Culture shock in children

Kids experience culture shock too

On the whole, most children are more resilient to change than adults. However, culture shock can strike children in its own special way. Depending on your child, you may have different experiences of course, and your child will indicate culture shock in different ways.

Watch out for changes in behaviour, such as becoming more withdrawn, ‘acting up’ and mood swings. Often the most commons sign is, “I want to go back to XYZ!” – usually the last country they lived in. Children aren’t really able to look forward in time; they can deal with the ‘now’ and reference backwards, to the past and the familiar. This is valid for all ages, really, but most particularly for little ones.

Encourage your child to talk about whatever might be bothering them and really listen to their answers. You may need to read between the lines to discover what the problem is.

What causes culture shock in children?

Culture shock in children can be caused by all sorts of things we may not, as adults, think about. Discuss issues and never keep anything from your child and you will go a long way to minimising culture shock. For example, don’t tell your child their friends from home can come for a visit if this is not feasible for whatever reason. Don’t tell your child you’ll be moving back home ‘soon’ if you aren’t.

Prepare before you relocate

Prepare your child for their new home country by researching as much as possible about everything you can think of. Ask your child what they want to know about and work together, if possible, to find the answers.

Say goodbye

Ensure your child understands the move is happening. Proper goodbyes make the transition real and help the moving on process. For expat families who relocate regularly, learning to say goodbye is something their children will need to face from a very early age.

Think like a child

Often one of the main problems, especially with very young children, is the difficulty they have comprehending distance and time. They may believe their old friends from their previous home can just pop over for a visit; they may not understand that they aren’t on holiday and that this is their new home now. All you can do is be honest, talk it through, and use plenty of distractions to encourage positivity towards the new home.

Unfamiliar surroundings

Inside your new home you can help your child to settle quickly by making their room as familiar as possible. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to create a little ‘bubble’ of familiarity in your home for those times when everything, including culture shock, becomes overwhelming. Have some well-loved DVDs available so they chill out and relax. Yes, you may well want them to integrate fully in the new culture, but everyone needs a bit of ‘down time’ and stress relief sometime.

New language

Not understanding what everyone is talking about is one of the biggest causes of culture shock amongst adults and children alike. If your child learns a few words of this language before you arrive, it will help. If you intend for them to attend a local school, make language learning before you arrive a priority. Your child’s integration and social life will depend on it from the very start.


Climate changes are obviously beyond your control too. But you and your children will acclimatise in time. Don’t forget the correct clothing!

Different food

The unavailability of familiar food is often one of the first things your child will notice when you’re in a different country. Take a box of their favourite breakfast cereal when you travel so that’s one less thing to wrangle over to start with! While they will soon get used to the new menus, it won’t harm them to have a treat from your own country from time to time. Enlist the help of friends and family to send the occasional goodie box from home.

The more you prepare for the change in life, the better your child – and you – will adapt! Culture shock isn’t something everyone experiences, but better to be prepared.

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  1. I had culture shock in 1958 when my family and I left Kentucky and moved to Indonesia. We spent at least a month traveling through Europe and the Middle East making our way there. It hit me initially in Paris and I became very anxious when our parents would leave us with a babysitter and would not sleep until they came back to the hotel. By the time we reached India I stopped responding and definitely stop initiating any conversation. I was eight. When we finally got to Java I remained closed down for a month or two until one day I met another American girl, older than I, and we became fast friends almost immediately. I rode my bike home and sat down for dinner and started talking. My parents and brother just stared at me like I was a stranger! My parents were planning to send me home with my mother, they were so worried. Everything was fine after that but it basically changed my entire life. Another story.

    1. How awful for you, that’s so sad. Yet just a little bit of extra thought and consideration from your family would have made a world of difference. I can totally imagine how the 8 year old you felt and want to hug them. I sincerely hope your life changed for the better. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  2. Pingback: Culture Shock in Children - Globiana
  3. I think a return visit is no bad thing. We returned to the UK only 3 months after leaving with 7 and 5 year olds – earlier than we had planned. I had thought it would be unsettling for them, but found quite the contrary. They were reassured to find that ‘it was all still there’ and that they already had an exciting new life which they were happy to get back to. Children are way more adaptable than we often give them credit for!

    1. I agree; most of the time all’s well. And this is particularly so when your new home is enjoyed by all – we didn’t have a problem.
      But I’ve heard of many tales of woe when the ‘old’ home is missed a lot and settling in the new country is taking longer than anticipated.
      Everyone is different!

  4. Young kids are so in tune with their parents so if you are feeling a little overwhelmed or stressed – they will pick up on that and also feel unsettled. This age group must have some sort of routine in their daily life so even if you are in a hotel waiting to settle in, give them structure with set bedtimes, breakfast time and play time. It is often too easy to put house hunting, shopping and job commitments before the toddlers needs. But this just adds to their feeling of being out of control. I wish we had a better word for “Culture Shock” since toddlers seldom understand the word culture and shock seems like a negative term…hum… any suggestions?

    1. Thank you so much for visiting and commenting, Julia.
      I totally agree that phrase ‘culture shock’ has little meaning to a young child, but I’m afraid I’m out of ideas for a new term. I will ponder!
      Routines certainly have top priority, especially for young children. Older kids benefit from them as well, in my experience; certain rules need to be maintained from home to home… if only for them to rebel against!
      Parents do indeed need to remain calm and focussed at all times as we set the ‘tone’ for the adjustment.

  5. My second eldest went through a phase of thinking life would be better for him back in England. He was 10 when we moved to France and started feeling this at about 13 when he was having some difficulties at school. He spent the summer in England and when he came back he seemed to be cured. He said he never felt safe there and actually felt much more comfortable back in France. He’s never looked back – he’s 18 now and settled into Uni here in France.

    1. That seems to be a tricky age.
      Interesting that he didn’t feel safe in the UK. Very glad it all settled down for him (and you, of course!)

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