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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My Expat Family