In the last several posts in this Cultural Adjustment Series, we’ve looked at the phenomenon of culture shock, the phases of cultural adjustment, and the experience of moving home after a time abroad.
In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at how culture shock and cultural adjustment have a unique impact on kids and teens and how you can help your child prepare for or adapt to an international move.
Culture Shock for Kids & Teens
While some of the things we’ve discussed in the previous articles may also apply to kids and teens who move abroad (such as the various manifestations of stress) their experiences can also be quite different from those of their parents.
For one thing, adults are generally in charge of making the decision to move abroad. Even if they are under pressure or have mixed feelings about it, most of the time, they can ultimately say yes or no to an opportunity.
Rather than being excited about moving abroad, kids and teens are more likely to touch down in full-on crisis mode — and to blame you for uprooting them.
The same is not true of kids or teens.
Even if parents try to include their kids in the decision-making process, the ultimate decision is typically out of kids’ hands. And they usually aren’t very happy about leaving behind all that is familiar to them: their home, their school, perhaps Grandma and Grandpa, their neighborhood — and especially their friends.
Because the decision often feels out of their control, it’s unlikely that kids will go through the so-called honeymoon phase that many (although certainly not all) adults experience. Rather than being excited about the move and seeing their new home as a romantic and interesting place full of adventure, kids and teens are more likely to touch down in full-on crisis mode — and to blame you for uprooting them.
Kids thrive on routine and stability, and an international move can put them in a tail spin or make them feel like the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. It’s normal for them to respond with a variety of emotions — from sadness or fear to anger.
How they respond to these feelings will, in large part, depend on the temperament of your child and your family’s unique circumstances. Some children may throw tantrums or try to punish you to help you understand how much they’re hurting. Others may become very anxious or tearful. Some may seem disengaged and refuse to talk about their feelings. Still others may act as though everything’s ok even when it’s not — either because they don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling or because they sense that you need them to remain strong.
While living abroad has the potential to be an incredibly enriching experience for a child or teen — giving them opportunities to learn another language, travel, and experience another culture — keep in mind that it will be nonetheless incredibly stressful. They’ll be looking to you, their parents, for support and guidance in how to successfully navigate the adjustment process.
What Can You Do To Help Your Child or Teen When Moving Abroad?
1. Involve them in the decision-making process — as early as possible.
Even though the ultimate decision to move abroad will not be theirs, involving your child or teen in the decision-making process — asking for their opinion and how they feel about the idea of moving abroad — will help them feel involved and that their feelings matter.
They are important members of the family and want to be treated as such. Don’t blind-side them with the decision once it’s already been made. Let them hear you talk about your own mixed feelings or disagreements about moving abroad and let them witness you come to a decision as a family.
Make room for their opinions and their fears — this doesn’t mean that they should get to make the final decision, but it does mean letting them know that their feelings matter.
2. Give them a say, even if it’s just in the details.
While the decision to move abroad will ultimately be out of their hands, giving your child or teen a say in some aspects of the process will help them maintain some sense of control. Ask for their input in choosing an apartment (or how to decorate their room). Involve them in the decision about where they will go to school. Ask for their thoughts about the timing of the move or about activities they’d like to do once they’re there.
Also ask them what would help them feel more comfortable with the move. If you can afford it, consider a pre-visit to the new country to help them get an idea of what it might be like, or make plans before you even leave for a trip back home to see friends.
3. Support them in maintaining relationships with friends back home.
For children and teens, peer relationships are incredibly important, and it can feel very threatening to risk losing these friendships.
Before you move, start talking to your child or teen about how you want to support them in maintaining contact with their friends. Make time for them to spend extra time with friends in the months and weeks leading up to your departure. Talk about the ways they can stay in touch, including having a discussion about age-appropriate technology to facilitate communication (e.g. Skype, Whatsapp). If possible, plan a trip back home (something to look forward to!), and when you do go back, be sure to make time for visits with your child’s friends — or consider inviting the families of your children’s friends to visit you in your new home.
Make sure your kids know that you understand how important their friendships are and that you want to help them maintain these relationships while also building new ones.
