3 Things Your Teenager Can’t Tell You When Moving Abroad

It’s no secret: handling a teenager as a parent is tricky. To say the least.

But moving abroad adds another layer of complexity.

Understanding what’s going on in your teenager’s head helps you be more supportive of them.

You can lend a listening ear knowing that it’s not all your fault if they’re struggling. You can be less defensive and avoid taking bitter remarks too personally. You can be more empathetic and engage on a deeper level.

Josh still can’t believe it. His dad got a new job overseas and the whole family is following.
Josh is in grade 9. The move is in a couple of weeks.

Teenager moving abroadHe has to change high schools and leave his friends behind. He has to say goodbye to his soccer mates and give up his cosy bedroom. He has to brace for a foreign country and another school where he doesn’t know a soul.

What for?

‘For your own good, even if you don’t know it yet’, said his dad, underlining the amazing opportunity for growth that it’ll bring to him and the whole family.
Josh doesn’t care about any extra growth opportunity. He’s 15. He’s growing enough already.

He doesn’t want to go.

He tried everything: shouting, blackmailing, moping, reasoning, arguing. . . nothing helped.
His parents have made a decision. It’s final.

Josh is shattered. He can’t fathom why his parents won’t listen to him. They’re usually pretty open: he is used to voicing his own opinions and being heard.

Not this time. Not for this move.

Josh feels powerless. His whole world is falling apart.

Let’s have a closer look at some of the elements playing a key role in this double transition: going through adolescence and moving abroad. These insights come from the book ‘Paroles pour adolescents’ whose author Francoise Dolto (French paediatrician) has more than 50 years of experience with children.

These facts are present in your child’s life without them – or maybe you! – knowing it. That’s why there’s no way they can tell you!

#1 – Adolescence is like a second birth happening gradually.

Françoise Dolto

Adolescence is not a crisis (as usually believed). Adolescence is a birthing process.
When the baby is born, it leaves its mother’s womb to come to the world.
As a young adult blossoms, they gradually leave their parents to fend for themselves in the wider society.

Adolescence is the transition period between childhood and adulthood. It’s a mutation phase during which the adolescent is extremely vulnerable.

To help us understand what it looks like, Dolto uses a metaphor: the ‘lobster complex’.
During the course of their natural growth, lobsters lose their shells. They become totally naked, easy prey for any hostile predator. Eventually, their body builds a new carapace but the transition period is extremely dangerous. Even if the lobster survives an attack, he’ll keep scars under his shell forever. That’s the same for teenagers.

Josh is embarrassed.

He used to have such soft skin. Now he gets pimples on his forehead and his cheeks. There’s stubble on his chin. His feet grew ridiculously long and his hands doubled in size in the last few months. His mum complains that she can’t keep up with his growth in clothes or shoes.

Josh is one of the tallest in his class and he doesn’t like it.

He wants to blend in, not stand out!

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Moving to another country is similar to a new birth.
You leave one world to enter another. You transition from a familiar place to a foreign environment. Climate, food, language, and culture change.

On a symbolic plane, you get to be born a second time because you get a new name.

Indeed, one of the most striking features that changes instantaneously when you move abroad is . . . your first name. People struggle to pronounce it, misplace the tonic accent, or misspell it because they can’t figure out the tilde, the umlaut or the trema.
Worse, if your language uses another alphabet or displays characters and signs that your new country can’t decipher, you may have to choose a new name altogether!

In short, moving abroad is another birthing process in itself.

And Josh will have to deal with both!

#2 – During adolescence, usual words take on another meaning.

‘I’m hot’ doesn’t mean the same at 6 as at 16!
‘Going out on a date’ has nothing to do with getting outside on a particular day of the month!

‘As they’re moulting, adolescents become tongue-tied when they have to speak of their feelings because words totally change meaning’, asserts Dolto.

Josh is confused. In the last few months, his voice has broken. It has become deeper. It sounds weird. One of the girls at school commented on it the other day. She found it funny.

Josh was not sure how to take it. Was it a compliment or a joke?

He became quieter.

What if her teasing him leads others to make fun of him?

At home, Josh doesn’t say much and it has a direct effect on his parents. Seeing their son withdrawing, they’re puzzled and more anxious. His mum complains they can’t have a proper conversation. He’s always on his laptop with headphones in his ears, only mumbling when asked a question.

‘How can you communicate with someone like that for God’s sake!’ exclaims his mum, throwing her hands in the air.

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Moving to another country – even if they speak the same language as you – will change the meaning of some words.
Some connotations will be different, some idioms will sound inappropriate, your accent will betray your country of origin.

When you move to a place where you have to learn a new language, this is even more obvious.

How do you then reconcile your mother tongue where words change meaning during adolescence with another new language or – maybe more challenging but in a different way – with the same official language but expressed in another culture?

Add to this that each generation of adolescents has their own slang with their particular codes. Nowadays in Australia for example, you’d better be on Instagram, post selfies on a regular basis and use Snapchat to be part of the popular group.

Having to manage several layers of language and meaning, Josh faces a huge challenge to make sense of it all.

#3 –Friends are so important for a teenager because of the image they cast back to him or her

Adolescence is the time when parents stop being the primary influencers. Teenagers are looking for a place among their peers to explore connection outside of their family.

Many parents think that making friends is important to develop social skills. It is but there’s another reason that makes friends so essential.

‘Teenagers are building up an ideal image of themselves based on the criteria issued by their circle of friends, their fashions, their values,’ says Dolto.

It’s the reflection of this image of themselves that they look for in the eyes of their mates.

With all his bodily changes, Josh is doubting himself.

There’s one thing that helps him though: he’s popular with his friends because he is unbeatable on Dead by Daylight and Call of Duty. Hanging out with his mates feels good when they’re playing together. All the others are baffled by his speed and agility on the computer screen.

He’s not interested in girls yet even if some of his classmates are already dating. Sometimes, he worries. Is this really normal?

What’s the layer of complexity brought by the move abroad?

Can you imagine for a moment what kind of image that same teenager will get reflected back to him when arriving at a foreign school in the middle of the year, struggling to utter a word, standing out with a terrible accent, awkward and clumsy as you are when unaware of the local habits?

Remember the lobster complex, this vulnerability of the teenager, especially to comments from other adults or peers.

It’s so hard for parents to figure out what to do.
If you do too much, you rob them of initiative and you deprive them of improving their self-esteem. Worse, you increase the odds for them to be laughed at.
If you do too little, they may feel that you don’t care about them.

It is a challenge to find the fine balance between the two.

Now I’m curious: what did you find most helpful to do for / with your teenager when moving abroad?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos


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