Growing Up During Relocations: How does moving abroad change my child’s development?

Article by Jamie Rhiannon Fehribach, MSc., Social Media Coordinator

Often, relocation happens because of a new opportunity - like a parent being hired for a new job or family returning to a passport country in order to be closer to loved ones. When a child or teen has grown up in one environment, and then moves to a new one, does this affect their development? And if so, how? We asked our therapists at The Expat Kids Club - Jake, Annaleena, and Kate - to help us answer some big questions that expat parents ask us all the time.

How does relocation affect my child’s development? 

“Relocation involves switching mindsets,” Kate explains. “Different environments have different culture and language, meaning your child is now having to rewire the way they think about their environment. Switching mindsets taxes executive functioning capacities. Executive functioning skills are those associated with logic, concentration, decision making. So when your child is busy adjusting to a new environment, it could mean they struggle in the classroom, for example. Their brain is already quite busy processing the switch and all of the new information it entails - like new culture or new language. This can be both frustrating and tiring, which can influence their emotional regulation.

“On the positive side,” Annaleena adds, “relocation is a practical life lesson with so many important teachable moments that are not available in formal educational environments. For example, relocation exposes kids to different languages, as well as diverse ways of communicating - beyond words. In some countries, verbal-directness can be the norm, whereas in others this may be less common. Kids will learn that not everyone speaks and behaves the same as they do. They may also learn how to be more attuned to emotional cues and how to navigate challenging situations, like how to get along with someone who is not similar to themselves.”

“Global mindset also allows kids to think outside of the box,” Kate agrees. “Expat kids see the bigger picture. They relate to many pieces of the whole, meaning when a challenge arises, they can come up with multiple solutions. Their perspective is less narrowed.” 

At what age does my child develop an identity? Does relocation disrupt this development?

“Culturally, identity is both a macro and micro-development that each person acquires throughout their lives,” Jake tells. “Identity is created based on a child's surroundings and behavioral examples. This means, cultural norms can be imprinted from a young age.”

It is possible for relocation to disrupt development of identity,” Kate says. “It’s hard to reflect on “Who am I?” when a child or teen is busy figuring out “Where am I?”

“It’s also possible for relocation to disrupt development in other ways, too. Social development can be impacted, because expat kids and teens may not learn how to maintain longer-term relationships due to frequent moves. Academic development can also be impacted due to switching schools, either missing or repeating topics. Although there are many avenues for disruption, it is important to remember that, on the flip-side, relocation can be equally enhancing for development.”

How can I encourage my child to adopt new cultural norms and accept people who are different from them?

“A big part of how kids adopt new customs and accept new cultures happens when they see their parents doing so,” Annaleena explains. “Therefore, you have an important role as a parent. By modeling the type of behavior you’d like to see from your kids, you can help ease their transition to new ways of life.”

“Your overall goal would be to achieve a level of Cultural Humility, rather than focusing on acquiring knowledge of certain cultures,” Jake adds. “In short, you want to instill in your child the idea to be open-minded, inquisitive, and a life-long-learner to all things culturally diverse. You don't have to adopt another culture yourself in order to do this. By accepting and being open to the experience of cultures different from your own, you are still teaching your children the skills they need to navigate new and diverse environments.”

Does the age of my child impact the easiness of a transition? Is it easier for younger kids to adjust compared to older kids? Why?

“Many families ask us this question,” Kate says. “Developmentally younger kids (e.g., up to +/- 4 years) have a ‘smaller circle,’ so if primary caregivers and daily routines are maintained, younger kids may have a slightly easier time with a relocation.

“However, parents might underestimate the impact a big move can have on themselves. It's important to note that when a parent is struggling, like with finding community or a sense of belongingness, a child may be able to sense this shift. This can make a difference for how a child views a transition, even from a young age.”

“Definitely,” Annaleena adds. “The best answer for this question is that every kid has a unique set of circumstances. All the individual factors are much more influential than the age of a child.”

Are there unique challenges to expat teens? Why do they have these challenges, and not younger children?

“Simply, yes,” Jake begins. “Social development is at a fever pitch for most teens. Identifying with peers and discovering emotional relationships with people outside of their family is paramount at this point in development. Thus, expat teens are faced with a really unique challenge and opportunity: to find a diverse, broad, novel friend group. This is unique for expat teens, because most teens are exposed to monoculture environments. Our expat teens instead find themselves in a wide cultural pool. This also opens the door to some social struggles that can be tricky to navigate.”

“The kids we work with often come from families that are seemingly always ‘on the move,’ where their parents are regularly relocating for work,” Kate explains. “This puts pressure on teens to continually acquire and re-acquire a sense of self, as well as reestablish a peer network in each new environment. Additionally, parents of the teens we see are often quite successful in their careers, and therefore have high expectations for their child’s success as well. This can put even more pressure on their teens.”

Do you have a teen or child going through a relocation?

Our excellent team of therapists are available to help make transitions easier to manage. To learn more about our services, including our new teen group therapy, visit either our teen services page or our child services page.