Expat Child Syndrome

Carole Hallett MobbsChallenges & difficulties, Expat Kids, Pre-teens: 9-12 year olds, Preparing kids, Teenagers, Well-being & health6 Comments

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What is Expat Child Syndrome?

Expat Child Syndrome, which is commonly shortened to ECS, is a term that is used to describe the emotional stress some children experience when they move abroad. In this post, we’ll take a look at the issues expat children face while also delving deeper into what ECS is, what causes it and what symptoms your kids may experience.

Moving to a new place is a big step in anyone’s life. It’s a new chapter and a new adventure, and if you are feeling apprehensive, just think about how your children may be feeling. There are always challenges and hurdles when moving to a new location, and your children will face challenges too, albeit of a different kind.

What issues do expat children face?

New and unfamiliar situations can be intimidating, and sometimes even traumatic, for people of all ages, and this is even more so the case for children who don’t fully understand the move to a new location nor do they know what to expect. This feeling of unsettledness can be a huge challenge for a lot of children.

It can take one little thing … to make a child go into their shell and miss their home country and their old friends deeply.
Of course making new friends is one of the biggest hurdles, especially for children who are shy or have language barriers to contend with. It can take one little thing, such as a difficult day at a new school, to make a child go into their shell and miss their home country and their old friends deeply. You also have to consider that you are likely to be much busier than usual, as you will be dealing with your own adjustment process, having taken on a new home and job for example, which can make the child feel even more alone.

Your child may also grieve for their old home. Being separated from family and friends is something most children will not have experienced before, and therefore it’s not an exaggeration to say that it can almost be a period of mourning for a young kid when they move to a new place and leave everything they know behind.

Emotional stress in expat children

As mentioned, ECS is a psychological term to describe the emotional stress experienced by expat children. This is most commonly found in children who are between the age of 10 and 15 years old. This is a tough period in most kids’ lives in any case, as their hormones are changing, and they’re dealing with all of the usual challenges that come with growing up. However, children of this age are also heavily reliant on their social circle, which makes it even more difficult for them to be separated from their friends.

There’s no set list of symptoms to look out for, as ECS can manifest itself in a whole host of different ways.
There’s no set list of symptoms to look out for, as ECS can manifest itself in a whole host of different ways. It all depends on your child and their personality, as well as how deeply they have been affected by the move to a new country.

You need to pay close attention to your child’s behaviour, as a change in their attitude can be a key indicator that they are suffering from ECS. You may notice that they are being more disruptive than usual and uncooperative, or they may withdraw themselves, showing signs of loneliness and seclusion.

Communication and time

It can be very easy to dismiss this as them ‘acting up’ because they didn’t want to move abroad in the first place, but it’s important to give your child support during this period. If you have relocated with your partner, you will have each other to lean on during times of stress. But your child often has to cope with all the challenges on their own and it can be even more difficult for them to channel their feelings or even understand why they are feeling this way.

In a lot of instances it is simply a case of time; your child may start to settle down, and as they spend time in their new location they may start to realise the great things about their new home and the benefits of their relocation. However, if ECS does not start to disappear, then psychological issues may develop and this can often be as a result of a difficult time, for instance, struggling to make friends. In such cases, it is not uncommon for ECS to show itself in the form of resentment against you for making them move away from home.

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of Expat Child Syndrome; what it is and how it can manifest itself. This is something a lot of children experience when they relocate – there’s no way to prevent it, but by being prepared you can manage the situation better to help your child have a comfortable and happy move.

In our next post we’ll take a look at the ways you can help your kid during this period, so keep an eye out for ‘Part 2’.

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6 Comments on “Expat Child Syndrome”

  1. I find this so interesting! I was moved (resentment) from Germany to Canada at age nine. I had no contact with my family for 6 years. I just returned to Germany after 27 years abroad. As I am trying to reconcile my past I’m finding that these concepts are very fitting. I definitely suffered from being an expat kid and never having my losses acknowledged. My biggest struggle now is that my family are strangers to me, I feel alone, and I have perpetual homesickness and a lack of belonging in this world.

    1. That’s so sad. I’m sorry you went through that – and are still going through that. Unfortunately, you are not alone: take a look at some articles on Third Culture Kids who often feel much as you do.
      Good luck for your future.

  2. My family and I have been in the UK for 6 months – job transfer

    I have a 14 year old boy, with ECS. I’m fortunate, we can relocate back To home (US) at anytime or stay the two year term. We have tried everything with him. He is very depressed, and very much an introvert now. Opposite of his US personality

    Not sure what to do

    1. Hi Mike,

      I’m sorry your son is experiencing difficulties. It’s a difficult age for anyone. I think your first port of call should be to take him to the doctor to get his depression looked into, and hopefully treated, ASAP. Try to find a therapist – I’ve heard great things about CBT. Here’s a link that may help you find the right person Good luck to you both.

  3. Really helpful information here. I vividly remember going through something like this when my parents moved to Nigeria, I was left behind in boarding school in the UK, a country I had lived in for 2 years but only as an expat. Learning to live as an English child in an English school at the same time as learning to live without my parents came as a real shock and it took me a long time to get over it. Your article describes it perfectly. As a consequence we watch out for this in our children (although they are a bit younger).

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