Home During Your Move How Do I Help My Kids Transition to Living Abroad?

How Do I Help My Kids Transition to Living Abroad?

by Ali Wenzke
Helping Kids Through an International Move

Emma and Frederik Jensen received the phone call in June. “We’d love for you to join our company in Copenhagen this summer.” Emma and Frederik spent three sleepless days debating whether moving to Denmark from Boston would be right for their family. Making an international move is challenging. When you move with three school-age children, you also need to consider how the kids will transition to living abroad.

Timing the Move

Emma and Frederik decided it would be best if Frederik moved to Copenhagen first. The kids could enjoy school in Boston for a few months before moving to Denmark in December. This would give them time to explore their new city and to work with a Danish tutor to start learning the language before school started again in January. Moving a few weeks before school helped the kids learn some things about the public school system prior to jumping right in. For example, in Denmark they have morning songs and dictation instead of spelling. Knowledge of these small differences helped them with the transition. Emma found that moving mid-year was brilliant. Everyone wanted to get to know the exciting new student in class.

Help Your Kids Transition to Living Abroad

It’s the Little Things From Home

A hot tip from Emma:

 Before leaving the U.S., Emma and her family made a Target run. They filled their cart with their favorite toiletries, non-perishable foods, spices, and home cleaning supplies. When the movers came, she set the Target box on the side of the room. The movers calculated that they would have enough room in the shipping container for everything. Thank goodness! When the kids opened the Target box in Denmark, it was like Christmas day. They squealed when they saw their favorite cereal and beans and taco mix. What a comfort to have their Crest toothpaste and the bar of Dove soap that wouldn’t irritate their teenage skin. Emma knew it might take months to figure out what new shampoo or cereal the kids would like in Denmark. The kids needed to deal with enough changes, so Emma tried to keep their everyday items the same.

Exploring Daily Living in Denmark

Transition to Living Abroad

Do I have the right coin? How much is this again?

In those three weeks before the kids started school in Denmark, the family explored the city together. Going to a different grocery store every day for three days was its own adventure. They struggled, not knowing that they needed to pay money to release the grocery cart. Unlike in the U.S., Emma and the kids needed to bag their own groceries. People breathed down their necks, wondering what was taking them so long. Emma analyzed each coin to figure out how much it was worth as she slowly handed the money over to the cashier. The family bonded through these awkward moments and they laughed their way out of the grocery store. As Emma said, “We laughed, because what else can you do?” These shared experiences helped the kids realize that the family was in this together.

Dealing with Culture Shock

If Emma could choose to do one thing differently, she would have gotten more information about the school and the culture. Being married to a Dane, she thought she would have insider knowledge.  However, Frederik didn’t really know what the kids were up to these days. Emma never imagined that kids of all ages would own iPhones or that American swear words would be so common in primary school. Math and spelling were also different in Denmark. In math, kids did visual spatial perception where they needed to draw blocks in 3-D. In spelling, the kids needed to write out a paragraph with the spelling words instead of just spelling the words. These changes posed unexpected challenges.  Although you can’t prepare yourself for everything, Emma wishes she had known more about these things before the move.

Getting Involved in Activities Right Away

There's no language barrier in sports.

There’s no language barrier in sports.

Emma and Frederik decided to put their kids in sports the second day after their move. Emma didn’t worry about the jet lag. The kids were so nervous that they weren’t sleeping anyways. So, it was helpful to get them into something they liked doing right away. Emma and Frederik taught them how to say certain words in Danish like “defense”, “offense” and “throw-in”.  The kids could express themselves through the sport without language being a barrier. The Jensens found the sports teams to be different than in the U.S. Namely, the teams are all-inclusive and open to newcomers at any time. So, if you want to play soccer, you can play soccer. It didn’t matter how good you are. The teams eventually get divided by ability, but not until the kids play on the team for a while. Every time Emma called a team to ask if her child could play, the coach said, “Sure, come on by tomorrow!”

Opening Up Your Home to Make Friends

Emma told her children they could invite friends over as soon as they felt ready. Their oldest son invited someone over within days, even before the furniture arrived. Emma believes that opening up their house was the best thing they did. She says, “We have to be models for our children by sticking our neck out and inviting these families over. Yes, I speak differently, but nobody cares.” Someone in her son’s class started teasing him. To help with the issue, they decided to invite all the boys from his class over for dinner at their house. After school the next day, John reported that the party solved his problem. It worked! Now John believes that all problems can be solved by having a party, which sounds like a pretty good solution.

Building Confidence

Moving away from friends was the hardest part for the Jensen kids. Emma recognizes that she can’t take the pain and the sadness away. The only thing she can do is hug her children, tell them she loves them, and say they’ll keep in touch with friends. At the same time, she’s seen her family learn invaluable life lessons by finding ways to overcome life’s hardships. All three of her children are stronger and more confident because of what they have gone through. They’ve put themselves on the line on the soccer field or in the classroom, which they never had to do before. Now they feel much more comfortable about going into a new setting. They know that circumstances may change, but they can do anything. They also know that laughter and throwing a party goes a long way in making things better.

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