Child psychologist Kate Berger gives her top tips on how to make sure expat children settle in their new home.
It’s very easy to see expatriate children as lucky. Exposed to new and exciting experiences and cultures, these are children who have chance to see the world in a broader perspective than many of us. Also, unlike their parents who are usually busy adjusting to a new job, expatriate children can simply enjoy their new surroundings – right?
Yet while there is no denying that expatriate children have certain invaluable opportunities, there can also be a big price to pay.
What obstacles do expatriate children face?
Whenever any of us are put into an unfamiliar situation, it can be scary, intimidating, and maybe even traumatic. For expatriate children who are thrust into a new environment, these unsettling feelings can be overwhelming.
Many, of course, struggle to make new friends: even more will feel lonely because their parents are likely to be exceptionally busy with their own adjustment process, having taken on a new job, home, etc. It’s easy to feel that they have no one there for them during those quiet moments when troubling thoughts become exaggerated.
Finally, expatriate children might struggle with dealing with the grief that comes from missing their “home”. It can feel like a death to a child who is separated from friends and family.
Overcoming the challenges
Parents are the key to helping an expatriate child adjust to life in a new environment. Communication is one of the most critical components to ensuring a smooth transition. Parents must talk with their children, and watch their behaviour, and listen to what they are saying about the difficulties and frustrations they are encountering. The simple act of acknowledging and validating a child’s struggle can go a long way toward helping an expatriate kid who feels lonely.
Children who may not be able to express themselves verbally are more likely to do so non-verbally though behavioural changes, so parents must be aware of any sudden behavioural changes that may indicate underlying feelings about life in a new environment. Younger children might suddenly show big changes in sleeping and eating patterns, or even seem to lose their “toilet-training” skills right before, during or after a move to a new environment.
Older children might seem to withdraw from activities that usually give them pleasure, and some might even seem to have major mood swings (even more so than what is “normal” and expected for adolescents with raging hormones!). These sorts of behavioural indicators are important “red flags” for parents to look out for which might suggest that their child is having a difficult time.
By making time and creating a stable support network where expatriate children feel understood, validated and loved, parents give their children a better chance of adjusting to their new surroundings with ease. Parents must to be prepared for all circumstances so that their children do not feel alone in an unfamiliar place, and so that safety and emotional health are ensured.
Involvement in positive social interaction is also key for expatriate children trying to adjust. Peer interactions via “play dates” and becoming involved in extracurricular activities are great ways for children to make friends and build confidence.
Allow expatriate children to find a balance between keeping in touch with loved ones from back home and working on new social interactions. Practising old traditions (like certain holidays or food) while embracing new ones is also a way to ease the transition.
Influential expat kids
For a variety of reasons global expatriate populations are growing, and it is likely that more and more children will experience life in a non-native environment at some point. Even more significantly, international interactions are becoming more important in our increasingly diverse and global society.
As the world tries to recover from the global recession, the workplace environment is becoming increasingly competitive – which means that individuals with advanced and unique qualifications stand out. Children who have grown up in an expatriate environment often possess additional language and enhanced interpersonal communication skills that make them special.
It’s not too far-fetched to say that expatriate children might be our future leaders: politicians and persons in power who will improve society. So, whether an expat parent or not, do what you can to help out an expatriate child in your own community who might be struggling. By doing so you can improve the chances that this future leader is well adjusted and making positive contributions to society that, in the end, will benefit us all.