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How to Help Expat Children Adjust to Life Abroad

Kate Berger, a child psychologist,  gives tips on how to make sure expat children settle in their new country. It is not very difficult to see expat children as lucky. Experiencing new and exciting things and cultures, these are children who have the opportunity to see the world in a broader perspective than most of us. And unlike their parents who are busy adjusting to a new job, expat kids can simply have fun enjoying their new surroundings – correct? Even though there we cannot deny that expat children have invaluable opportunities, there can be a big price to pay as well.

What obstacles do expat kids have to deal with?

Whenever any of us are placed into a situation that is unfamiliar, it can be very scary and intimidating. And even traumatic. For expat kids who are thrown into a new environment, these distressful feelings can cause a lot of overwhelm. A lot of them, of course, struggle to find new friends. And even more children will feel lonely since their parents are likely to be extremely busy with their own process to adjust. A new job, home and so on. It’s easy to feel that they have nobody there for them during quiet times when worrying thoughts get exaggerated.

Language barriers can also make it more difficult to integrate. Even though most people speak English, in a lot of places it is expected that someone living there must also speak the native language. Things like unspoken habits and nuances can many times be confusing for an expat child – a child from Norway who moves to Morocco, for example, might not realize that it is a custom to take your shoes off when you visit a friend’s house. Finally, expat kids might find it very difficult to deal with the grief of missing their “home”. It can feel like a death to children who are separated from family and friends.

How to overcome the challenges

Parents will be the key to helping an expat child adjust to their life in a new country. One of the most critical components to ensure a smooth transition is communication. Parents must speak with their kids, keep an eye on their behavior, and listen to what they are saying about their problems and the frustrations they have to deal with. Acknowledging and validating a kids’ struggle can go a long way toward helping a child who feels lonely. Kids who are not able to express themselves verbally are more likely to do so through behavioral changes, so parents must be alert on any sudden behavioral changes that may show underlying feelings about life in a new country. Younger kids might all of the sudden show big changes in eating and sleeping patterns, or even seem to lose their “toilet-training” skills right before, during or after a move abroad.

Older kids might withdraw from activities they normally enjoy, and some might even seem to have major mood changes (even more so than what is supposed to be  “normal” and can be expected for adolescents dealing with raging hormones!). These types of behavioral signs are important “red flags” for parents to look out for which might indicate that their kid is having a hard time. Making time for the child and creating a solid support network where they feel understood, validated and cared for, parents give their kids a better opportunity of adjusting to their new country. Parents must be prepared for all situations so that their kids do not feel alone in a place unfamiliar to them, and in a way that safety and emotional health are guaranteed.

To be involved in positive social interactions is also important for expat kids who try to adjust. Interactions with peers via “play dates” and getting involved in after-school activities are great ways for kids to make friends and build confidence. Allow expat kids to find a proper balance between staying in touch with loved ones back home and working on new social interactions. Practicing old traditions (such as holidays or food) while embracing new ones is also a good way to make the transition easier.

Influential expat children

For many reasons international expat populations are growing, and it is to be expected that more and more kids will experience life in a non-native environment at a certain point. Even more significantly, global interactions are getting more important in our increasingly diverse and international community. The workplace is becoming more competitive – which means that people with advanced and special qualifications stand out. Kids who grow up in an expat environment many times have additional language and increased interpersonal communication skills that make them special.

Expat kids might be our future leaders: politicians and persons in power who will improve society. So, whether you are an expat parent or not, do what you can to help out an expat kid in your own community who might be having a hard time. 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 all of us.  

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