Dealing with the challenges and stresses of expat life can be difficult enough for adults, but for children, things can often be a lot more complicated, especially in the first year or two of living in a new country. With all the upheavals and adjustments that occur when people move from their home country to a foreign location, expat parents are often struggling to keep their own lives in order, while the expat children spend large amounts of their time fending for themselves.This often leads to various kinds of negative and destructive behavior, especially during the teen years, and many of these issues can have serious and long-term consequences. However, the most worrisome risk is probably that of addiction and substance abuse.
The homesickness, the high-stress life, the lack of a social support network, the high disposable incomes, and many other factors seem to contribute to higher rates of addiction and substance abuse among expats. However, addiction among expat teens doesn’t seem to be discussed enough, although reports on the problem have been emerging in the last few years.
Prevalence of addiction among expat teenagers
At some point, almost every parent in the modern world worries about whether their child is at risk of being addicted to some kind of substance or behavior. However, for the expat parent in particular, addiction seems like a much larger concern. It will be difficult to say exactly what the incidence of addiction is among expat teenagers and how much more at risk they are compared to regular teenagers until there is a larger body of proper scientific research, which looks at addiction in large and diverse expat populations and provides more useful data. However, based on the limited amount of research we do have, as well as expat anecdotes and newspaper reports, it would seem that there certainly is cause for concern.
Beginning with Dr. John Useem and Dr. Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, a considerable amount of research has been done on various aspects of what are known as “third culture kids” – children who spend a substantial portion of their childhood in a culture other than that of their parents. Much of this research seems to indicate that while ‘TCKs’, as they are often called, do better than regular children in terms of maturity, linguistic skills, and career success, they are also particularly prone to problems such as depression and substance abuse.
Over the years, there have also been several news reports discussing addiction among expat teens in various locations around the world. It’s difficult to tell to what extent these reports provide a representative sample of the bigger picture. After all, overblown media panic over “out-of-control teens” is an old phenomenon that is unlikely to ever go away. However, it’s quite clear that the expat teen addiction problem does exist, and it’s certainly something that expat parents should be aware of. Reports in just the last few years have talked about teen drug and alcohol use among the expat populations in places ranging from Shanghai to the United Arab Emirates to Hong Kong. The issue is likely to exist in many other places too – in places where teen substance abuse is a general problem among the wider population, it is also likely to affect expats.
Why expat teens are more at risk
There are a variety of factors that put expat teens at more of a risk of developing problems such as addiction, but arguably the main factor is the lack of a support network that would usually exist back home. This is a factor that affects adult expats as well, making them more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Especially in the first year or two in a new location, most expats have few friends and no relatives, which means that they need to deal with everything that comes their way in solitude, or at least with a very limited support network. For teen expats, the stresses of regular life are added to by the stresses of the teen years as well as adjusting to a new environment. Handling all this without a lot of people to turn to can be incredibly difficult, and can lead to bad life decisions.
Expat parents themselves are often dealing with a lot of issues, including the practical aspects of the move, which sometimes leaves children without the level of emotional support that they need. A lack of parental supervision is also often a factor in teenage substance abuse in general, and it can be particularly important in the situation in which expat children find themselves. Back home, there would also be the wider support network, such as relatives, family friends, and perhaps lifelong neighbors, who either actively monitor how the children are doing or else inadvertently find out when something is wrong. Expat teenagers are often privileged children with well-to-do parents. The access to money (often disproportionate amounts of money compared to local children and the local cost of living), as well as things like drivers and maids, when combined with a lack of supervision, can lead to dangerous indulgences.
Peer pressure is known to be another contributor to addiction that can play a particularly important role among expat teenagers. Once again, the combination of being in their teens and being in a new environment with no friends tends to make the need to fit in even more pressing. Expat teenagers are often at expat schools, with other unsupervised, well-off teenagers. If they have friends, classmates, and other acquaintances who use drugs and alcohol, they are more likely to give in to pressure in the hope that they will be accepted as part of the cool crowd. Frequent relocation can make it difficult for teens to make friends, and as a result, drugs and alcohol may be used as a crutch in social situations.
