For an adult, a move abroad can be quite a challenge: with a new environment, a new job, and a different culture to contend with. Many expats take their families with them, and for a child this can be a great experience, introducing them to other cultures, food, and languages. Some children never look back: their early period abroad sets them up for a lifetime of globetrotting. However, others do not find it so easy.
Psychologists use the term ‘expat child syndrome’ (ECS) to encompass some of the difficulties that expat children can face. We’ll take a look at this condition and how to deal with it, so that your child can make the most of their experience abroad.
‘Expat child syndrome’ refers to psychological problems experienced by a child whose family has moved abroad. It tends to affect teenagers more than younger children, who are often flexible enough to meet big changes head on. Teenagers, however, are often at a vulnerable and hormonal time of their lives, and may be heavily reliant on the support of their peers. Older teenagers may have romantic interests, too. Wrenching them away from familiar surroundings and people can be very disruptive, psychologically as well as physically.
ECS typically affects children between 10 and 15 years old, and it can be worse in children who undergo frequent relocations. It is often found in ‘army brats’ who no sooner settle into a school and a friendship network when they have to move again. Some of these children grow up to have problems making friends throughout their lives, although some report that it has made them more socially flexible: this will obviously depend on personality and temperament. Distance is also a factor – although most places are not technically more than 24 hours away by plane, the psychological impact of distance can be a negative factor.
Things to watch out for include behavioural changes: difficulties in eating or sleeping, unusual aggressiveness or clingy behaviour. Your child might become more introverted and isolated, particularly if they don’t speak the local language and are in a school where their own language is not the dominant one – even an outgoing child who usually makes friends easily can struggle with a different language. One expat reported that her shy daughter experienced a great deal of anxiety when asked to speak by her Italian teachers: making mistakes in a foreign language, with the fear of being laughed at, can be a big deterrent to joining in. Does your child complain about feeling lonely or homesick? Are they evidencing any anti-social behavioural patterns?
Don’t dismiss your child’s emotions as simply being part of teenage experience or ‘acting out.’ Your child may be suffering from a form of bereavement: an actual loss, even though it might not be a permanent one, especially if they didn’t want to move abroad.
Experts counsel that in dealing with ECS, communication is crucial. This can be difficult, so persevere: teenagers are often not the world’s champions when it comes to verbal expression of their feelings and there may be a measure of resentment, too – after all, you are the one who has hauled them across the world away from their friends. Don’t be confrontational, but do ask gentle questions: establish what they do like about their new environment, as well as the negatives. Lead them to understand that there are some positives about their situation. Give them time, too – don’t pressurise them to adjust immediately to their new situation.
If they’re having difficulty in making friends, you might consider extra-curricular youth groups. The French, for example, are particularly good at this, with a plethora of out-of-school activities and groups. Volunteering might be an option, too, to enable your teen to feel more integrated into the community. Don’t push them into sports unless they’re genuinely interested, but some children will welcome the opportunity to take up sports that they might not be able to undertake in their home area (ocean sailing if you’re from the middle of the Mid West, for instance, or skiing if you hail from London).
Don’t try to prevent your child from speaking to friends and family on social media platforms, although it’s a good idea to encourage them to maintain a balance: if they’re spending all their time on their phone, then this can be an indication of avoidance behaviour. Pointing out interesting things they can do in order to put a local post up on TikTok might be one avenue, helping them to share their experience with people back home and maybe show off a little to their friends – some children are naturally competitive although this should not be allowed to reach unhealthy levels. Keeping up with family routines and traditions can be of value, too.
If you’re employed, particularly with a big company, it might be worth enlisting the help of your HR department. Family problems won’t be new to them and they may have encountered Expat Child Syndrome before: consider consulting them rather than trying to solve your child’s problems as a family. They might also be able to provide counselling and linguistic support. It’s also a good idea to see if there are any native speaker counsellors in your area who specialise in child therapy.
One of the most important factors in your child’s new life will be their school. You may have had a choice of whether to enrol your child in the state system or send them to an international school. If they’re at a school in the latter sector, the school itself will be familiar with the problem and both staff and other pupils (who will, after all, have been faced with the same situation) can be very helpful in dealing with ECS.
If you have not yet moved, but are planning to, then this is a good time to anticipate any problems. Make sure you talk about your relocation with your child, and that they know your reasons for doing so. Explore some of the positive aspects of your new culture, and any negatives they might encounter.