Culture Shock: What Your Kids Can’t Tell You

In a previous article, you uncovered what Gérard Depardieu could teach expatriates about culture shock.

We outlined the very popular Oberg model characterized by 4 stages (honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment).

And understanding this model is important to decipher your own feelings when moving abroad.

Does it apply to all cases? Unfortunately not.

Credit image Corrie @flickr

Why do I have to leave and lose all my friends?

Experts are keen on establishing laws and finding formulas for any given situation. But modelling human behavior proves to be a challenging task!

By a quick survey in my direct neighborhood with a dozen expatriates, I found the Oberg model quite realistic for people who chose to move in a positive spirit: job promotion, taste for adventure and discovery, love story.

But what about the teenagers who have to leave their friends behind, at an age when peer approval is so critical?

They don’t jump with joy when told to move! To say the least.


Kids don’t start in the new country in the honeymoon stage. They’re in crisis mode!


Children don’t like change. And to a certain extent, nobody does.
Even if it’s good for you in the long run.
Because change means getting out of your comfort zone.

Change is scary. Change means facing the unexpected.

“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” as the popular saying goes.

And what’s the reward? the incentive? the purpose to change?
Why would you leave your friends? Those you belong to. Those you get your identity from.


The big difference between you, your partner and your kids


Let’s take a snapshot at all family members on the brink of an international move:

Culture Shock: how it affects you, your partner and your children

Culture Shock: how it affects you, your partner and your children


Look at the status column: no surprise that your children are reluctant to move.

They’re getting more popular for leaving. And at the same time, they are nobody in the new country.

Did you know that – starting at 6 years old – peer approval is becoming increasingly important, even more than parental approval?

What a shock to their self-esteem! (one of the 2 most important components parents are supposed to foster for their children).


Children look backwards while you look forward


This is very well described by Ellen van Bochaute in her paper “What expatriate children never tell their parents“.

And it’s the big difference between parents and children.

As an adult with some life experience and a global vision, you already know the long term benefits your children will get by moving abroad.

  • Your kids will know how to speak English / another language
  • Your children will be comfortable to travel (take the plane, manage the jetlag)
  • Your children will know how to interact with other cultures in other systems (through schools)

Even if this means sacrificing current gratifications: a good circle of friends, a familiar school, a comfortable routine.

Your children on the other hand can’t tell you what they feel:

  • Because they don’t want to spoil your enthusiasm
  • Because (let’s face it) they know you won’t change your mind anyway
  • Because they don’t know how to express it
  • Because when they open the mouth, they get the dreaded but classical answer:

“You’re taking the plane in business class, you’re visiting places I’d never thought of when I was your age. You’ll speak another language. Think of other children. In many countries, they don’t even have drinking water! Not to speak about AIDS, pollution and child labor! Why are you whining and sighing? The truth is that you’re a spoilt brat.”

I remember my kids during a farewell party we organized with some friends in Belgium. All adults were asking them with sparkling eyes:

“You’re so lucky to go to Australia. What an amazing experience! Are you excited to go? Are you looking forward to it?”

And they would answer with a polite but cramped smile “Euh…well, if you say so…. But really, we don’t know!!”

Now you understand that culture shock is vastly different for children. And you understand why and what they’re going through.

But what can you – as a parent – do?

In the next post we’ll see how to help our children come through it as emotionally healthy as possible. Stay tuned!



  1. I’m really looking forward to your next post. Lucas is having an awful time. I thought it would be easier this time, his 4th big move in only 6 years! but it’s been a nightmare, I think that this time he knows what is coming and it’s more difficult to make him focus in the good parts.

    • Dear Sandra, thanks a lot for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that Lucas has such a hard time. Managing so many changes is not an easy task. For both: parents and children. It’s hard work. And there is no magic answer. I’ll do my best to help you through, working hard on next article 🙂 Don’t forget that you’re not alone. We’re all here – expats with all our different experiences and challenges – to support you. “In all adversity, there is the seed of an equivalent advantage” said Napoleon Hill. Successfully overcoming this transition will help Lucas becoming stronger emotionnally.

      2013/2/25 Disqus

    • Monika_corban says:

      Hi Sandra and Anne,

      hope it will help once he starts his new school and a new routine sets in. The getting started in your new environment bit is the hardest I found. Once he has been there for a few days, hopefully it will get better. Good luck,

      • Thanks a lot, Monika for your support!

        2013/2/26 Disqus

      • Thanks Monika, he is really better now. He started school on Monday and is so happy that says he doesn’t want to go to other school anymore. We all feel more relaxed, makes the world of difference knowing they’re happy.

  2. Again, another article which is not only interesting to read but also provide plenty of answers. Well written and researched, easy access to downloads, links to various related sites and audio options always available. Uncomplicated use of this homepage makes it fun to just get yourself absorped. Can’t wait for the next post !

  3. Dear Johnben, thanks a lot for your comment. Really honored you liked the post. I also enjoyed your article on The Impact of Expatriate Stress on Marriage. Very true!

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