How to reduce relocation trauma for your child

For 8 years of my children’s childhood my family lived as expats. They had to move to a non English speaking country and attend an international school that was British based. They had to cope with the isolation of not speaking the local language, the multiple strange British accents in the school they attended, a different culture (yes British culture is very different to Australian culture), a different way of teaching and so much more. My older two children moved from primary to high school, but my youngest two changed primary school and then went on to High School. That was a lot of change for them.

Returning to Australia was not easy. They had to negotiate a different school system and children raised in a monoculture, when they had been raised in a multicultural setting. Not surprisingly my school age children made friends with the foreign children in the Australian school.

My children managed this transition. They were helped by the International School being one where there were always new students, so there was more openness to make friends. When they returned to Australia they attended a school which was expanding and meant there were many new students joining with them. They all made friends and the older ones got after school jobs. They settled very quickly.

Children can find moving difficult

Not all children, however, find the move to a new area and new school is easy.

Often there is a focus from parents on the positive benefits of the move. I know that is what I did. Other parents I have spoken to also focus on the positives. If the move is the result of a conscious decision to move then the parents will be enthusiastic about it.

But it is not always easy for children to make that move.

New schools can be traumatising

In fact, children can be traumatised by the move and that trauma most often happens in school.

The best parents in the world who have prepared their children well for the move can still find one or more of their children are traumatised by that move.

The trauma lasts into adulthood

Many adults who come to see me about their past moving traumas will report the difficulties of moving to a new area, leaving behind their friends and everything familiar, and having trouble settling in to their new school and establishing friendships.

The losses and grief of moving

Moving to a new area is exciting for everyone, especially the adults who made the decision to move. But there are many losses involved in moving. These losses will be felt by the parents as well as the children.

How to help your child through these losses

Acknowledging those losses and allowing them to be expressed is important. Giving your child a hug and telling them they will make friends soon is not what they need. What they need is to know you have heard them.

It is important to acknowledge verbally that your children are sad they have left their best friend behind, or the activities they used to do, or the lovely tree they sat in when they needed a reset. It is also important that you are silent to allow them to talk if they want to.

You can’t and shouldn’t fix their grief. But you can allow space for it to be there, for it to be acknowledged, and for them to express what they need to express. Your child’s grief at what they have left behind is not a judgement on you, it is a normal part of change.

You grieve too

If you are honest, there are things you miss too. Maybe you already grieved for those things too but did it as part of the process of making the decision to move. Children may not developmentally be able to grieve in advance. Nor did they make the decision to move. It makes a difference to how they grieve.

The pattern of adjustment when you move

In the last 25 years I have moved a lot. What I came to understand, and observe in myself is that there are phases of adjustment you go through when you move to a new area.

At first it is exciting and new. There are definitely areas of uncertainty and stress. But there are also areas of excitement and the thrill of things that are new and novel.

After a few months that excitement wears off and you are left trying to manage in a new area where you have to work harder to meet your needs and those of your family. That is when the sadness can creep in. And the comparisons with the old life you had.

Eventually you will settle in and find a new rhythm. You may always miss things about where you were before, but you will have worked out ways to meet your needs and be okay with that.

Warning: Be careful what you say to your children

Be careful of what you say in your children’s hearing when you reach that sad/comparison stage. I have seen many children who were managing the move relatively well but then had to listen to one or both parents express how much they hated living in the new location.

Remember, when you reach the sad stage, so will your children. Research has shown that children will cope better with change when their parents are coping. So it is important that you give your children the security of feeling safe because you are managing this.

You can do this by resisting the temptation to criticise and express the wish to return to your old location. Instead be honest about the fact you weren’t able to do something or you missed someone but also instil hope in that statement. Maybe you can say that it is hard to find everything in a new location but you will work it out.

Being open about your difficulties gives your children permission to be more open about their own.

Take time to sit and listen to your children

Stopping to talk to each one of your children about how they are managing is also important.

Allowing them to not be happy about the move is important. Remember, this is not a judgement on you. I have known families who have made decisions their children were not happy with. They have allowed the children to express their unhappiness and supported them. Many of those children have shared later in life that they settled and loved their new life. They just needed time to form new networks and find their place.

Some children will cope. Others will not

It is also important to remember that some children in the family may cope well with a move and others may not. This may be as simple as the type of children in their year at school.

The child who did not fit in

One adult I saw recently moved towards the end of primary school. She had very supportive friendship networks where she had lived. She had grown up with these friends and they all went to the same school, living in close proximity to each other so that they could just wander from house to house whenever they wanted to.

In the new location there were no networks of friends she had known all her life. There was no way to just pop to a friend’s house. She was isolated in the new home.

Her brothers were into sport and quickly found sporting teams and made friends. Her sisters were teenagers and had the confidence to slip into the friendship groups in their years at school.

But this adult, then a shy 10 year old, found it harder to fit in. She was at the start of puberty and still trying to work out who she was. In her old location her friends knew her well and accepted her. But she was trying to fit in with new children who did not know her. They were not as accepting.

Her sisters were at high school and her brothers were off pursuing sport so she was very alone at school.

As often happens when a child does not fit in she was bullied. That made it even harder for her to make friends.

Her parents thought her unhappiness was something that would pass. They had busy lives and did not take the time to sit with her and understand she was being bullied. They brushed over her difficulties.

This adult told me how she had felt really self confident when she moved. Over the ensuing years her confidence in herself and her ability to make friends nose dived. For her the move had been very traumatic and had resulted in lasting impacts on her life.

She also found her relationship with her family was impacted. She had felt unsupported and over looked. She felt her parents could have done a lot more to support her and her siblings could have paused occasionally to offer words of support and comfort.

Her life has been impacted to the extent that as an adult she is still needing to work through the trauma of that move.

She has little contact with her siblings and her relationship with her parents has been strained. She has communicated to her parents what happened to her as a child and they have acknowledged the damage done to her, but the years of trauma have been difficult to overcome and their relationship has never recovered.

Plan your move to allow support for your children

Moving is often necessary. But there are ways you can help your children cope. These ways were discussed in the blog. The most important one is to remember to always be available to sit and listen to your children. Don’t assume that everything is okay.

It is important to reach out for help if you are not coping with your move. Remember, if you are finding it hard to cope then be willing to reach out for help.

If your children are struggling, then reach out for help.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you or your children with your move, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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