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Helping Kids Thrive Abroad: Navigating Expat Life as a Family

A young family of 4
Changing family dynamics come with Expat Life

Moving abroad as a family can be an exhilarating adventure, but with the changing environment and the complexity of family dynamics, the experience comes with a heightened set of challenges. These challenges can be difficult to explain, let alone resolve!

In this blog, I highlight the changing dynamics experienced by both the child and teenager in expat families, and offer practical solutions to help your family thrive during this unfamiliar transition.

Unique Pain Points for Kids Living Abroad

It’s helpful to understand what’s behind the changing family dynamics from the individual perspective of the child / teenager. Here's a glimpse into the most common pain points:

Language and Cultural Adjustment:

A scholl classroom with boys and teacher
New environments require adjustment

It's not hard to imagine being suddenly immersed in a foreign culture where everything feels daunting and confusing. For children and teenagers, adapting to a new language and culture can be especially intimidating.

Changing Family Routines and Parent dynamics: Relocation often disrupts established family routines, which can be disorienting for children. They can also be sensitive to a change in their parents' relationship dynamics as they navigate the challenges of expat life. This can be confusing and emotionally challenging.

Mother supporting daughter through grief
Challenges are part of the territory

Homesickness and Isolation: Homesickness is common among expats, but it can be especially overwhelming for children and teenagers who are separated from friends and extended family. The experience of being in a new and unfamiliar environment can heighten these feelings.

Socialization Challenges: Making new friends and fitting into a new school can be intimidating for children and adolescents. They might feel like outsiders due to differences in appearance, behaviour, or language. Imagine a teenager who struggles to communicate with classmates speaking a language they barely understand.

Teenagers feet dangling off Graffiti wall
Multicultural values can confuse idenitity

Identity Confusion: Teenagers, in particular, may experience identity confusion as they navigate cultural differences and expectations. Their sense of self is already in the formation process and a values clash may further impact their identity. Gender roles, social norms, and personal values may clash in their multicultural environment. I often hear of a clash between traditional family values with the more liberal culture of a new school, and vice versa.

Helping Your Kids thrive through Expat Life

While the pain points are clear, it is surprising that not much research has focused on how families–both individual members and family as a whole- deal with stress and challenges of expatriate life. The following insights come from working with expats directly as a coach, as well as working with international schools and global mobility experts.

Family Communication: Effective communication within the family is always important, very much so during the adjustment to a new environment. Engage your children in conversations about the move, and be sensitive to their specific needs in the host country. Keep communication lines open, encourage them to ask questions, and make them feel involved in the process. It's good to create an environment where they can openly express their emotions, including sadness and anger. Be vigilant for changing behaviours, as children may experience a range of emotions at different times compared to adults.

Establish and Adapt Family Routines: As the family dynamic and routines change, consider establishing new routines that help with the adjustment. Involve all family members in suggesting and implementing these routines to foster a sense of connection. Be flexible and open to adjustments as needed.

Understand the Compensation Effect: As the expat worker, your ability to adjust to your new environment impacts your entire family. Staying motivated and positive to the assignment, as well as adjusting well to language and culture, can positively support your family’s adjustment. It's also worth noting that the transferring of family stress to children and teenagers needs to be acknowledged and talked about with the family.

Four teenagers sitting on a pebbly beach
Striking a balance between old and new friendships

Balancing Old and New Social Circles: Encourage your child to maintain connections with their old social circle while also providing opportunities to interact in their new environment. Striking a balance between staying in touch with old friends and participating in new extracurricular activities is key. Particularly for teenagers, friendships with peers who share their mother tongue can be invaluable.

Developing Perspective Taking Capacity: Teenagers who are open-minded and understand that cultures differ can adjust more successfully. Encourage them to explore different perspectives on various issues, fostering their ability to adapt and thrive in diverse environments.

Three coloured wood Figurines on board game
Multicultural identity as a strength

Embrace Their Evolving Sense of Belonging: Help your child understand that their sense of belonging may change as they grow up in different cultures. They will build relationships with all the cultures they encounter, without full ownership in any. Emphasize that this multicultural identity can be a strength, making them more open and accepting of different cultures. With proper support during the adjustment period, they can perceive their experience as mainly beneficial.

By implementing these strategies, you can support your child or teenager in embracing the challenges and opportunities of life abroad. If you would like to understand how you can best support your spouse/partner, I talk about this in my blog A Guide to Partner Support in Expat Life

Prevention is the Best Cure

In my experience, many expat families wait until they reach a crisis point before seeking support. Even if background resources are on offer, there are too many other logistical commitments to tackle for establishing life abroad. It's often hard to take a step back and make time for wellbeing to ensure a smooth transition for all family members. Unfortunately, as high as 1 in 5 expats leave early, and this impact ripples out to the organisations and communities that the family is a part of.

My goal is to empower expat parents, via the school community, to thrive in new environments and strengthen the family experience abroad.

A group of professional parents in classrom
Tailored Talks, Workshops and Resources

As you settle back into school life, I invite you to consider my offer of support for your parent communities. I provide free parent talks and resources tailored to your specific needs, empowering parents and enhancing the family experience abroad.

Together, we can ensure expat family life has the best chance of thriving in a new world!


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