“I am an expat child and I don’t like it”
Originally published as two articles in October 2012, now condensed into one with tips on how to help your expat child overcome anxieties and problems.
“I am an expat child and I don’t like it” – This Google search term led a young reader to ExpatChild.com, and it led to some soul searching amongst the community.
What is the best way to respond to this comment, and how can we help our children when they are unhappy?
We don’t know if the child who sought answers is alone in their unhappiness, or if they have confided in an adult. The fact that they ‘asked’ Google, leads me to believe that they have not talked to their parents.
Anyone who has moved to a new town, let alone a new country, knows how stressful the first few months are. We are consumed with questions – Which school is the right one for my child, what area of town is good to live in, where is the nearest doctor and dentist, DIY store and supermarket, where can I buy familiar ingredients, is there a library with books in our native language…? The list is endless and in this confusion it is easy to take the silence from our children as acceptance of their new home.
We will look at the situation from the viewpoint of the parent, and will give tips on recognising the situation, and dealing with it. And then follow with tips to help your children.
Recognise that your child is unhappy
Generally the older the child, the greater the risk, so pay close attention to children over 10 years old but even younger children can suffer home-sickness and miss their old lives back home.
Signs that your child is struggling:
- Wanting to be alone, retreating into bedroom
- Constant contact with old friends at home
- Not accepting offers of new friendship
- Withdrawn behaviour
- Aggressive or disruptive behaviour
- Change in temperament – a normally cheery child is subdued
These may seem obvious, but in that initial phase when we seek to normalise our lives, these signs can be overlooked.
Accept the feelings of your child
We often try to ‘jolly’ a child out of a mood, or reassure them that they will enjoy their time as an expat child, but this may feel like we are not taking them seriously. How many of you recognise this conversation?
Parent: Hey, how is it going in school?
Child: I hate it. I want to go home
Parent: Oh, don’t be like that, you will like it once you get used to it
Child: No, I won’t. I will always hate it. It is a stupid school and the other kids are stupid too
Parent: Now, don’t say that. It is a good school. Didn’t we take ages to decide on the right school, we looked at several in the area. It was the one that we all liked best, wasn’t it? Once you settle in and make some friends, you will love it.
Child: I don’t want new friends. I want my old friends. You don’t understand me at all. I hate it here, and I hate you.
No wonder the child feels misunderstood. They told their parent that they are unhappy, and the parent has dismissed their feelings as mistaken, and wrong. They feel alone and misunderstood, their parent feels cross that they are not making an effort – after all the work they put in to find a good school. There is no communication.
Now try this:
Parent: Hey, how is it going at school?
Child: I hate it. I want to go home
Parent: Hmm, fitting into a new school is tough, isn’t it?
Child: Yes, it is. I don’t like the school and I don’t like the other kids
Parent: What don’t you like about it?
Child: EVERYTHING! The classes are boring, the kids are mean – they don’t speak to me, everyone ignores me, the teacher keeps saying that I have a lot to catch up cause my last school was not as advanced as this one, which is NOT TRUE.
Parent: Yes, I can see why you are unhappy. I find it kind of tough here too sometimes. I miss my old colleagues and our friends back home.
Thus begins a discussion – an honest and open discussion about the overseas assignment. After a while, you can talk about the more positive aspects of living overseas, and the things you like about living there. It is important that the discussion doesn’t end on negative aspects of your new life, and that it ends with a discussion on how you can improve things.
After identifying that your child is unhappy in their new life, by the careful conversation openers above, we are ready to move on to the next stage.
Improve the happiness of your expat child
First, take a good hard look at your own behaviour and comments. Do you often complain about the country in which you live? It is easy to fall into the trap of commenting on the differences between your home country and the place in which you are living, but making it sound negative.
“Oh, for goodness sake. The Swiss neighbour has just asked me not to mow the lawn because it is lunch time here. Jeez, they are fussy about noise.”
“Hmm, the Swiss neighbour just told me that they don’t allow mowing of the lawns during lunchtime. I will do it later, so we can all have lunch in peace.”
If you constantly complain about the new country, then don’t expect your kids to love it – they take their cue from you!
This doesn’t mean that you have to pretend to love your new life, if you are struggling, but do try to retain an open mind and positive attitude.
Tips to help improve happiness
- Talk with your children about what you can do to help them settle. If there is a problem in school, would they like you to intervene? What about friends – is there someone in your work who has children of a similar age? Could you encourage your child to invite a school mate to come around?
- Take the time to go to the school gates (if your child is young enough to still want picked up) and talk to some of the other parents. It can be hard to work up the courage to approach a group of parents, but that is what your child had to do – walk into a classroom filled with strange kids.
- Go to any activity or parents evening in school, and think about joining the PTA to meet other parents and kids.
- Make sure that home life is as settled as possible. Keep any arguments away from your child. Stick to the same routines that you had before the move.
- What is your child’s bedroom like? Is it comforting and familiar, or have you been concentrating on other areas in the house?
- Have you thought about getting a pet? Walking the dog gets you and your child out of the house, and gives you an opportunity to meet other people in the area. A pet also provides an ‘open ear’ for your child to talk about their troubles.
- Check out youth groups and classes in the area. Is there something that your child has always wanted to learn? Now is the time to start.
- Do exciting things at the weekend. Explore the area.
- Don’t visit home too soon – if you take the kids back within the first six months, you will unsettle them and it will take them even longer to find their feet.
- Consider staying in your host country for at least part of the school holidays – many expats head home for the holidays, but this can be a great opportunity to see more of your host country and do a bit of travelling.
The most common reason for a ‘failure’ of an overseas assignment, ie a premature return to the home country, is the unhappiness of the family, so speak to your HR department if they have any programmes or suggestions.
By Lynn Schreiber
Lynn is a British writer and blogger who has lived and worked in Switzerland and Germany. She has a particular interest in the rights of women and children, and in 2012 launched , an online resource for pre-teen girls. She blogs on her personal blog and for Gates Foundation blog Lynn’s first book was published in September 2012.
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