Culture Shock and Your Expat Child: What to Do?

Have you ever wondered what’s happening in your children’s head when relocating abroad?

Credit Image Riyaz Ahamed @Wikimedia Commons

What would you do to make your child happy?

In this article “Culture Shock: What Your Children Can’t Tell You“, you already found some answers.

But it’s not enough.

As you will be the target of your children’s anger, frustration and resentment over the move, you want to make sure you won’t be causing them more pain.

As you’ll be struggling yourself with culture shock, you don’t want to feel even more guilty, sad and crippled with self-doubt. All alone. Far from home.

Moreover, after giving up your job and leaving your friends and family behind, let’s face it: as a “trailing spouse”, the last thing you want is… to be a bad mother!

This might sound brutal but let me explain what I mean. I’m focusing here on the expatriate families sent abroad for business reasons. Your other half, the bread-earner, your partner, is seldom home: working long hours or on business trips. You’re mostly left alone to figure out what to do and how to deal with the kids. Add to it the loss of your professional identity and the incomprehension of your support network, what’s left over?

Ever heard this kind of sentence from an exhausted partner? “You don’t have to work like me, my job is so stressful. I’m under so much pressure. You should at least be able to fix the family while I’m earning the money.”

AND if you dare talking about your problems to your parents or your in-laws (!), you’re in for a treat. “I told you! No wonder the kids are messed up. It’s irresponsible to uproot children like that.”

If your family is collapsing, and if in the only role you’re left with, you’re not successful, it’s a sure recipe for depression.

So what can you – as a parent – do to make the transition smoother?

Let me first state that I don’t pretend to have a magic formula for guaranteed success. By no means. But here is how I plan to help you in this article.

I’ll first highlight the 3 pillars of culture shock, based on the work from prominent experts in the field.

I’ll then outline 2 basic principles that I’ve applied myself and which have proved to be excellent in raising my 4 children so far.

Finally I’ll give you a couple of practical tips to deal with the acute phase of culture shock: just after the move.

 

We’ve seen that culture shock can trigger different reactions according to your age, your place in the family and your level of decision in the moving process.

So instead of focusing on Oberg’s model, let’s first have a look at the skills required to deal successfully with culture shock.

Culture shock will need you to deal with 3 areas:

1. Managing stress

Expatriation means change. Change means stress. Even if the change is positive!

Changing house and neighborhood, getting used to a new school or a new office, making new friends, discovering new food, learning another language: those are only some of the many changes that you and your family will face.

This is why the ability to overcome and even be strengthened by the adversities of life is key. It’s called being resilient. And it makes a real difference. The good news is: learning how to become more resilient is possible. Want to read more on that subject? Follow the series here.

2. Effective communication

Imagine you’re deaf and you’ve got tape on your mouth. This is what happens when you’re in a foreign country with a foreign language. In a few hours, you’ll lose all ability to communicate. Not only to conduct a dialogue but even to decipher non-verbal cues. Does this smile mean that I’m welcome? Or that my interlocutor is embarrassed?

To be able to interact successfully in a society, you’ll have to figure out what governs relationships between people. While there are obvious differences you can notice right away, there are so many hidden references you might not even be conscious of. For example, birthday gifts: in one culture, it’s polite to open them in front of the guests. In another country, it’s insulting because people assume that you’re more interested in the gift than in the person.

And this is where you inevitably make some faux-pas, sound awkward and beat yourself up. Gasp! You’ll have to master the art of resolving conflicts. And quickly!

3. Your sense of identity

“In France, I’m told that I’m the little Chinese. In China, I’m called the little French. Mummy, who am I finally?”
This is the smart question of Betty’s 6 year-old son, as mentioned in our discussion on children and culture shock.
Who am I? is one of the key questions about identity. We saw in this example how acute it can be – even for young children.

“At school, everybody says I’m lucky because I already visited the Eiffel Tower” said my 10 year-old daughter.
“Of the 3 languages I speak, my preferred one is French”, mentioned my teenage daughter a few days ago before adding: ”I think I like it most because Australians are so enthusiastic about France”.

