Expat children – how and when do you tell them you’re moving?

When and how do you tell your kids you’re about to move to the other side of the world?

This is how it happened for us.

Whenever we’d broached the idea with our two daughters – E, who was 8 at the time, and her sister, M, 6 – we were met with a negative wall. Nope, they did not want to go. They were (are) both very happy living in our little home in the west of England, their beloved school on the doorstep, friends living in the street across the road. Parks close by, grandparents and cousins only a short drive away. Life was sweet.


A Happy life in a Happy street in a Happy town….

So sweet in fact that we put off the move for a year. My husband had a chance to apply for an overseas posting the year before; but when our older daughter said she would tell him not to take it if he was successful, he stopped his application.

But fast-forward a year and he was still stuck in the same, highly stressful work environment. He had been there for four years, dealing with human trafficking, as well as a lot of political interest and pressure from bosses up the chain. It was time for a change – and due to cuts, the only real opportunities open to him were overseas. So this time we gritted our teeth, and he went for it.

I didn’t think he would be offered a post. Lots of people chasing too few jobs, apparently. He didn’t necessarily have the right friends in the right places. Or so I was led to believe….he ticked off each hurdle (paper sift, assessment centre, interview…) until the fateful day when he received an email letting him know he had been successful – and would we like to go to Pretoria.

Holy c**p.

We were on holiday in Devon with my family at the time. Within minutes of receiving the email, my mother and my youngest brother were already aware of what its contents were. This was not a secret we would be able to keep for long. We needed to tell the children – and fast.

Surfing in Devon

Surfing in Devon

We were both dreading it. I knew E, in particular, would feel betrayed. We had reassured her the previous year that we wouldn’t be moving overseas. I had gently mentioned that it might happen anyway a couple of times since then, but she had always shut down. We were on our way to the beach with my mum and youngest nephew L when the email had come in, so we continued with our plans, all the time communicating silently about how and when we were going to tell the girls.

We had an enjoyable morning at the beach, mostly digging in rock pools and clambouring over rocks. But we knew the inevitable was drawing closer and at lunch time in a nearby typically English pub, as we waited for our food to arrive,  the moment had arrived. We told them we had something to tell them – and my husband broke the news.

Silence. Tears. Both of them.

My heart dropped and my immediate instinct was to withdraw the news. Tell them we wouldn’t go after all. It was going to make them so unhappy. But then my head over-ruled my heart and I told myself to stop being silly. We couldn’t allow the children to run our lives – especially as what we were about to offer them was actually quite an exciting adventure.

So instead of placating them, I told them how wonderful it would be. How they would see giraffes and zebras in the wild. How we could go whale-watching, and zip-lining and visit not just South Africa but other countries nearby like Mozambique and Madagascar and Mauritius. My mother, who has visited South Africa herself, was able to join in, telling them about the penguins in the street in Cape Town. The tears started to slow but they didn’t stop, so I pulled out my greatest weapon: “We’ll get a dog,” I said.


“Or a giant tortoise?” asked E. And stopped crying. I can’t say her mind was totally changed yet, but she did at least start taking some interest in the things we were saying.

dog tortoise captioned

And at this point my little nephew L, still just seven and not much travelled, piped up “I’ll go. I want to go”. It may have been the dog, or it may have been their cousin’s reaction – but one thing I think the girls finally realised was actually how lucky there were to be offered this amazing chance.

We’re not out of the woods yet. My younger daughter in particular, always the more dramatic of the two, still bursts into tears from time to time at the thought of leaving her friends and school and family members behind. When I asked her once what she was most looking forward to about going to Pretoria, her answer was “coming home”.

But on the whole they both seem to be looking forward to it now. It helps that we were able to do a pre-posting recce, and they have seen their school and house and even been on a little safari. I know the day they say goodbye to their friends is still going to be hard. But hopefully the as-yet-unknown dog at the other end will make it slightly easier. So long as it IS a dog and not a giant tortoise…..

How did you tell your children about a move? I would love to hear how people have dealt with different ages – ie what do you tell a teen? A toddler?


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47 thoughts on “Expat children – how and when do you tell them you’re moving?

  1. It’s funny, but growing up we moved at least 7 times before I was 12, each time across country or state, and I don’t remember anything at all about my reaction to the moves or how I was told. I remember isolated things about new schools or friends, but not a single thing about about the decisions themselves to their impact. I will have to ask my mom!

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  2. Been there twice now. It’s no fun, but as I like to think – it’s a short term pain for a long term gain. As you know from experience, this will be worth it 1000x over. It’s hard to see them struggling now, but once the move happens, they will soon be acting as though they have always lived there. I’m always amazed at children’s resilience.

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  3. Our kids are still small, but we did tell our older daughter lots of exciting things about Moscow, before we moved there (she was 2,5). We moved to CZ, when she was 4,5 and initially she didn’t want to move, because of living grandma and her friend behind. Then again, we talked about many amazing places we would visit and she got interested.
    Although, after a couple of weeks in CZ, she was saying ‘ok, enough, let’s go back home (Moscow)’. Now, a year later, home is in Czech Republic for her.

