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Preparing Children for a Move Abroad

No matter what the reason, living overseas can present an array of fresh and exciting opportunities for any individual. But it’s important to realize that international relocation can have a life-altering impact on an entire family, especially when moving with children.

“Any time a family moves — whether it’s two blocks away or two time zones away — there are going to be a lot of factors that influence how children respond,” says Dr. Tom Olkowski, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Moving with Children: A Parent’s Guide to Moving with Children.

With so many variables in play, parents moving with children must have a carefully constructed plan in place to ensure that children make a smooth transition into their new home abroad.

“Avoid sugarcoating the details. Explain that it’s a definite decision and you’re doing it together, as a family.”

— Dr. Susan Bartell, a parenting psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask series

Tailor the Conversation

First and foremost, parents must decide when and how they will tell their children about the move, says Dr. Susan Bartell, a New York-based parenting psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask series. “The older the child is, the further in advance you should tell them,” Bartell says. She maintains that older children — ages 10 and older — need between three and six months before the move to process the news and mull over emotional concerns. Younger children — between three and nine years old — require less immediate preparation, so parents should hold out until about two months in advance.

During this conversation, it’s crucial for parents to convey that the move is going to happen. “You have to tell your children in a positive, straightforward way,” Bartell says. “But avoid sugarcoating the details. Explain that it’s a definite decision and you’re doing it together, as a family.”

Provide Tangible Information

Prior to the move, parents should give their children as much information as possible about the host country. “If parents can help kids fill in the blanks with information about an unknown, the less scary that unknown becomes for them,” Bartell says. For example, parents can request pictures from their realtor, and actually show their children their international home, neighborhood and [[9SyArMU1E0qCMbCMm1w5oA:school]]. Kids will feel more comfortable and secure if they can visualize what their new room or backyard will look like, Bartell says.

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When explaining the cultural differences of the new country, Olkowski suggests that parents refer to resources such as the foreign language department at their local community college or university, as they regularly send students to study abroad and have a host of useful information about acclimating to living overseas.

Encourage Hands-on Involvement

Before moving to your home abroad, try incorporating the entire family into the preparation process. “Consider inviting younger children to cross off days on the calendar until the moving date arrives, or play games where the family can practice learning the country’s cultural idioms and language,” Olkowski says.

In addition to getting used to the cultural differences of another country, he also suggests parents help older children practice using the country’s currency by getting money from the local foreign exchange service and using it to dole out their weekly allowance. “That way, you’re still relaying valuable information, and the whole family is starting to feel more comfortable about it,” he says.  

Families can also use free online resources such as a foreign exchange currency converter to help older children grasp the idea of exchange rates and the difference in their buying power abroad.

Integrate into the Lifestyle

After the move has taken place, parents should try to get their children engaged in the community right out of the gate. “Try to enroll them in extracurricular activities right away,” says Dr. Doug Haymaker, a clinical psychologist based in Bridgewater, N.J. “The kids who do the best with moving are the ones who immediately get involved.”

For instance, if a child was involved in sports teams in the home country, enroll him or her in similar activities while they study abroad. “Kids identify with familiarity, so it’s important to maintain that,” he says. “It will also help them find a social network they’re comfortable with.”

Above all, Haymaker recommends parents pay attention to their child’s behavior for signs that they are not adjusting. “Simply taking the time to ask, ‘How’s everything going?’ will give a child the opportunity to reflect a bit more if they’re feeling irritable or worried,” he says.

By encouraging children to share their feelings and validating their questions, parents can help ease the emotional transition. “When kids realize what they’re feeling is normal, it gives them permission to feel that way,” Haymaker says. “And if you give them the opportunity to vocalize that, it will make life better for everybody.”

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