Whether it’s the first or third time you’ve moved on as an expat family, saying goodbye is still a challenge. It’s hard enough for adults to say goodbye, but watching a child go through the process – no matter how well they handle it – can be incredibly hard.
UK native Joanne Koneberg moved to Beijing in 2011 with her German husband, Rene, and their son, Leonardo. For Leonardo, who’s now 4 and a half, Beijing is definitely “home.” The family is relocating to Hong Kong this summer, and Joanne knows how important it is that Leonardo understands that this move is permanent.
"Lots of his friends are leaving Beijing this summer. In a way this has helped,” she says. “We’re not the only ones leaving, so we’ve been able to explain to Leonardo that now it’s our turn to find a new home.”
Explain the Details
Moving is a tricky concept to make young kids understand, but you have to be open and honest and explain the details to them. Make clear that the move is permanent, but that nothing will change within the family – just house and country.
For some families, saying goodbye to their ayi and driver will be hard. If your ayi has had a very hands-on role in caring for your children, their relationship will inevitably be strong. “We’ve had the same ayi the whole time, so there is a bond there,” says Joanne.
There will be friends your child will see again and others they won’t. If you try to gloss over this issue by making promises to meet up with their friends in the future, your kids may hold you to this and it could hamper their ability to move on. Instead, focus on the great things they have shared with their friends. While they may not see them again in person, Skype chats and social media platforms mean they can still share happy moments with friends living on the other side of the globe.
Get the Kids Involved
Involve your children in planning for the move. They can study maps of the new country, collect information and details about their new school, or maybe make some food from the local cuisine. If you’re planning a look-see trip, go as a family so that the kids feel like they’re part of the decision-making for the next chapter in their lives.
“Leonardo will come with us to see his new school and help us choose a home,” says Joanne. “We’ve been selling a lot of his old toys. He gets to keep the money and is allowed to spend it on toys for his new bedroom. He understands everything will be new, and he’s very excited about it.”
Offer Comfort – and Lots of It
Your child will need lots of reassurance that all is well, from the moment you tell them that you’re moving and until you’ve settled in your new home. Expect to have ups and downs, and expect to explain all sorts of issues again and again. Australians Kate and Nigel Godde moved to Beijing in 2013 with their daughter Molly (now 12) and son Oskar (almost 10).
Beijing isn’t their first foreign posting. As a couple, Kate and Nigel moved to Shanghai in 2001 before returning to Australia in 2009. When they went back to Australia with two kids in tow, they thought the transition would be a breeze for them since they were going “home.”
“We totally underestimated how this move would impact on Oskar,” says Kate. “Shanghai was his home. He was too young for school, so he was with me all the time and, of course, our ayi. He was doted on, but back in Australia things were very different.”
“When you move back to your home country, you’re moving to an environment where there is no real understanding of what an expatriate lifestyle is like, especially one in China. This transition can be so tricky, as we found out, and sometimes the only way through is to seek professional help.”
When we leave a place where we have invested in friendships, learned to belong, and built a “home,” saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. As an expat, it’s one of the things children need to learn at a very young age. Saying goodbye is acknowledging out loud the closing of a chapter in their lives and reinforcing that this is really happening. Goodbyes create closure, which will help you and your family move forward and ease the transition to a new life.
You probably have hundreds of photographs of your kids with their friends, in places they like and doing things they enjoy. Have them lead you around the house while you take photographs of the day-to-day aspects of their lives. Print out these photos and make a memory book or a scrapbook together.
If you decide to have a party, don’t make it too much of a big deal, as this will emphasize the enormity of the impending move. However, a nice get-together with friends can help bring closure. Throwing a party in the middle of all the preparations for the move might seem daunting, but making the time for a proper farewell is something you won’t regret.
“Definitely say as many farewells as you can. Don’t try to play down your leaving day. Big or small, this is [your child’s]life and they have the right to be part of the change as it is happening,” says Kate.
In those inevitable moments when the kids say they want to go back to Beijing, try and turn their feelings into something positive. Explain to them that they feel sad because they had a great life there, found friendship, and enjoyed lots of happy times.
“Like any change, everyone in the family will go through a honeymoon period in the next phase. Even if your new home is great, exciting, and interesting, one by one you will all experience the realization that this change is permanent and you will all experience a sense of loss. You have to acknowledge it as real and work through it together as a family,” says Kate.
To leave a place where you’ve lived, and not feel sad about it would be even more upsetting. Being able to acknowledge this sadness will help your kids realize what a great experience Beijing has been, and to look forward to more wonderful things in their new home.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Dave PiXSTUDIO