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    • I love that she hadn’t realised it was a permanent move 🙂 It’s so much for them to take in at this age. We once went away for a weekend in St Lucia and stayed in this really cute little traditional gingerbread house. Martha was only two and evidently thought we’d moved there permanently because she burst into tears when we returned to our actual house…

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  4. Your poor daughter – did you get her a tortoise?

    I moved so often from such a young age that I always accepted it as a fact of life. It was normal to me and I found it very hard to understand that some people my age never moved (although I accepted that Grandparents stayed in the same place). We expatriated with our children when they were 2 and 4 so again they just accepted that it was normal. They don’t mind moving but they can take a little time to settle in to their new home.

    Our daughter misses England but only because she wants to see more of the family rather than missing her life in the UK per se. My Husband’s work is closely intertwined with their school so we only tell them when the news is ready to ‘go public’ as they are too young to keep a secret at this stage.

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    • Ha, we haven’t got there yet so the decision is still to be made but we’re definitely steering her towards the dog 🙂 I was like you, moved around a lot as a child so just accepted it as a way of life. And the last time we moved the girls were too young for it to be an issue. This move has been different altogether as they are that much older.


  5. Gosh this is a toughie. We moved as a family when I was 11, and I remember crying a lot when I was told and also in the months before the move. I also remember being excited and feeling “special” compared to the friends who were staying put though. I think this behaviour, and your daughter’s, reflects quite accurately what it’s like to up sticks: it’s a big emotional rollercoaster. Even as an adult I swung back and forth wildly before we moved to Italy. It must be so disheartening as a parent to get that kind of reaction, but I think it’s quite healthy. It shows she can communicate her feelings, let it all out, and it opens the door for lots of conversations about what her new life will be like.
    We’re gearing up for another move too, with our toddler in tow. I’m really struggling to think of how we’ll explain it all to him. I think it’s only fair that we do, but what on earth do you say to a 2-year-old that will make sense?! Perhaps books are the answer!

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    • That’s it – such a rollercoaster for all of us, adults as well as the kids. I still feel like that – although the nearer we get to going, the more impatient I am to just get there! I am also dreading the last couple of months with all the packing and sorting so I just want to get that part out of the way. My advice for children as young as your son is to start mentioning it casually around him so that eventually it is just a normal thing that he knows is going to happen to him. But not too far in advance eg don’t worry about it if you’re not going for a year. In the months before you move just start saying “when we move to….” “when we live in….”. At that age, as long as you are around, the rest is less important. nevertheless, there will probably be some anxieties and things like toilet training and sleeping can take a backwards step. Books are another great way of dealing with it and I know there are some good books out there. Have you ever looked at the Expatchild (http://expatchild.com/) website? That is full of fab resources! Do you know where you are moving to yet, and when?


      • Thanks for tip about the Expatchild – I will have a look. We will either be going back to the UK (but to a town that is new to all of us) or to Sweden as HB has been offered jobs in both these places. Both good jobs, both nice places… Somehow we need to make a decision within the next week or two, and then it’ll be all systems go! In either case he will start work in mid to late summer, though we’re still not sure whether M and I will move immediately. It’ll depend on how soon we find somewhere suitable for us all to live. We are talking about a matter of months though! I like your suggestion of casually talking about it, so as soon as we’ve made a decision I think that’s what I’ll do. It’s not like he won’t notice all the packing, anyway, is it! That’s such a tough bit, isn’t it – I’m really keen to get it out of the way too.

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      • You’ll have to change the blog name to something else – if it’s Sweden errrr IKEA and Patchwork? Herrings and Patchwork? Anyway hope you make a decision you are happy with, it’s so hard – your life is going to change massively but you don’t yet know what it will be! At least you know both are nice places.

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  6. Awww it’s so hard isn’t it! Obviously I’ve not yet experienced this with Arthur being born here but I vividly remember my parents telling me that we were moving to California when I was almost 17 and I was heartbroken (I mean what a fool I was going to be living in. California for Christs Sake haha!) it’s a difficult age but I enjoyed the fun of leaving parties etc and then as soon as we were on the plane to go it was super exciting!!!

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  7. We then had the same problem coming back to the UK haha!
    I’m sure that they will be so happy once they are there and realise what an adventure they can have!! Love that you pulled the pet card….genius!!!
    Thanks so much for joining in with #myexpatfamily this post is perfect and I love having you join in! Xx

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  8. Well as you know, like you I moved heaps in my childhood, but I do remember the time my dad announced we were moving to Reykjavik when we were on a beach in Greece, on a family holiday. We all (me, my bro & sis AND mum) just said “no we’re not going!” My dad was creast fallen! He was so happy with the news. I was 15. But we came round and moved there and loved it and I’ve recently been back and want to live there again! As for moving with my kids, we moved from Paris to the south when one son was nearly 8 (the other too little to realise). He cried for most of the way in the car (we drove – 9 hours), we were at our wits end suggesting things to cheer him up. Pulling into MacDonalds (a HUGE treat) and asking for a sad meal got a tiny smile (and he still remembers it today 8 years later) but it was only the bribe of a pet that stopped the tears too! I quickly said not dog or cat because we didn’t want to go down that route but we got him a rabbit which worked for a while. He cried on the first morning at the new school but came out at the end of the day saying he’d made friends and that was that. Old home forgotten! Children are very resilient. Sorry, I’ve gone on rather!! #myexpatfamily

