Helping Your Child Process the Grief of Moving Overseas (Part 1): The Pre-Grieving Child


“Some people grieve in advance of a loss-they see it coming and feel sad. They look around and realise, “I will never do this again.” Others grieve after the change occurs. It is at this point the post-griever realises, “I will never do this again”. –Tanya Crossman, Misunderstood (2016)

Some children are pre-grievers, some are post-grievers, some are a little of both. Children who are pre-grievers will experience the heaviest amount of grief before they move overseas. They will grieve the losses that they know are coming even if they can’t completely comprehend what those losses will be. Other children are post-grievers, while they still may be sad just before the big move, they will wait until they have arrived in the new place before they fully experience the grief of their losses. Either form of grief is subconscious and is largely determined by the personality of your child. If you as the parent are aware that your child will likely fall into one of these categories, than you can be all the more strategic about how you help your child process their grief.

Most children will display some sort of grief before a move overseas. Often, it begins about 3-4 months before the move. This is tension is good and healthy and you can read more on that here. The pre-grieving child will experience the bulk of their grief during this time period. Below are signs that your child may be a “pre-griever” and tips for walking with your pre-grieving child through the grieving process.

Things to watch for:

Pulling away early. The pre-grievers may begin to distance themselves from the people, places, things they know they are leaving in the months leading up to the move. They may express disinterest in spending time with friends, going to favorite places, even playing with favorite toys. They know that they will be leaving them soon, so to avoid the pain of the loss, they will “leave” on their own terms in order to feel a sense of control over the leaving. If you notice your child doing this, you need to be especially intentional about helping them through the process of leaving well. More on that below.

Extreme sadness and depression. While sadness is expected and healthy, it is important to know when it turns from sadness to depression.

Signs of depression in children may be:

  • Self harm of any kind

  • Extreme changes in appetite

  • Extreme changes in sleep

  • Change in personality

  • Abnormal fatigue

  • Asking questions about death or suicide

  • Feelings of hopelessness, despair, worthlessness

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, it is critical that you seek professional help from someone who can help you child process the grief of the move. Grief is healthy and normal, but depression is a serious issue that needs to be addressed before you move.

Unusual fears and anxiety. Children who are pre-grievers may express unusual fears and/or experience anxiety. They may talk about these things, but more likely you will notice it through their behavior (not wanting to ride in the car, a sudden fear of being alone, etc.). If you notice these things in your child, address them and talk about them. Simply talking through them out loud may ease their fears.

Poor performance in school. A common theme in children moving overseas is poor performance in school in the months leading up to the move. For the pre-grievers, this is an especially likely scenario. In the midst of their grief they are often unable to concentrate well. As they begin to distance themselves and pull away early, this may include school as well. They think, “Why strive to do well if I’m leaving anyway?” The signs for this are obvious: poor grades, unsatisfactory teacher’s reports, refusal to do homework, etc. If you notice this becoming an issue for your child, address it with them and remind them of your expectations, but be sure you also acknowledge the underlying cause: grief.

Bad behavior. Children don’t understand that they are grieving and they don’t know how to channel the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing. This often results in anger about the situation and this often manifests in bad behavior. I have heard from many parents, “My child has always been such a well behaved, respectful kid but all of the sudden he is acting out! I don’t know what’s gotten into him!” I answer, “Grief. Grief has gotten into him.” While grief explains the poor behavior, grief does not justify poor behavior. However, the way that you deal with the poor behavior may be different than how you would under “normal” circumstances.

Things you can do:

Help them leave well. If you notice your child pulling away early, you will need to be especially intentional about helping them to leave well. The concept of RAFT is helpful for this. Here is a simple explanation:

      • R= Reconciliation. Or, Say Sorry. Ensure that you and your TCKs are reconciled with people before you leave. Don’t let your pre-grieving child distance themselves from people prematurely. This can lead to broken relationships, especially if they do so quite a while before the move. If this has happened, make sure that your child has the opportunity to reconcile with friends before the move.

      • A= Affirmation. Tell the people who you love that you love them. Help your children write Thank You Cards or draw pictures for their friends and family. Perhaps make a list together as a family of all of the people whom you want to say, “thank you” or “I love you” to before you leave and then include your children when you do so.

      • F= Farewell. Say goodbye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. Encourage your child to continue to engage with their friends, favorite places, and favorite things up until it is time to leave. Encourage them to not pull away early. When it is time to leave, take a final trip to their favorite park, schedule final play dates, say goodbye. It is critical to the grieving process that children know that it is the final play date, trip to the park, night sleeping in their bed, etc. and are able to say goodbye.

      • T= Think Destination. Talk with your kids about the place where you will be moving. What do you know about it? What might be different from where you are living now? What is the plan when you first arrive? Perhaps watch YouTube videos or look at pictures of where you will be living.

 Name the losses. If your child seems to be a pre-griever, it is important that you spend time naming the losses before the move. This will help them to process that grief they are feeling. On a piece of paper, have them write or draw they will miss when they leave. These should be people, places, and things. As difficult as it is, keep yourself from saying positive things like, “You’ll make new friends!” “We’ll see grandma next year!” “I’m sure you’ll find a new favorite park!”. Instead, allow them to just dwell on the losses. Allow them to cry and to grieve.

Address bad behavior. Remember that the poor behavior stems from something much deeper. Reprimanding the child’s poor behavior without addressing the grief behind it is ineffective and will create a rift between you and your child. Be clear with your child that your family’s rules do not change and that they will be punished for bad behavior. Many parents who are moving their family overseas feel guilty for their child’s grief and thus extend extra grace for poor behavior during that time. This is not an effective way to handle your child’s grief and poor behavior. Children are constantly learning boundaries and it is important that as your family goes through this transition, those boundaries don’t change. While it seems counter intuitive, reinforcing the “family rules” will help your child to feel more comfortable during the transition because they know what is expected of them and know that those boundaries are one thing that is not changing.

Talk about your grief. Children need an example of how to deal with complex feelings like grief in a healthy way. Let them see you grieve. Talk about how much you will miss people, places, and things. Tell them that you feel yucky inside too sometimes when you think about leaving. If you are having a hard time sleeping because of your anxiety about the move, tell them. You may find that they have been having a hard time sleeping, too. This will encourage your children to share their grief with you instead of feeling like they have to hide it because they think you won’t understand.

Be patient. Your child is about to go through a huge transition that will impact their life in ways they (and you) can’t even know yet. They are about to say goodbye to everything they know and enter into something entirely foreign. They don’t have the maturity to understand their complex feelings. The pre-grieving child needs considerable patience, as they are grieving in the midst of the packing, support-raising, goodbye-party chaos. You will have so much on your plate and taking the time to help your child work through their grief may seem overwhelming, but it is so, so important in order to help them start a healthy life overseas. Chances are, if your pre-grieving child has effectively grieved the losses before the move, they will easily transition to life in a new culture because they were able to say their goodbyes before they left.

If your child does not seem to fit into the pre-grieving description, you may have a post-griever. Read next week’s blog post for tips on processing grief with your post-grieving child.

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