How to Help Your Child Adjust to Life in a New Country

A Guide to Supporting a Child Dealing with Cultural Transition

For the past ten months my family has been participating in a ministry program in Northern Ireland. My husband is working through seminary and the classes he’s taken while here account for 24 credit hours toward his degree. Staying true to our unconventional way of doing things, we embarked on this journey with two young children who, at the start, were just two years old and 3 months old. As parents who strive to guide our children through life with grace, we’ve continuously been thinking about helping our children adjust to life in this new city of Larne. Now that our stay in Northern Ireland is nearly over, I’m still thinking about how to help them adjust, but this time they’ll be adjusting back to life in the United States in a few weeks. For my husband and I, we are jumping back into something familiar. Our kiddos, on the other hand, don’t exactly remember life in the States. During these last ten months I’ve been asked by several families to share advice on how best to help children adjust to a new country. Here are some helpful ideas:

1. Wear Your Baby/Toddler/Preschooler

We love to wear our babies and have worn them from the day they were born. Being part of the UK, Northern Ireland has a “pram culture” (my own made-up phrase) meaning, everyone pushes their babies/children in strollers. This is a very cultural thing, everyone does it, and it seems to work well for them. We attempted to use a pram for our first couple weeks here and it just did not work. Our baby was so fussy and I decided to stop trying to fit in, and just wear him in the baby carrier already! He’s over one now and he still loves the carrier. It provides warmth, attachment, comfort, and a place of retreat when he needs to “check out” of our overstimulating world. We even purchased a toddler tula (LINK HERE) after a few months so that our older son could benefit from “going for a ride on daddy” too. He still loves it even at age 3. This is especially helpful in crowded areas or when our attention is being drawn elsewhere.

2. Bring Familiar Toys

Our oldest is very “into” cars, planes and trains. We brought along several of these that could fit into a lunchbox. He has played with them every day since we’ve been here and we are even taking them back to the States with us when we go in a few weeks. I strongly believe that this helped him adjust. Being able to wake up in the morning and see his same toys was a good way to bridge his two worlds together. They became “transitional objects” in his life.

3. Find Familiar Foods

Similar to the toy suggestion above, our first shopping trip was spent finding foods that were familiar to our (then) 2 year old. This will be different for every family, but it eased his mind to know there were bananas and apples here, as well as almonds, fruit snacks, and other favorites. It’s tempting at first to buy all sorts of different foods that look interesting, but sticking with familiarity at the start can make branching out easier later on.

4. Provide Frequent Explanation and Constant Communication

This one is SUPER important. As adults, we see something different, we process it in our minds, and we try to remember it for next time. For kids who are often already overstimulated by their world, they need to hear us explain why things are different. Taking time to talk them through daily activities helps them process what they’re experiencing and is vital to adjustment into a new culture. Many times my answer was as simple as, “That’s just the way they do it in Northern Ireland.” Being honest with my son about the differences we were experiencing proved to remind him we were going through this transition together. I encourage you to make space for extra conversation, and don’t get too worn down when they ask the same questions over and over (<< that is difficult I know!).

5. Keep a Sabbath Day

There are so many activities to get involved in when you move to a new place. It is a great idea to put yourself out there and join groups, clubs, classes, etc. and this is so important to meeting new people and making friends. But it is far too easy to become too busy. We find ourselves running from activity to activity and then our kids are screaming and we look at each other with the expression on our faces that asks, “What in the world have we gotten ourselves into?!” This is when you realize you need a sabbath day. God commanded us to take a day of rest for a reason! Usually we hole up at home, stay in our pajamas, read books, make food, and spend no time cleaning. It’s wonderful and allows us time to reconnect.

6. Visit Parent/Toddler Play Groups

This is a great way to get out of your house and meet people, especially people with whom you have something in common! Kids always help bridge the gap and give us things to talk about. Even before we understood much about the culture here, we were able to laugh with other parents about funny things our kids do. Children speak a universal language! They get a chance to play, and you get a chance to chat with other adults. It’s a win-win situation.

7. Find the Library

We found the library early on during our time in Northern Ireland. Our initial excitement was finding books (we left all ours behind in the move), yay! Our excitement was furthered when we discovered that all the books were printed in the UK, meaning the language was a bit different. These are so fun to read and helped us learn new words and phrases that are used here, but not in the States. Generally, libraries are central meeting places. At the Larne library, there are flyers for knitting clubs, book clubs, concerts, craft and story times, and our kid’s favorite: Rhythm & Rhyme, as well as other events taking place in the community. It also helped us get out of the house and into our community, one of our main goals here.

8. Give Extra Attention

Sometimes our kiddos “act out” during times of cultural transition. We all experience culture shock differently, and kids don’t often know how to express what they’re feeling. Words go out the window, and screams/grunts prevail. It can look like bad behavior, but really they just need some time and assurance that we are there to help them through it. When everything in their life has been upended, they need to be reminded that we are not going anywhere, and that we love them. As parents, we are the constants in their lives and our children need to be sure of that. Acknowledgement of feelings is important with all children and is possibly even MORE important in times of cultural transition. “I know this is hard. I see that you’re sad/confused/frustrated. What do you think we could do differently? Can I help you XYZ? I’m here if you need me!, etc.” Taking extra time for cuddles provides a space for conversation. Think about asking questions that don’t require a yes/no answer. This can give us a good idea of what’s going on in our kids’ heads and what types of things they get “stuck” on or what is hard to deal with.

It is really hard to adjust to a new culture, and can be exhausting when doing it with kids, but it is also so rewarding and satisfying! I hope this gives you some good ideas. Have you lived abroad with your children? What has been helpful for you?