Expat Kids, Mental Health, and Living Through a Pandemic

Article by Michelle Braun, Psychology Intern

As adults, we recognize that living abroad is a big adventure. It’s all about meeting new people, learning a new culture and language, and exploring new and exciting places. We also know that there can be tough moments like feeling out of place even though that place is now “home.” 

Kids who move abroad face these same challenges, too. When kids and teens relocate from one country to another, they become Third Culture Kids (TKCs). This means that they don’t just hold one culture, or another. Instead, their cultural identity incorporates a unique blend with which only they truly identify and answers to questions like ‘where are you from?’ suddenly becomes impossible because their passport country might not even be a place that they’re familiar with. This uncertainty can lead to kids feeling lost and even exacerbate mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression.


What kinds of loss do third culture kids face?

We often think of loss and grief as happening when someone passes away. Expat kids experience loss when moving abroad as well – often losing friends, cultural norms, and a sense of familiarity with their environment. Just like other forms of grief, the healing from relocation can take time. Some days, living abroad can be fun and fulfilling, whereas other days it may feel like a burden.


How has the pandemic and lockdown affected our third culture kids?

Moving abroad is already filled with uncertainty. Mixing this with a seemingly never-ending up and down rollercoaster of change due to lockdown maatregelen, it’s understandable that we are seeing so many of our expat kids and teens struggling right now with unprecedented amounts of stress. Kids (and adults!) need community and social connection, and the interruption of this during the past year has had a significant impact on these resilient kids. 


How can I tell if my child or teen is struggling?

One of the most apparent signs would be sudden shifts in mood, outside what is typical For example, if your child is often an active kid who loves to go outside to ride their bike, and you now notice them laying on the couch saying they aren’t interested in leaving the house, this can be a sign that they are struggling.

Other changes in disposition, like in eating or sleeping habits, can also be early signs of potential mental health challenges. Many kids also change in terms of how they interact in social situations when they are struggling. Isolation is common for those struggling with mood disorders, for example. It’s important, particularly now given limitations due to the pandemic, to be aware of how our kids are socializing, and noting whether there is regression here.


What can we do to better support our third culture kids?

  • Normalizing Conversations Around Mental Health

It’s considered both normal and acceptable for people to share how they feel in terms of their physical health: “My back hurts”, “I’ve been nauseous all morning”. But how often do we hear people talk about their mental health? It’s likely that it’s a lot less often. It might also be the case that even thinking about talking about mental health makes you suddenly feel a little uncomfortable. Why is this?

When we don’t talk about things openly, we are teaching our minds and bodies that these topics aren’t appropriate to talk about. This results in our bodies reacting as if this is a dangerous situation (with anxiety and stress creeping up) to deter us from talking about it more. By normalizing conversations around mental health, we are opening the gate to welcome expat kids and teens to let us know when something doesn’t feel right, in exactly the same way we’d hope they would let us know if something didn’t feel right physically.


  • Practicing How to Notice

Once we are more comfortable talking about and recognizing when something isn’t feeling right, we can practice bringing awareness to what that something is. By getting better at noticing we will improve our reaction time in terms of intervening when something feels off. If we don’t know what the warning signs are, things like panic can seem to appear from nowhere. But once we find out what the cues are – maybe a small headache, maybe thoughts becoming quicker – we can start using some calming techniques, such as breathing exercises and helping thoughts.

Another advantage to noticing is that we are no longer facing the scary unknown. We know what is going on, we understand what is happening both in our minds and in our bodies. This understanding already improves how we feel towards ourselves, thus improving our overall mental well-being.


  • Reaching Out When It Becomes Too Much

Even when we try to use all of our tools and be proactive about our mental health, sometimes we need more support. This starts with showing your child or teen that you are a safe resource who can help when things get tough. This role can be overwhelming for parents, though, because you may not have all the answers! That’s why normalizing seeking support from a therapist is also important: not knowing what to do is ok, and it means that we just need to ask someone else for help. The best way to teach kids new skills is through performing them ourselves. This is just like point one about normalizing conversations around mental health – just normalizing admitting when things are too much and more help is needed!

At The Expat Kids Club, our team of psychologists work with kids and teens directly, as well as with parents on how to best support their expat kid.


I think my child could use support – who can I talk to?

To reach out to us and hear more about how we can help support your expat kid or teen, please do not hesitate to email us at support@expatkidsclub.com. You can also read about our services and our psychologists on our website at www.expatkidsclub.com. 

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