Making the the decision to move to Spain for a year was easy. My husband and I had spoken of living in a foreign country with our children when I was pregnant with our first child. Yet our sons were 7 and 12 the first time we got them to Europe. That’s when it hit us — act now, or our dream to live overseas as a family might never happen.
I remember the day vividly. The boys were playing fútbol in a plaza in Barcelona. Dave and I were delighting in yet another array of mind blowing tapas. He turned to me and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s move to Spain for a year. As soon as possible.” We raised our glasses of vino tinto together with a little clink clink, and the deal was sealed.
But that was a short lived moment of glory.
Figuring out how to move to Spain from the US would become a far more daunting journey than I had ever have imagined.
Moving our family to Spain was one of the most formative experiences of our children’s lives. (It was pretty life changing for my husband and I too!)
We had no local contacts to help us figure out how to move to Spain. We literally didn’t know a soul anywhere in the country. I spent a year on the internet meticulously digging into Spanish school systems, visa applications, finding housing and all manner of relocation details. So it came as quite a surprise to arrive there and realize all the things I hadn’t thought of — like how to manage our children’s social and emotional well being to help them adapt to their new language and culture.
Follow these seven tips to ease the transition to make your family move to Spain (or any other country!) an unforgettable experience for everyone.
- Humble yourself to ask all your questions — even the ones you think are too dumb to ask. Trust me, they’re not. Expats love to help other expats so dig into expat oriented websites, forums and meetup groups. Don’t be shy. Nothing beats first hand tidbits of info from people and parents who’ve really been there.
- A little paid guidance with the right consultant will save you money, time and a whole lot of unnecessary hassle. Serious, when was the last time you tried to find an apartment in a city you’ve never been to, where all the realtors and landlords only speak Spanish? Not to mention, one look at the visa application process will have your eyeballs popping out of your head. You want to get the mechanics of your day to day life up and running as quickly as possible. If that means shelling out a bit of cash for a bit of help, do it. The sooner you can relax, the sooner your children will feel more settled and secure.
- Choose your children’s school in Spain wisely. Hint: Evaluating schools in a foreign country compared to schools in your home nation demands you consider factors far beyond mere academic offerings, campus facilities and schoolday schedules. This will be especially true if you’re children will be arriving in Spain with little to no Spanish, or if you’ll be moving to a place with no personal ties before you arrive. For more information on the topic of expat education and choosing a school overseas, including a list of detailed questions to ask specific schools, download Family Move Abroad’s free guide to Your Child’s Expat Education.
- Build support networks from the start. Let go of your pride and be willing to reach out to strangers for questions and guidance. Ask your child’s school if they might pair you with a “buddy parent” — someone who doesn’t mind you calling them to ask questions. Lots of questions. A solid list of recommendations of the best grocery stores, hair salons, local events and a good pediatrician will make life easier when you’re brand new to a ciy and know absolutely nothing. Find ways to start people and make new friends, both for you as parents and for your kids. Join a gym. Enroll your kid in an art class or basketball team. Sign up at a local coworking space. Certainly, many of those initial people you meet will remain simple acquaintances. But in time, some of those folks just might become lifelong friends. The sooner your kids start getting those birthday party invites, the sooner you and your spouse are asked by some locals to join them at the bodega for an afternoon copa, the less you’ll all feel like strangers.
- Learn about culture shock, how to recognize it, and how culture shock symptoms might vary by age, personality type and other factors affecting your child’s adaptation. Speak to children openly about the changes they’re going to experience. Talk to them about the spectrum of feelings that might come up for them, both the exciting and welcome ones as well as the potential for loneliness and challenge. Start these conversations before leaving home. As parents, remember, just because you think you’re giving your children the opportunity of a lifetime by moving as a family from America to Spain doesn’t necessarily mean your children will think it’s the best thing ever. Expect that at some point they will question this decisions, and possibly even resent you for it. Give your children permission to have their own experience and trust in the process.
- Speaking of children having their own experience, be patient and accepting with the how they approach their new life circumstances. Part of the beauty of living in Spain, versus just traveling through, is that you have time. Time to soak up the culture in all sorts of ways both large and small and that extends well beyond seeing monuments and learning about the thousands of years of history that predate their arrival. Trust that they’re taking things in and picking up the language, even if they refuse to speak Spanish in front of you. Honor their desires for familiarity and connection to the home they left behind. Make favorite comfort foods at home, and don’t try to force paella down their throat if they say they hate it. Find a movie theater that shows their favorite Hollywood films in VO (Version Original). Actively connecting their past to their present, will help them understand that not everything they once loved in their life has changed. Knowing that will make them more open to the new life in front of them.
- And finally, the Spanish factor. Simply put, the more Spanish immersion you can give your kids (and yourselves) before your kids start school and begin interacting with peers in Spain, the easier the transition will be. This will be especially true for teenagers, and even more true if you’re sending your teens or older children to an all Spanish speaking school. So, what’s your level of Spanish? How about your kids? Can you put your kids in an all Spanish speaking environment either in Spain or elsewhere before you leave the States? This doesn’t have to equate to sitting in a dark classroom all day. Surfing camps, fútbol camps, cooking classes or any favorite activities taught in Spanish will complement classroom hours and make language instruction more personally relevant. If pre-arrival immersion isn’t possible, do as much as you can to front load their language development as soon as you get there.