To be completely honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the importance of family rituals and traditions when we first moved abroad. That was a mistake. I took so much for granted living in our home country and often operated on auto-pilot; Christmas at Grandmas, the apple orchard with friends, books in bed, ‘I love you, have a good rest, see you in the morning’. These were all just fun things we did that built memories for our kids. I knew that we would miss some of them, but I was completely clueless about the part they played in the fabric of our life and family. Then shortly after our arrival in Germany, we got ‘schooled’ by our 5-year old daughter with the introduction of the ‘tuck-in ticket’.

My husband or I was awarded the ‘tuck in ticket’ as instruction to tuck our daughter in at night. When it was our turn, we entered her room with our customized ticket and we would earn a sticker, a reward for our good parenting behavior (think ‘potty chart’ for adults). This nightly ritual only lasted for a few months, but it taught us a very valuable lesson. Rituals matter. In her own, innocent way, she was telling us that with all the changes going on in her life, she needed some consistency. She needed something to look forward to, something fun. And in the midst of the changing nature of the expatriate experience, we quickly realized how essential that was.

Yes, I know there is a difference between rituals and traditions, but for the purpose of this article I use these terms loosely to describe the repetitive activities we use to help our children feel safe and secure that contribute to and shape our family culture.

My daughter is now 14 and when I asked her why she thought rituals and traditions were important, she replied, “It’s just nice to have personal things that connect you to your family”. As it turns out, the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with her (I may have a future doctor in the house),

“Every family should have activities that they enjoy together and that become a regular, predictable, and integral part of their lives. “”

Well, of course they should, but this becomes a bit difficult when you move abroad because everything changes. You live in a new home, your kids go to a new school; there are new jobs, late hours, traveling spouses, new languages, food adjustments and more. Additionally, you no longer have your extended family and friends nearby who were likely a part of many of these activities. All of these changes disrupt the rituals and traditions your family has, contributing to the stress children experience when moving overseas.

Many expats I spoke with have been able to combat this by consciously changing their rituals and traditions over time and with each overseas posting. This has been the case for us as well. Some have remained constant such as our goodnight ritual, family movie nights, and watching baby videos on the kid’s birthdays. But we have also established new rituals and traditions with each assignment. In Germany, our bedtime ritual of, ‘I love you, have a good rest, see you in the morning’ was said in German. In China, Friday nights meant dinner at Blue Frog and we decorated our Christmas tree with red Chinese tassels. These are just a few of the activities that helped us cope with the challenges of moving, connect to our host culture, and have fun along the way.

We came to Brazil seventeen months ago with two teenagers who have now moved enough that they no longer need, nor care so much about adding new rituals or traditions. When I asked my son, who is now 17, about rituals and traditions he said,

‘This experience has taught me how to value change. On one hand traditions and rituals provide something that is constant, something to fall back on. But on the other hand, when you come to value change it is important that those rituals evolve’.

It makes me a bit sad to lose that part of their childhood, but I’m also proud that they have learned to adapt to change and are interested in learning about and participating in our host country’s holidays and celebrations.

As you raise your kids abroad, consider these tips:

  • If you are preparing to move abroad give some thought to those rituals or traditions you want to (and are able to) maintain. Make sure your child knows they will continue.
  • When you arrive in your host country, be deliberate in following through. Life is crazy in those first few months and you may find it challenging due to all the changes you experience.
  • As you get settled, keep your eyes and ears open for new family rituals and traditions. Learn about the holidays and customs of your host country; talk to locals and other expats.
  • When you repatriate, take some of your new rituals and traditions with you. It will help support your transition home and preserve the memories of the time you spent abroad.
  • At every stage of your expatriate experience, encourage your children to play a lead role in establishing new rituals and traditions.

I have included a free downloadable worksheet here: (Rituals and Traditions), to help guide this conversation with younger children if you wish to use it. Regardless of their age, or the stage you are at in your expatriate experience, pay attention to the emotions of your children. What regular activities can you engage in that will help them feel safe, secure and connected? You may not be able to take away the stress that can come from moving and living abroad, but you can take steps to build a strong family that gets through it together.

I would love to hear from you. What family rituals and traditions did you take with you when you moved abroad? What new ones have you adopted? Which ones will you take with you when you return to your home country?

Need some ideas for family rituals and traditions? Check out:[