Repatriation With Children – How To Be Sure You’re Doing The Right Thing

“Going back ‘home’? Are you serious?”
Repatriation with children
Jonathan’s eyes bulge out of his head. He’s 13. When his family moved abroad, he was 8.

“I don’t want to leave my friends! I don’t know anyone back there. Why are we going? Why don’t we stay?”

“My job ends next month. We have to leave,” says his dad.

Jonathan looks at his mum.

“Mum, is it for sure?”

She nods.

“But why did we do all that hard work if we now have to go back? How come you never talked to me about it before?” exclaims Jonathan.

“We only got confirmation yesterday!”

Jonathan slams the door and goes to his room.

Debbie, 10 and little Stan, 6 haven’t said a word yet.

The parents look at each other. Tough call.

“And you guys, how do you feel? We’re going to live closer to grand-ma and grand-pa.”

Debbie shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t want to change school but I’m happy to visit grand-ma. She always plays with me and I love her cakes!”

“Stan, you haven’t said anything.” Stan keeps on playing with his Legos. He doesn’t seem to care.

The parents are puzzled.

Three children, three different stages of development, three different reactions.

Moving abroad or repatriating are big changes. They deeply affect all family members. They’re not easy decisions to make.

How can you be sure as a parent that you’re doing the right thing?

You feel torn between returning to your home country and cutting your children off from their friends, their activities, their school. Sure, in some cases, you have no choice: if your contract is terminated for example, you HAVE to go back home.
You know that those experiences abroad – if successfully handled – will give your kids a wealth of skills for life, but your heart aches when you see them suffering.

In those difficult moments, you want to be at your best.

Drawing on the work of Francoise Dolto, paediatrician and psychoanalyst who devoted her life to listening to and understanding children through all their stages of development, I’ve included some useful and universal basic principles to guide your actions.

Let’s first define what it means to ‘do the right thing’.

Dolto mentions that in difficult situations the point is not to make the child happy, but to keep the focus on fostering a dynamic for his/her healthy structural development.
And a healthy development is more often than not built with hostility from the child.

Take the example of a kid who wants to sleep in the same bed as their parents. Saying no doesn’t make them happy, but it’s essential for their healthy development.

Talking to the children and giving an explanation that goes beyond the obvious reason of the move (mum or dad lost their job) is essential.
Children think for a long time that their parents are omnipotent, that they can move when and how they fancy. It’s important to underline the constraints you face as adults too.
Generally speaking, people want to avoid conflicts but it’s the conflicts that are formative when they are out in the open.

What generates dramas for the future, is what didn’t cause dramas as a child: what couldn’t be said and couldn’t be handled in the moment.

Françoise Dolto

Repatriation, like any other expat assignment, is a move.

Common guidelines on the way to handle a move abroad apply here, too. A move is a change. In this respect, it’s going to trigger grief.

Allow time and space for your children to grieve. Grieving is unique to each person and children grieve too.

Even if they seem forgetful or don’t shed tears, you shouldn’t assume that they’re not feeling deep sadness.

But repatriation is not like any other expat move.

“We’re going back home” can be so confusing.

What does it really mean for children who don’t remember the time they spent in their home country?

How is it true for families who relocate to the home country, but don’t return to their original house, nor their previous neighbourhood?

What does it entail for adults like you who left decades ago?

Pitfall #1 – You already know the place: You may be tempted to rush the process or not dedicate as much attention as you would for another move.

And so may your children. When you took them on holidays to visit family, friends, cities, monuments, natural sites, you gave them a sense of what the country was about. But it’s one thing to visit for a few weeks time, to be a tourist in your passport country, another is to live there, go to school and interact daily with family and local people.

Dolto asserts that children need continuity on 3 levels: their environment, their social network, their sources of affection.

Going back to your home country will bring disruptions in at least two dimensions: the place is different and social interactions will be highly modified.

Tip: Avoid any additional disruption. It’s not a good idea to decide that your child should stop thumb sucking for example.

Pitfall #2 – You may be forcing on your children an identity  that they don’t have.

You’ve spent years teaching your children about your home country. Abroad, you tried to re-create the atmosphere, the dishes, to pass on the traditions, the values, the language, the culture. You told them about your childhood, about the school system, about the pros and the cons of the mentality, the political system, the welfare situation.

Now you’re finally going to let them experience the REAL thing!

It’s both exciting and scary.

What if they don’t like it?

What if they find they don’t belong?

What if they don’t identify with their ‘home’ country?

Chances are … they’ll experience culture shock and they’ll feel awkward among their peers: they have the passport but not the shared experiences and the pop culture attached to it.

“Sorry I don’t know this TV show. Last year, I climbed Kilimanjaro with my parents. We lived in Tanzania.”

Hard to relate to your schoolmates who’ve never left the country. It’s just weird.

They may shame themselves about the language, not being able to master it as a ‘local’ or using ‘odd idioms’. They don’t stand out physically but they experience massive culture shock (not really reverse culture shock because they don’t remember or never lived in the country of origin).

They’re hidden immigrants. They seem invisible: they’re not seen so they can’t be heard.

Tip: Maintain the contact. Be present and lend an attentive ear WITHOUT judging, commenting, fixing, criticizing, denying, justifying, arguing however hard this may be!

Pitfall #3 – You think you know the country but you’re destabilized, too

Children and parents are not equal in repatriation.