Can you feel how the reactions from the people in the host country can influence your identity?

 

Culture shock will shake these 3 pillars. In my experience, the most violent shock comes with the numerous changes just after the move while the deepest impacts are on identity building and intercultural competence later on.

So how can you best help your children to navigate in these troubled waters?

 

Principle #1

“Trust yourself. You’re the best parents in the world… because your children don’t have any others”

Françoise Dolto                                             Click to tweet

In other words, follow your heart (and not always the reason). Secure your children’s emotional well-being first.

Let’s take an example. Your child is expected at her new school tomorrow but terrified at this very idea. You feel she’s not ready yet. She needs a few more days at home to settle in. Allow her this extra time. Don’t worry about her academic performance, the pressure from the school or the critics from your mother-in-law.

Inform yourself, take advice, talk to experienced people. But ultimately follow your intuition to make your own decisions.

 

Principle #2

“No matter what you assume, your children are smarter than you think.”

Treat them that way!

I believe that there is very little that can’t be said to a child. Why? Because whatever you feel, they’ll feel it. They have this intuition, this sixth sense. They know, even only unconsciously.

So why verbalizing? Because putting words on inner feelings is a freeing process. It allows your children to grow, in a healthy way.

Based on those 2 principles, here are 5 practical steps to help you handle culture shock as best as possible.

 

  • Tip #1   Inform your children as EARLY as possible and as accurately as you can

This is true for everything.

Before the move: Even with 6 months notice, my son felt he had his back to the wall. Of course, after 15 years living in the same place!

Learn about the country, the culture, the language. Go on a pre-visit. Share with your kids as much as you can. Explain them the differences they will see right away (like the third eye for women in India for example) and the reasons behind. With Internet, you can view videos, pictures, take a cross-cultural course. All this preparation work will pay off at your arrival. It’ll reduce the anxiety.

Talk to your kids about culture shock and what it can do. Explain them that you’ll feel it too!
Have you thought of telling them that they are (or will be) TCKs or CCKs? It feels good to know that there’s a group of people out there they can belong and relate to.

 

  • Tip #2   Work at keeping continuity

Minimize all changes. Even the smallest one.

Practically: this means re-creating the bedroom with familiar objects (same linen, same toys, same posters..). In the kitchen: same plates, dishes, tablecloth (if you had one)…
As much as you can, keep the same furniture, clothes, books, toys.

Continue to speak your language(s). There’s no need to brutally drop one language.

Keep a very structured schedule : wake-up time / meal time / bed time.This gives a routine with some strong references: a framework to refer to.

Also keep the rituals: were you telling stories at bedtime? Just go on.
All those elements give a sense of safety. Even if outside is totally different, there is this place (your home) that you can control and come back to, to feel secure.

At that stage, I would only introduce necessary changes gradually (starting school only half a day for example) and keep monitoring the effects.

 

  • Tip #3   Be prepared to deal with strong emotional reactions

Anger is one of the common reactions.
Anger is coming from pain or anxiety of pain. Anger is directed towards an obstacle in order to avoid feeling the pain.

Anger is a confused – and therefore confusing – expression of pain directed to someone else in order to make this person feel guilty so that she’ll feel obliged to remove the pain!

Don’t take those strong emotional reactions (anger, disgust..) personally. Remember:

“Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I need it the most” – Swedish proverb mentioned by Sandra on our Facebook page

 

  • Tip #4   Keep the dialogue

Have your children speak, draw, play…. to express themselves. They must feel they’re listened to and valued. Try to remain non-judgmental. Just listen and acknowledge the pain, the anxiety, the sorrow. Easier said than done. But through successfully managing the changes, they’ll grow stronger.