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  9. This is a fascinating topic. I’d really never thought about it and I suppose that’s the important point you highlight. Our children are little people with their own thoughts and concerns about a big move and we can’t forget about the impact it will have on them, while trying to adjust to the impact it has on us. My little man is too young, but we will eventually leave the BVI and it worries me that if he’s lived such an idyllic life here, he might not adjust so well to life back in Blighty. We make a lot of trips home. Especially in the summer to escape the heat here – there isn’t much to beat an English summer so I’m hoping that helps! Lovely to have found your blog.

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    • Thanks and I’m happy to have found you too (although at the moment I can’t seem to see your blog, maybe because I’m on my phone…). I think taking your son home, talking to him about it and just making him realise that it IS his home is a great idea. There’s a lot of literature around about third culture kids and the long term effect living and moving around between cultures can have on children and their identity as they get older. I’m in the middle of reading Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere by Lois Bushong. It’s meant for counsellors if adult TCKs but it’s a fascinating read. On a completely different subject I’m always looking for people for my series Living in Small Places if you’re interested? I’ve already done Mayotte, Gibraltar and a small village in France and coming up soon is the Seychelles!


  10. For us it is much different because we have two older boys, one is 20 and the other 18. We of course knew the college age son would stay behind, he was in his sophomore year and already lived away at school. Our 18 year old is a senior in high school and did not want to come with us and we did not make him. He lives with family and we will be returning to the states next month to attend his graduation. Our Tiny American is just 18 months old so he doesn’t really have a lot of thoughts on the subject yet….at least not that we know! Thank you for sharing.

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    • Ah now that’s another topic again. Leaving children behind must be difficult, whatever their age – but I can totally see why he wouldn’t want to come at this stage in his life. I hope you enjoy his graduation, does he know what he’s doing next? This was the point in my life, having previously been at boarding school, that I went out and spent a year living with my parents (in Venezuela at the time).


      • He has been back and forth about his plans. We were hoping he would choose the same university as his brother, but that is not the direction he is leaning toward. This week there have been lots of discussions and i think he may have settled on a school. We will visit there when we are home in May. Leaving them at home was difficult and continues to be the hardest part for me. They are at the stage in their life though where they were moving out of the nest anyway….it’s still tough.

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  11. Ours were 6, 3 and 4mos when we moved. Obviously no issue for the tiny one (apart from the insanity of moving anywhere with such a young child!), the three year old was also fine. I don’t think he could really ‘get’ that he was moving and what that meant from a time and distance perspective. The six year old on the other hand was not happy with us, at all. It was tough for him for a while and he was very angry with us. But, then he made friends here and I suspect that he would now find it even harder to leave here. He is however very much looking forward to heading back to the UK next week for a visit and his best friend from nursery/primary one is still top of his list, which is really lovely actually 🙂 #myexpatfamily

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    • It’s something I am wondering about, whether the girls will want to stay in touch with their friends the whole time we are away. I suspect the older one defiinitely will with her best friend – they have been extremely close since they were in Reception together, and probably with another friend who is also a neighbour and they have known each other since they were one (they were also born on the same day in the same hospital and I am very good friends with his mum!). Technology will help as now they can chat to each other and probably even play things like Wii together. But once they have new friends in their new place it will be interesting to see what happens….


  12. I’m glad you went for sooner rather than later.

    Sometimes as an international teacher I’ve been asked to not tell my student that they are leaving. There was actually a plan for one of my students to go on vacation and just not come back. Thankfully one of the other teachers slipped and the student felt comfortable enough asking me if it was okay to pack up her stuff before break since she wouldn’t be moving back. She was able to get her stuff, but none of her friends were able to tell her goodbye. 😦

    Even though it is hard, I think it is best for everyone to know about the move before hand to get the closure that they will need.

    Good luck! Can’t wait to read your South Africa posts!

    -Amanda at What a lovely post! I know it is so hard to lose a loved one when you are living overseas. When I was teaching in China both my Grandmother and Grandfather on my father’s side passed and I was there, grieving, alone. I hope that when I visit these baths this summer I will have the same kind of experience.

    Hang in there!

    -Amanda at http://teachingwanderlust.com/

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  13. we started on the kids really young, as far as they could remember they knew we were moving to Bangladesh and because they have been hearing it past 5 years, when things finally started being set in motion last year, it never occurred to them to question 🙂 but all the changes of Bangladesh to Thailand to new Zealand threw them off and when we actually started packing, they started questioning why we are moving! We also uses a puppy and kitten as bribe to get them excited about moving 😀

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