Packing up and moving to another country is a great adventure for everyone, but if you are moving to Mexico with kids, you will need to plan your move with extra care to ensure your happiness and theirs.
To guide you through the planning process and pitfalls, we spoke with Kate Berger, an Amsterdam-based psychologist who specializes in child development and consults on expat kids and cultural adjustment.
We asked Berger how parents should prepare their children to move to Mexico, or anywhere abroad, and what kind of behavioral changes to expect during and after the move.
Berger said a lot of people do not give moving abroad with children the attention it requires. She suggested that during the early stages of planning families do a “go-see” to experience their new environment with the kids and learn as much about the location as possible before making the commitment to move.
“Exposing kids to the new foods they will be eating, for example, can be a great way to get them prepared for their new environment,” Berger said. “Also, you should help them connect with other kids who are in a similar situation. Exposing them early on to the expat lifestyle helps them understand that they are not the only ones going through this. Talk to your kids about it and ask them questions so you can get their perspective. Then they will have a much better understanding of what is going to happen and be more prepared to accept the move.”
Berger also said that involving children in decision-making ahead of time could be empowering because most of the time kids are not moving by choice. Often, they feel left out or might even be angry because they have not been included in these kinds of conversations.
“Involve them in decision-making ahead of time so they can be part of choosing what color their room is going to be or where they want to go for a day-trip once they arrive or what they want to pack in their backpack,” she said. “Even things like how they want to say goodbye to their friends can make a big difference in their acceptance of the move and an easier transition for them.”
Moving to a different country often brings behavioral changes, Berger said, which affects younger children the most. She said these changes are an indication that that they may be struggling with something internally. They might not come forward but instead hold it in.
“You need to tune in and observe the behavioral changes, things like if their sleeping patterns change drastically or if they are eating differently,” she said. “Maybe you notice them being moodier or not engaging in certain activities that they usually enjoy, maybe arguing more with siblings or with parents.”
Berger also pointed out that age is a very important consideration. She said younger children might be able to express what they are going through, but for older kids and teenagers, independence is more important.
“You want to respect their independence without smothering them,” she said, “but also show them you still care.”
We also asked Berger about the benefits of being an expat kid.
“Kids who are in this kind of situation learn a lot about being flexible, being adaptable, being resilient and having to sort of hit the ground running and deal with whatever comes their way,” Berger explained “They also learn a lot of interpersonal skills, so they can communicate with people from different backgrounds. And they learn a lot of skills that make them really uniquely qualified for leadership positions.”
Some countries are much better environments for expat kids than others. Mexico is one of the better places.
In a recent survey of its members by InterNations – the world’s largest social network for expats – Mexico ranked 18th out of 45 countries on its Family Life Index, which includes everything from childcare to education to children’s health and safety.
Mexico also fared well for kids in the latest HSBC Expat Explorer Survey, which is conducted annually by the global financial institution. The country ranked 20th out of 46 countries for family friendliness, 17th for the overall cost of expat children and 34th for childcare quality.
Are there any circumstances where children should be left at home? Berger said it depends on the family because every family is different. She believes that keeping the family unit intact is healthy, supportive and loving, but there are some situations where leaving the children home may be best if you are a corporate worker who is going to be in Mexico for a defined period of time.
“If the child is deeply attached to a particular community or if it is a child who has maybe worked really hard at gymnastics and is on track to become an athletic star, for example, moving might be the wrong thing to do,” she said. “In those situations, perhaps it would be important to consider leaving them behind.”
She also thinks that families with children who have special needs may find life in Mexico more difficult.
“In my experience, I have found that it may be difficult to find the right services, which makes life stressful,” she said. “I have seen quite a few families end up going back to their home country because it was just too hard to find the right services and support. I would never say somebody should not do it because it is up to the family and what works for them, but I would always recommend that they weigh the negatives against the positives very carefully.”
For expat parents who are planning to move to Mexico with their children, Berger offered some good advice.
“Be a role model for your kids and have open and honest communication that is coming from both sides so that kids can ask questions, can share their experiences, can be honest about what their feelings are and what they are going through. The same is needed from parents because many times parents think that you have to be really strong and put on this strong face for their kids. But that communicates that moving abroad is wonderful and it is amazing and it is not difficult at all. I think it is way more powerful to be honest and let kids know about the realities of what the experience is like. Honesty and communication are really the keys.”