 

  • Tip #5   Reach out for support

To cheer you up and support you in difficult moments or unforeseen situations, it’s always useful to have somebody to talk to. Somebody you trust. Somebody who’s not going to judge you. It does not mean you’ll follow their advice or even ask for an advice. It’s a place where you’ll be able to express your feelings, sort them out (at least somewhat), get clarity and some confidence. Maybe somewhere like “Expatriate Connection”? Between experienced and like-minded people who’ve all been through similar situations.

The importance of a third person is acknowleged by Betty’s comment here. And I did not bribe her:-)

In conclusion, I’d like to quote Napoleon Hill:

“In every adversity, there is a seed for an equivalent advantage”

Or more simply “After the rain comes the sun!”

So how is the weather at your place? What would you add? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* Resource: “Psychology of Culture Shock” by Colleen A. Ward, Stephen Bochner, Adrian F. Furnham
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Comments

  1. I guess it depends on the age, but for now (our daughter moved when she was 2 and when she was 4) i do not agree with nr 1, to say asap that the move will be happening. when it happens for the first time and to a toddler – yes, asap, but otherwise – there is no need to get stresses for 6 months for the child(and friends, especially, if they are local), especially if parents are not stressed. we told 8 weeks before (earlier than we planned) and she kept asking every day of whether it will be tomorrow, 2 weeks would have been enough!

    • Thanks Liga for your prompt comment. You might have found it upsetting but the fact that your little daughter asked you every day about the move means that she cared! It was an important event for her, whether she was excited or anxious about it. Very often, little children struggle to have a realistic appreciation of the time: one week or one month, it’s an abstract notion. I found it helpful to mention the number of nights: how many times they’ll go to bed before the move. I find important to give a long notice first to allow the children to get used to the idea and second to organize proper farewell parties. “Leaving well for entering well” is essential for the grieving process. Add to this that the more you delay, the more the kids might learn it indirectly by third parties (grand-parents, relocation agency coming well in advance to evaluate the amount of furniture you need to bring, friends, school).

      2013/3/8 Disqus

      • Still do not agree 🙂 In our case nobody except the parents knew! No possibility for 3rd parties to tell her. No reason to stress her local (!!) friends for such a long period of time, we had great farewells and everything. Besides we ourselves did not know so long ahead! We knew 2 months in advance that we will be moving and just 1 week before – where to exactly. Since we have been through with her many discussions of the theoretical possibility of moving again and playing geography games called “where i would like to move” – I really think 2 weeks would have been enough. May be it also depends on the distance – we moved end of Feb, we have booked already our flights for end of Apr to go visit the friends 🙂

  2. Having done a move from California to the UK last years with two children …the true is we packed our home Mid December on the 12 th and we took the plane on the 13th but ours goods arrived not before the end of March . So its hard to make a house looks like the one we left behind . 

    • Sure Laetitia! I fully understand. We had the same situation when we moved from Belgium to Australia. But being mindful of this “continuity need” helps when you’re packing. You can think of taking the favourite books, one or two preferred toys, even some family pictures with you in the suitcase. You can also negotiate with the relocation company to foresee a 120 kg air freight container (where you can put some plates, cutlery, linen) to recreate as soon as possible a familiar atmosphere.

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      • yes i did pack Trystan favorites bedding sheets and quilt ( the very hungry carterpillar :)! ) and his books …the fact is that we actually packed 2 full suitcases of toys etc just for the boys ! lol . We also had our dog and 2 cats with us and it was very much important for Trystan aged 2 at the time ( my second son  was only 3 month old ) to know they came along with us and see them getting on board in the plane with us ! 🙂 I should mention that i am french ( my husband is American ) and we make a point to explain to Trystan that we were going to live now much closer to his mama family now . So for the first time he got to meet his grandpa and Aunt and Uncle etc. We were amaze how much a little boy understood what was happening but i think we were more stress then he was after all ! lol .
        We are mostly sure to be back to California San Francisco one day and the boys will be much older by then and it will be interesting to see how they will take on to live in their own country after many years of being expats from a young age . 