You’ve called your home country ‘home’ but your children never lived there or don’t have any memories.

This is a totally different dynamic for you and your family.

In all the previous moves, when you went to a country as an expat family, all of you would be ‘equal’ aka equally ignorant: not knowing culture, language, customs from that country, being lost, surprised, puzzled as much as your kids. Now in your home country, you’re really supposed to know… while you may feel lost and out of place as well.

Children who could understand that you didn’t know things in other countries may be puzzled and frightened that you don’t feel you belong.

Where is home then?

What does it mean?

Repatriation can shatter all illusions of ever having a place that you can call home.

Tip: be prepared to take care of yourself. Seriously. You’ll need it. Expat grief, reverse culture shock, misunderstanding, rejection, guilt, doubts may all strike at various times.

Now, over to you. I’m curious to know how you’ve handled this special move.

What did you find most difficult with your kids?



  1. Christina says:

    I am Australian, my husband is Irish. We lived in Ireland for a short time when the children were 4 and 2. We have been back in Australia for 6 months and the kids miss their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The whole extended family lived within 15 minutes drive of each other and we visited them 3 -4 times per week (which I found EXTREMELY suffocating).
    My husband desperately wants to return to Ireland in the future 🙁 I am currently re-training to change career and will be dedicated to the course for the next 5 years.
    I feel like I should (unfortunately) offer my husband a compromise to return to Ireland, if he still badly wants to, in 5 years time when I’m finished retraining. I know he would absolutely jump at the offer and it would bring him enormous relief.
    I already worry about the effect it would have on our children. I know they would have an incredibly close family and a lot of love around them but the weather, lifestyle and enmeshed family system would be so very difficult to adjust to.
    I am at a loss as I know I would LOVE to stay in Australia but my poor husband so badly wants to go home.

    • Dear Christina, thanks a lot for sharing your experience. Life brought you back to Australia for a significant period of time – 5 years. Who knows how all of you will develop and grow? I offer you this quote from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

  2. We have been in Denmark for 5 years, My youngest son was 10 when we got here, now 15. Originally we were to stay 3 years, but I was asked to stay, and since we liked it, we did. Now, I have been offered a promotion to return to the US. We had planned to stay here about 2 more years, at which time I can retire, so this cuts it short. The company has told me they would understand if I did not want the promotion, and I could stay here if we desire. However, now might be a good time to make the move. First, there is the promotion. a VP position and the final 2 years of my Career at the corporate office. Although could be more stress, it is a good way to go out. Second, my wife’s mom turns 80 this year and although healthy, my dad was healthy at 8o and died at 84, so again, maybe now is a good time to go. Problem us, my son does not want to go, and other than concerns for her mom, neither doe my wife. We have a good situation here, and a nice Scandinavian lifestyle. We are really struggling with this decision. Your articles have helped regarding repatriation and grief. If you could offer some personal advice I would appreciate it. I feel a bit selfish making everyone move for a promotion as money is not everything, but we will be going back in 2 years anyway, and we have been here 5. I could go either way if it makes the family happy, but maybe now is the time to go.



    • Dear Tom, thanks for stopping by and for sharing your dilemma. It looks like you’ve done quite a bit of research to help you decide which way to go. As much as I’d like to offer more assistance, it’s impossible to give you a clear answer. I know this may sound frustrating because it’s not a rock solid advice in 3 bullet points.
      As said Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher who lived around 600 BC “The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way.” We all need to find our own path but that doesn’t mean that we’re alone. I’m organizing peer support groups to help gain clarity. If this idea sounds appealing to you, let’s talk.

  3. Jill Danes says:

    I am a Canadian who spent her childhood dreaming of warm climates. When I was 25 I met an Australian and I moved to Australia. Flash forward 21 years… My husband and I are extremely happy in our relationship, he is my best friend …we have three beautiful girls aged 12, 14 and 16. Our life here in Australia is comfortable but over the last 4 years I have been pining for home and my Canadian family. I am so sad at missing all that we have missed over the years in Canada, we have no family here in Australia and only a handful of close friends…who are extremely busy with there extended families. I feel I want to be closer to my family in Canada but by moving home I am up rooting my children for no reason other than I feel extremely home sick. Believe me I do realise that not all will be the same in Vancouver….I go home for visits and my mom introduces me as her daughter Jill from Australia….inside I am screaming…I am not FROM Australia…I live in Australia. I do feel like someone with no real home…I don’t fit in here nor there, but my mom and brother, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles are in Vancouver, I have missed that close family gatherings, Christmas, thanksgivings, weddings and deaths. We are a close family unit my husband me and my three girls but I want more. We have moved a fair bit within Australia and the girls have had to move schools a few times so they do know what that is like…they have found it both hard and rewarding. I feel life is a gift we only get to experience once, we should be getting out of it the most we can and I feel I have become a bit stagnant here in Oz. I miss the mountains and 4 seasons, I want to be close to my mother as she enters the last 10 years of her life, I want to be there to help look after her, is that selfish to be so caught up in what I want without really thinking of what my children want? The girls love Canada, they have been there 5-7 times, even going to school there for a few months when they were younger…but Australia is there home…I don’t want to look back in 15 years and regret my decision. Thanks for listening.

    • Dear Jill, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Lots of questions indeed. May you find gradually your own answers that will bring you peace.

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