Understanding the challenges of expatriation for children

Looking at expat child, one may easily only look at the exciting lifestyles they are privileged to enjoy, jet setting around the world. However, we should not neglect the many difficulties that they could experience as a young person going through major developmental growth while experiencing important transitions. For a child, major changes in life could be overwhelming. 

Expat children have to navigate change as well as cultural integration whereby they have the first culture of their parents’ home country and the second or multiple cultures that they grew up in. One of the challenges they may face is that they are constantly adjusting their norms and social behaviour to adapt and maneuver around the new environment they live in. Expat children spend part of their identity formation years in a unique manner that is different from monoculture children. They may go through the important developmental stages navigating between cultures as they travel back and forth between their home country and that of the society they currently reside in. These children could be spending those important years feeling displaced in the new culture while attempting to construct their own identity. They require constant support and processing to successfully negotiate their way through these developmental stages and emotional stressors. 

One of the biggest challenges for these children comes in the forms of identity formation while dealing with the constant change that occurs in their lives during their developmental years.  This is especially troubling during the schooling years of age when peers start to become more important and the search for identity becomes central to their developmental growth. Moving across different cultures and living in an environment where one is faced with a change of cultures constantly, e.g. moving between cultures a few times a year as one travel back to forth to their home country to visit family during vacations as well as having friends who come and go, may makes it harder for the children to gain a stable sense of self or feel secured with the friends around them. Another area of challenge could be the issue of unresolved grief. In the life of expat children, they may encounter an unnaturally high amount of mobility compared to other children, either through their own transition or the coming and going of the people in their lives, especially that of friends within the international school circuit. With each act of leaving, either that of the child or of a friend, the child experiences multiple losses. When the child first leaves his or her home country, they experience the loss of the familiarity of their home which includes the neighbourhood they are used to, their favourite playground, the shops they go to all the time etc. In addition, they may also go through the loss of the people they had been close to outside of their immediate family; possibly grandparents, friends, nannies, babysitters, teachers and friends. If this grief is unresolved and ignored, the child may exhibit behaviour issues, being in denial or withdrawal or anger or rebellion; or in others, depression, vicarious grief or delayed grief.

Understanding the challenges and issues that expat children could face, it is important to look at how we could better support them. These support should be multi-facet and holistic involving the family and school. In some cases, help through a therapist or support group may facilitate the healing process.

A strong familial support is crucial. It is important for parents to understand the stressors that children would face in an international move and therefore be prepared to help their children work through these potential challenges. A strong and cohesive parental relationship as well as an empathetic parent-and-child relationship is essential. The child’s ability to manage the distress could be aided by a parent who is sensitive to meeting the child’s needs. Providing a stable and nurturing home environment provides for a sense of belonging to the child especially during the transitions. In addition, being present with the child, providing an empathetic listening ear as well as providing a healthy closure for losses would be helpful. Another important support should come from the school. In many cases, expat children would attend international schools in the country of expatriation. Educators and school counsellors could play an important role in helping the child process the loss as well as provide skills on emotion regulation through this high stressor experiences. Teachers could help notice change in behaviour such as a decline in grades, withdrawal from activities and friendships, increased absentism etc and provide timely support.

In some cases, parents may feel helpless to support their children when they themselves are overwhelmed with the relocation and are having difficulties settling down. In such cases, seeing a therapist may help the children work through the identity integration and resolution of grief, or help with emotion awareness, regulation and transformation. 

Written by:
Sandra Tan Lastennet
Counsellor
SACAC Counselling