Conflict within the family can also contribute to the problem. Often, issues between parents can be exacerbated by a move to a new location, and children feel the stress of such a situation. Keeping them in the dark isn’t really a solution, and often makes things worse – teenagers are usually mature enough to tell when their parents are in conflict, but if the situation is not clearly communicated to them, the lack of clarity and the imagined outcomes can be a huge stress factor.
Other possible factors include the higher rates of depression and anxiety among expat teens as well as easier access to drugs and alcohol – for example, local laws against underage drinking may not be strictly enforced, and drug dealers may deliberately target expat teens, knowing that they have money to spare.
The signs of addiction
The signs of addiction include factors such as physical appearance, behavior, health, and performance at school or in other activities. Here are some of the things for expat parents to watch out for.
Physical appearance: A sudden deterioration in personal hygiene and neatness can be an indicator of substance abuse and addiction. Cigarette burns and ash stains on the fingers or clothes are one possible sign of drug use, but these could of course also result from regular tobacco cigarettes. You may notice unusual odors on your teen’s clothing, body, or breath. There may be a change in appetite and sleep patterns as a result of drug or alcohol use, along with a sudden increase or decrease in body weight. Certain drugs may also result in specific physical changes such as bloodshot eyes, watery eyes, flushed cheeks, dilated pupils, nosebleeds, and needle marks on the arms.
Physical health: Drug and alcohol use may affect the user’s health in general, resulting in more frequent illness. In addition, the sudden appearance of seizures in a teen who has never had such an issue before could be an indicator of substance abuse. Headaches, nausea, and vomiting are other signs, as are weight gain and weight loss. You may also notice bruises and injuries that your teen seems reluctant to explain or is evasive about. Certain drugs may also cause twitching and other involuntary movements.
Mental health: Different substances can affect users in different ways, and psychological changes and problems do not necessarily indicate substance abuse. These are probably also the most difficult and confusing signs to read, especially in teenagers. Nonetheless, anxiety, depression, and paranoia can be indicators of drug and alcohol use. An addict may also be prone to mood swings and irritability, and may display a general lack of motivation combined with sudden bursts of enthusiasm and activity.
Behavior: A sudden and drastic change in personality and behavior is of course hard for a parent to miss, and may happen as a result of substance abuse and addiction. However, there can also be a variety of more subtle or individual behaviors that may indicate a problem. Some of these behaviors may be an attempt to cover up signs of drug use – for example, chewing gum or mints to cover bad breath, incense or air freshener to cover the smell of smoke or other substances in the room, and eye drops to clear bloodshot eyes. Your teen may have issues with money, and may begin asking for more pocket money, or even stealing. He or she may also start hanging out with a new set of friends or frequenting new places. Sometimes a sudden need or demand for secrecy may also be a sign, although this again could simply be normal teen behavior. There may also be direct signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech, confused talk, inability to concentrate, poor coordination, poor balance, and so on.
Academic performance: Sudden trouble at school can be a major sign that something is wrong. This could include poor attendance, poor grades, a declining interest in subjects and activities that were previously favorites, and generally getting into trouble at school or college.
You could of course also actually find alcohol or drugs, or paraphernalia for drug and alcohol use, in your teenager’s possession or stashed away somewhere in the house. Remember that apart from such direct evidence, you need to place any of the signs listed above within a broader context. One or two signs by themselves could simply be normal teen behavior or an indicator of illness or depression. It’s important to have a frank discussion before jumping to any conclusions.
What you can do to help
Prevention, as we all know, is better than cure, and the best way to minimize the chances of addiction is to address the causes that we mentioned earlier. You can’t provide an entire support network in a new country of course, but it’s important to encourage teens to make their own friends, and for you as a family to have friends and neighbors around. Supervision is also important, although this doesn’t mean constant monitoring. However, you need to be aware of what’s going on to the maximum extent possible, in spite of your busy schedule. Clear and open communication is another important factor.
If you do find out that your teen is using drugs, the first and most important step is to react calmly, supportively, and respectfully. Also, without minimizing the problem, remember that using and experimenting is not the same as being addicted, although it can lead there and therefore should be addressed. Ensure that there are consequences to your teen’s behavior, but at the same time, remember to encourage healthier interests and activities. Lastly, if the problem has already reached the addiction stage, get professional help from a counselor or therapist; if it’s not yet there, consider involving an adult whom your teenager respects, such as a sports coach, a relative, or a family friend.