        • “We were amazed how much a little boy understood what was happening”: you said it! Our kids are smarter than we think 🙂 Great to see how successful your transition was. You perfectly identified some key references for your children (quilts, toys and pets). Well done!

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  3. My expat child is the least of my problems: totally adapted and happy since day 1 !

  4. Still some rain over here but getting better 😉
    I’ve found tips 4 and 5 very useful.
    Dialogue is always important but in this moment even more, since they need to understand your behaviour as well. And sometimes we are overwhelmed with all the changes and forget to make time to talk to them. I had to “schedule” a daily 10 minutes talk before the night story. Tonight, after a car crash, getting lost in the city and other bad moments, my son reminded me the talk and I had to relax, sit next to him and explain my day. And he understood why I was so annoying since I picked him up at the school.
    And regarding 5, being in a new country were you don’t speak the language and don’t know anybody, it is great to have the support of people who went through a similar situation before.

    • Dear Sandra, I trust that because you were able to post this comment, you’re safe (and the family too). You underline a crucial point in my eyes: in these stressful moments, *we *as adults are also overwhelmed. And not only do we have to manage ourselves but we have to act as a guidance, a reference point for our children. And this is where dialogue is so important and rewarding: because the kids understand the situation, they feel less clueless, they feel more empowered. They show empathy, as your son did! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here and share your experience. All our thoughts are with you. Try to relax and enjoy the week-end.

      2013/3/8 Disqus

  5. I’m in the midst of culture shock. 3yo is struggling, even before we left. I’m in the same boat, and exactly how you described, the trailing spouse afraid to speak out about m struggles. I’ve spoken up, but husband responds with I’m tired and busy with work. He left again today and has travelled every week since we arrived 6 wks ago. I know it will get easier, but I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t have the skills to help my son. I shout at him a lot. Thankfully, 10mth old baby has adjusted quickly, after ending up in hospital day 2 of relocation and some regression.

    I choose to stay at home with them, as I’m the most reliable/constant thing in their lies, in addition to routine. However, getting help/counselling requires me to possibly leave them with a stranger. Thereby, compounding the issue of separation anxiety at such a stressful time.

    Thank you for your tips. It’s very helpful until I find a way to get professional help.

    • Dear Marian, I understand and empathize with your situation. There is a solution to get professional help without having to entrust your children to someone else and without leaving the cosiness of your home. There are reliable professionals working through Skype or phone. If you’d like to, I can provide you with a couple of references.
      Thanks a lot for your warm words about the article. So glad you found it useful. It means a lot to me 🙂

  6. great article! We are in the midst of re-entry shock after having been in Turkey for 6 years, and Dubai for 2, we just moved back to Johannesburg. Our eldest is 13, and she’s really having a hard time adjusting socially at school. She prefers to sit with her nose in a book..that’s her escape. this is the first week of high-school for her and the school just phoned to tell me that she had locked herself in a toilet cubicle and refused to come out. They were busy doing teambuilding stuff with the class – which is 5x the size of what she was used to in Istanbul…. and she’s just feeling too overwhelmed. They asked me if she struggles with sound or touch sensitivities…. Being an ATCK myself I know what she is going through, but the school of course needs to label and understand what is happening and I’m afraid that they won’t….Any advice on how to best handle this? She is very open about how she feels, she doesn’t bottle her feelings…she just feels like such a fish out of water….ANy advice on how to handle the situation would be appreciated

    • Dear Jedidjah, thanks a lot for your detailed comment. From what you describe, I understand that your daughter is struggling for all the good reasons you mention and that the school doesn’t have the understanding of what she’s going through. My suggestion would be to have your daughter supported by a professional counselor or therapist (preferably familiar with expat/repat issues), first for her own sake. As a consequence, the school will see that you’re taking this matter very seriously. If necessary, the therapist could then “educate” the school administration in the type of problems commonly faced by TCK. The diagnosis of a health professional may then come across more convincingly than parents’ explanations as relevant as they may be! What do you think?

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