acknowledge and validate their feelings.


4. “You mean…? If I understand correctly, you’re sad because….”

Practice active listening which is asking open questions and reformulating the idea expressed by the child to make sure you’ve understood properly. Show her that you’re focused in the discussion by making frequent eye contact and head nods. Make the children talk, draw, express themselves by any creative mean you can think of.

Suggestion: Make a list of all the losses. Define whether they are definitive or ambiguous.

Suggested losses: schoolmates/house/toys/food/friends/extended family/language…

This could be the purpose of an artwork or a game.


5. “Do you know what you’re going through? It’s called grief. It’s a normal reaction and this is how it works. ”

Giving precise, detailed and accurate information is extremely valuable. It’s so helpful to know that what you’re going through is a well-known phenomenon, a normal reaction to a very frequent life event, the loss of something of someone dear to your heart. Giving other examples of grief can broaden the scope of what your children are experiencing. Grieving also happens for children who are not moving. In case of a divorce, a child will experience an ambiguous loss. The parents separation means that such a child will always miss one of their parents in the daily life. This friend will grieve even without moving.


6. “You feel angry, frustrated and confused. That’s normal.”

Be prepared to deal with anger. It’s a natural reaction to loss. Don’t take it personally. The anger can be directed at the child herself, you, both parents, a third party, the place you leave or even the country you go to. When we came to Australia, my daughter was angry at Australia (that it even existed!).


7. “I wonder how you feel, now that we moved 6 months ago.”

Mourning takes time. It’s a personal process which can last for weeks, months or even years. It’s important to periodically check on the child. It’s not because children don’t express it that they aren’t grieving any more. Maintaining dialogue is key, especially with teenagers who could have a tendency to withdraw in their bedrooms.


Finally, don’t forget yourself. You’re a role model. Children do what you do, not what you say. Take care of yourself. You’re grieving too. If you’re struggling, join the mini-course on grief. It’s free.

(As a bonus, you’ll also get a video on “7 Mistakes Families Make When Moving Abroad” and all new posts directly in your inbox)


And tell me, what would you add? What would your child need to hear you say? Speak your mind (and theirs) in the comments. Thanks!


Additional resources: Understanding children moving to a new home,  Moving can become traumatic

Credit image Flickr Creative Commons, Credit music Piano Society




  1. Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

    Moving so often in such a short time will surely have a huge impact on the children. Four years for a child is a long time and if those years are spent moving around, they really need help with that. They definitively need someone who takes care of them and listens (also when they’re not saying anything out loud, they might be crying inside!). – Is it really necessary to move that often during those important years of their childhood?… Parents often are “distracted” with al sorts of other things to organize around a moving that they can’t give full attention to their childern.

    • Thanks a lot, Ute for your comment. My feeling is that the frequent moves are more the result of company policies than a real choice from the parents. The company needs you here for this 18 months project and then sends you there for a 3 year position which is cancelled after 15 months so they offer you that job which is again in another place. Yes, you could refuse and resign. But if you’re not in a country where you have the proper visa, you’ll have to move “back home” anyway, so… You’re bringing up a very relevant point concerning the parents and their availability when organizing a move. There are so many things to take care of, it’s easy to get trapped in all the practicalities of the move and
      quite involuntarily “neglect” to pay enough attention to the children’s feelings, certainly when they’re “crying inside” as you so rightly pointed out.

      2013/10/22 Disqus

      • Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

        Anne, I know that parents often just don’t have a choice. I don’t blame them, absolutely not. I know so many families who are experiencing this kind of life. I’m worried about the children (and some of the parents who really don’t cope that well). I know, I’ve made this comment somewhere else on your site, but companies need to rethink about their policies. But this is easy to say (or to claim)… Have you heard about Sea Change Mentoring? Ellen Mahoney is organizing online mentors around the world for childern who are on frequent moves.

        • Thanks for pointing out the Sea Change Mentoring Program. I had briefly heard of it and took another look at their website. They mention that their primary target is young adults (from 17 to 20 years old). I think all initiatives for increasing connection are great!

          2013/10/22 Disqus

          • Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

            Yes, they primarily target young adults in transition to college. I guess there is a need for mentors (or counsellors, coachs?) for younger children in these situations.

  2. Thank you for this, Anne. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that people can say and do all that, and things may still go wrong as highlighted in a post I published yesterday

    • I agree, Carole and thanks for sharing this very moving story. In that case however, there’s much more than an international move. Bullying is involved and the situation depicted by your guest writer in the article is not very flattering for some international schools. Bullying perpetrated by students and teachers alike! What a traumatic experience.