4. Tolerate their anger with you and remain involved.
In all likelihood, your child or teen won’t be very happy with you for making the decision to uproot them. They may have a lot of anger — and this is normal. Their whole world feels like it’s being turned on its head, and they feel out of control and like no one — least of all you, their parents — understand how they’re feeling. (And let’s be honest — you can’t completely understand unless you ask: you’re not in their shoes.)
How you respond to their anger (or sadness, or disengagement…) is important. You can make it clear that they’re not going to change your mind about the decision, while at the same time demonstrating that you want to understand how they feel and to talk about it with them.
Don’t let them shut you out. Even if they seem disengaged or brush off your attempts to connect, keep on asking and letting them know that you’re available to talk. Show them that they — and their feelings — matter by remaining engaged and involved, even when it’s challenging.
5. Resist the urge to dismiss their feelings.
Sure, you may recognize that your 3rd-grader’s BFF is unlikely to be her BFF forever. Or that your 10-grader’s first girlfriend is unlikely to end up being his last. You may feel certain that they’re going to be able to make new friends pretty easily — heck, probably more easily than you.
But none of that matters.
Resist the urge to respond to your child’s or teen’s sadness or fears about moving by dismissing their feelings. Try not to simply respond to their sadness about leaving friends behind by saying, “But you’ll make new friends!” (Which makes it sound like you think that one friend is easily interchangeable for another.)
In the world of a 3rd-grader, her best friend is more important than you know. And a teen’s first real romantic relationship means everything in the world to him. It doesn’t matter that later in the their lives (maybe even next year), they’ll look back at these relationships with a different perspective. They’re important now, and what matters is not that you accurately predict the future of how they are going to feel in 6 months or a year, but that you empathize with them and show them that you care about how they feel now and want to work through it together.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t let them know that you think they’ll be able to make new friends in the new country. But it does mean meeting them where they are, acknowledging that change is hard and scary, and then pointing toward the future where you believe those fears are unlikely to come true and demonstrating that you trust that they will be able to handle the challenge.
7. Maintain some continuity and stability in the midst of all the change.
As I mentioned above, kids thrive on stability. As you transition to your new home, try to establish routines that your child or teen can begin to depend upon. If there are aspects of your former routine or family traditions that you can maintain — everything from familiar breakfast cereals or morning routines to family game nights or favorite TV shows — all the better. Prioritize these routines and traditions and try not to disrupt them too much. They matter more than you might think. These familiar activities will begin to give your child or teen a sense of stability in the midst of all the changes.
8. Reevaluate your standards and expect some regression.
Your child or teen is unlikely to hit the ground running and be able to do everything just as well and just as independently as he or she did back home. That’s ok.
Don’t expect them to do perfectly in school. For one thing, the system of teaching may be completely different from what they’re used to, and for another, they’re dealing with the stress of adapting to a new social system which probably feels pretty foreign, even if language is not an issue.
Kids may also revert to less mature behaviors you thought they had outgrown — whether it be thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or needing extra snuggles. Try not to make a big deal out of this — it’s natural, and is likely to pass if you don’t overreact and remain sensitive to their needs. Everything feels a bit unsteady, and they need extra reassurance from you that it’s ok that things feel a bit harder than usual — and that you trust that they will get easier with time.
9. Take care of yourself — and model good self-care for them.
Let’s not forget that while you’re trying to help your child or teen adjust to life abroad, you’re probably also dealing with your own experience of culture shock. Be sure to take care of yourself and get the support you need so you can also be there for your child or teen.
It’s ok to let them know that it’s not all easy-peasy for you too — in fact, sharing that you find some aspects of moving abroad challenging or acknowledging that you miss home can actually be helpful to them and make them feel less alone.
However, it’s important that your child also see that you’re taking steps to take care of yourself and help yourself adjust. It can be reassuring to know that Mom or Dad sometimes feels homesick too, but they want to know that you’re not completely falling apart. They need to trust that they can count on you. Strike a balance in how much you share of your own adjustment process — just enough to help them know that they’re not alone and that it’s normal and ok to have difficult feelings, but not so much that they have to worry about you.
What About You? Share Your Experience!
Do any of these experiences resonate with you? Any tips you have for other parents of kids or teens who are moving abroad?
As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post or any of the other posts in this Cultural Adjustment Series. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.