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Emigration: How to help your children adapt

Mar 15, 2022

Kate Berger, Child Psychologist, says communication is the cornerstone of any family who must adapt in a new environment. This means that you will have to talk to your children about what their fears are and what they are looking forward to. This also means that you will have to have difficult conversations about the realities of the move long before the move. Some conversation topics could include:

The loss of old friends, possible less contact with grandfathers and grandmothers, the reasons why the family is emigrating, common uncertainties and the impact of new jobs and schools. Prior to the physical move, a large part of children’s mindsets for the first six months in a new country is already determined.

Fortunately, thousands of parents who have had to walk this road before have many practical tips for what to do once you are there:

  1. Honesty about expectations and uncertainties

To be honest about what you know and don’t know, is an opportunity to build trust between you and your children. Be honest when you don’t know whether the new school will be more fun, the people will be friendlier and whether it would be possible to come visit in South Africa every year. Be careful to set expectations that you are not sure of and use the opportunity to look for answers together.

  1. Sketch challenges in a new light

If honesty with your children was the first step, your second task is to redefine the challenges. It is important that your children’s association with uncertainty or negative factors is placed in context. To lose old friends means to be able to make new friends; a smaller house means you could perhaps travel more; uncertainty builds character and makes a person more adaptable for the future. How parents word these challenges says a lot. Most parents try to cover real fears, or they are honest but do not create any hope. Any problem can be reworded as a short-term challenge that is a long-term opportunity to grow, improve or be happier.

  1. Set options

Give your children more choices. Let them choose between the option to isolate themselves at the new school or to take part in extracurricular activities and make a bunch of new friends. Let them choose which room they want in the new home, whether they want a dog or where you will go during the first school holiday. Get a handful of items that you can give them to decide over; it not only makes them part of the process, but also places a shared responsibility on them over the outcome of your new life.

Apart from communication there are also practical steps that you can take to help your children to adapt faster. Here are a few tips from parents who have had to find their feet in a new country:


The number one advice for parents is to create a routine as quickly as possible. Serve dinner at the same time, set a time that everyone has to be in bed or make Saturdays the day to buy groceries. Whichever routine you choose will make your children feel that everything is under control. It is a bonus if you can make the routine as close as possible to what it was before. If you and your children took the dogs for a walk every Sunday or went to eat ice cream, also immediately make this part of your new routine.

Routine has such a large psychological effect and many parents suggest that make your children’s rooms the first priority when you unpack. Make their rooms as cosy and familiar as possible, help them to unpack their things first and in this way help them to not feel that everything is jumbled. Even if the rest of the house is full of boxes for a few more weeks, a child’s room is the place that makes him feel safe.


Language can be a challenge, especially when it is a child’s third language other than Afrikaans or English. Make an effort before the move to have them attend language lessons, even if it is just to improve their English (such as through an online course that helps them with spelling and pronunciation). It is however important to bring home with your children that they are still Afrikaans, must continue to speak Afrikaans as much as possible and that a new language is simply an additional tool in the toolkit. The reason for this is because language speaks to our identity, and as your children systematically form a new identity it is important for them to know: To move does not change who you are. The new identity may be a shared identity, or a more multifaceted identity, but language is an important anchor that can still let your child feel like themselves.


Families who suddenly find themselves in a new environment and a new culture often try to become part of or assimilate to the new community as soon as possible. Although it will to some extent take place automatically, it is important to continually nurture the uniqueness of your children’s culture and identity. Across the world there are communities who for decades or even centuries retain their anchor identity, while they are still seen as part of the new environment. For example, as the Spanish or Irish community in North America would describe themselves as Americans, they also still often retain a communal culture of origin which makes them unique Americans. You should also pave the way for your children to have multifaceted identities and give them the space so that they can be themselves.

In your new environment you will adopt local cultural practices. Encourage your children to be part, but also create your own traditions. This could be to still maintain Day of the Covenant celebrations, to celebrate Kruger Day with a braai or to read news snippets from South Africa once a month and discuss with them. Traditions do not only establish a sense of belonging, but it also helps your children to find a place for their multifaceted identities.

Relationships with family

The last tip is to have regular contact with family and friends who still live in South Africa. Whether it be over Skype or through letters, encourage your children to keep as much contact as possible with cousins, grandmothers and grandfathers or even a good school friend. Good relationships that are maintained over a distance creates hope that the good times of the past are not lost; that one can always visit again and that one still fits into a family unit.

There are so many aspects that can influence your child’s life as soon as they are placed in a completely new environment but remember that it forms them. Look together for a new sense of stability and allow your children to still be themselves, wherever they may be!

ALSO READ: Important considerations before and during emigration

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