  3. Anne-Marie Watson says:

    An excellent post. Oh I so wish I had read this before relocating!! There’s so much wisdom to be learned. There are learnings for me for the next relocation definitely or most likely even during our repatriation, as many of these things will still apply. Then it will be grieving about what you are leaving behind in your expat home.
    Great work Anne once again:)

    • Thank you very much, Anne-Marie for your warm words. You’re absolutely right: this definitely will apply as well for repatriation! Thanks for pointing it out 🙂

      2013/10/27 Disqus

  4. Gail Ison says:

    Hi any advise. We relocated to USA 3 years ago,with our young children. My husband has left us and moved In with American woman, I am now divorcing him. I am having to take the kids back,to the uk as our visa’s were based on his job. He bizzarly has decided to stay in the USA. My kids and i have great friends, schools etc. The move is happening at the end of their school year in June . It was tough moving here as a family but we settled well, now we are going back without dad.. How do I explain dad’s decision to stay in the USA.


    • Dear Gail, thank you very much for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that you have to move back to the UK because of visa issues. I understand your distress and your legitimate need for support. I wish I could help but I feel that the situation is far too complex to be handled in a few sentences here. I would strongly encourage you to find a qualified therapist to support you and your children in this highly emotional transition. There are nowadays more and more professionals working with Skype. This could enable you to keep the same practitioner as you transition from the US to the UK, if you’d like to. Feel free to email me if you have more questions. Sending you lots of warm wishes, Anne.

      2014/1/17 Disqus

  5. Kelly Rogers says:

    Thanks for this post. My children will always tell me if they are sad or happy. And you are perfectly correct that they copy what I do rather than what I say. I just love my children.

  6. Katrina says:

    This advice is very helpful, thank you! I’m a NZ born, Aussie married to an American. We started in Australia, moved to England with small children, then the US and now we’re heading back to Australia with a 9 and 7 year old. I feel happy to return home, but it’s not THEIR home, so I feel so guilty. I’m doing my best to be there for them and let them express themselves and will check back to this article many times to ensure I’m doing everything I can.

    • Thanks a lot, Katrina for your contribution. May I offer you 2 elements for reflection? I understand that you’ve been growing up in Australia so it means that your children will now get to know the maternal side of their roots. For them, it’ll be an opportunity to get a full experience of the country and to connect at a deeper level with this culture. For you, coming back “home” means repatriating. Be aware that this can prove to be challenging because you think you know the country and the culture but during your absence, you have changed and so has your country. Some people told me after they had repatriated that they felt strangers in their own country. Others decided to view this experience as a new “expatriation”. They remained curious about their surroundings, didn’t assume things were like when they had left and worked hard to rebuild a diversity of support networks. They mentioned that it helped them to go through this new transition phase. Wishing you all the best in this new endeavor 🙂

      2014-05-12 1:11 GMT+10:00 Disqus :

  7. Great article! We are from Peru but lived in Costa Rica for 3 years and now moved to Panama. We have a 6 and 3 year old and a 9 month old baby. Before we moved we made a poster called Thank you Costa Rica and the girls listed all the great things we experienced and were thankfull for. The girls loved the idea and I think worked nicely to be able to talk about the things we would be loosing and missing but were thankfull for having had (friends, teachers, nice beaches, foods, our house, etc)


  1. […] “Being fully present – physically and mentally – is one of the best gifts you can do for the grie….” […]

  2. […] expats.  From an adult point of view, the benefits of a frequently moving lifestyle are the “priceless life experience, unique cultural insights and precious skills“. The excitement of a life full of changes and constant travels seems to prevail and […]

  3. […] to the adolescent quest of the self, culture shock and expat grief and they’ll be completely lost. They’ll spend days figuring out: “If I don’t find myself, […]

  4. […] However they never expected such a culture shock. The kids couldn’t tell much but luckily Mary and Peter knew what to do and what to say. […]

  5. […] “Maintaining dialogue is key, especially with teenagers who could have a tendency to withdraw in thei….” […]

  6. […] expats. From an adult point of view, the benefits of a frequently moving lifestyle are the “priceless life experience, unique cultural insights and precious skills“. The excitement of a life full of changes and constant travels seems to prevail and […]

  7. […] make an effort to become my friend? She knows we might leave in 6 months. Worse. She’ll probably tell her son to avoid making strong ties with Max, my […]

  8. […] “Maintaining dialogue is key, especially with teenagers who could have a tendency to withdraw in thei….” […]

  9. […] happens in school playgrounds all around the world. But when families are in transition and children are uprooted, those incidents can blow out of proportion. Add the stigma of racism and the cocktail is […]

  10. […] the use of targeted keywords in a search engine (‘unhappy trailing spouse,’ ‘grief when moving country,’ etc.), you can find communities composed of individuals dealing with the […]

  11. […] more: 1. Preparing Children to Move to a Mission Field 2. Helping Children Adjust to a Move 3. Moving Abroad? 7 Things Your Child Needs to Hear You Say 4. TCKs in the […]

  12. […] Freunde zurücklassen müssen, kann schwer für sie sein. Kinder benötigen dabei besondere Zuwendung. Neben der emotionalen Unterstützung ist es für sie aber auch besonders wichtig, die gewohnten […]

Speak Your Mind