Expat Child Syndrome

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, I want to take a look at the issues expat children may 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.

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. 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 the next post on this topic I take a look at the ways you can help your kid during this period, so here’s ‘Part 2’. 

My book on choosing the right school for YOUR child overseas

Choosing the right school for your child is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make as an expat parent when moving abroad. There are many education options around for expats, and so much depends on your individual family set-up and child that there is no ‘one-school-fits-all’ solution.

Each child is different and each country’s school system is different, even within the ‘generic’ international schools. Also, families differ in their requirements and aspirations, and even relocations vary greatly. What worked well for you all in one country won’t necessarily be replicated in your next move.

It’s easy to get very stressed at this point. Don’t panic! I’ve put together this book to help you kick-start your search for the best type of school for your child.

Available on your local Amazon

To get instant access to the key points you need to know right now, check out my abridged version eBook here

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  1. Feeling quite frightened now and in fear of moving my children after reading these comments and I am so sorry for their suffering. Could this have been mitigated? Who knows.

  2. As a ten year old child my father moved the family to an area with a different language that was alien to me. I too now can relate to the issues associated with ECS – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would also apply to the reflection on my childhood post 10 years old.

    The happy fun loving kid pre 10 years old was by my later teenage years supressed, had a feeling of not belonging, not able to reach any decision about my future direction – just drifting and finding that my avenues of development were curtailed due to language issues.

    Now aged 49 I am so relieved that this situation has been understood, and my advice to anyone with children aged 8-15 or sensitive in their nature then under no circumstances should they relocate during their childhood.

    It is increasingly common to hear of families that have moved away having to return within 12 months because their child or children will not settle – this is most definitely the right thing to do.

    Whilst I am able to function normally I am very much aware of how fragile and uncertain life can be and I will avoid any situation that will impact upon my well being where possible.

    thank you

    1. Thanks so much. I had the exact same thing! Dropped in an alien language at age 10 in the 80s. Leaving behind friends, community, activities and identity No internet and international phone calls prohibitively expensive. I had no one to speak English to outside the immediate family until I went to Uni.

      I responded in the way you describe so well in your second paragraph. It was like all the colours became washed out and life lost its meaning while development and interests were blocked off by language and cultural barriers.

      It was much worse for my brother who was 12. He got incredibly shy and self-conscious outside, while at home his rage became increasingly uncontrollable and violent. When my parents asked for help, they were told my brother had borderline PD (???) and needed to go into care. In a foreign country, six months after arrival. Needless to say, it only made him worse and just meant we couldn’t go home (because of his ‘treatment’) or even travel (because of his violence). Just utterly marooned in misery.

      Can only strongly agree with your last three paragraphs. When I think back to the kind of advice my parents were getting in the 80s, I’m really glad understanding has improved in this area. I would like to think the internet has also smoothed the transition process and allows a healthier mix and match of identity. Otoh, maybe it makes it possible to cling to your past life too much.

      Anyway, I’m glad you are doing well. Take care.

  3. For me, as I am also a ECS and I was thinking a lot about it I came to the conclusion, that we will stay our whole life ECS. I moved back to my home country after 11 years abroad. Yes, I met my old friends, I met old places I even brought a flat in the area I used to live and guess what – I did not feel like @home, it felt like a fake movie. All friends grew up, have their families and yes with some of them I met regularly and I am happy about it but still it is not the same as it was, I miss a huge part of the childhood and relationships with them. For me there is no real therapy for it, more it is important to build a new, happy life and try to avoid the ECS for your kids as it can have lifelong effects, especially on the stability of their relationships. And yes, from time to time you have the feeling that you do not belong anywhere but having a place you can call home and loving family will help a lot.

    1. I am so sorry. I know how you feel and I am sorry of nobody apologized to you what you had to go through.

      I, myself moved when I was 12 and never even had a chance to say goodbye to my life at home . I have been carrying it with me for so long and I don’t think I will truly ever fit in anywhere . I carry resentment towards my mother for never helping me out or helping me understand . I was thrown into a new life and was told yo learn to accept it even though I was drowning .

      I thought I was the only one until I started researching and only finding out there is a term for it.

      I guess I will flow through life and look for this things that make me some what happy and normal.

  4. I would also note that Expat children often find adjusting difficult, on returning to their home country. In my case I moved back to the UK for University after 12 years as an Expat, and frankly felt like a stranger in a strange land. I had more in common with other Expats and the citizens of the countries I had lived in than those in the UK, whom I found rather insular, and somewhat narrow-minded.

  5. 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. It means a lot to see that I’m not alone in this — I’m 46 and only now beginning to come to an understanding of the impact of my family’s move from Europe “back” to the U.S. (where I’d never lived before) when I was nine, with no family support and heading straight into a violent and difficult school situation. Like A above, I’m still dealing with that 37 years later, and unfortunately don’t see an end in sight — there was little to no understanding of TCKs and ECS when I was a kid, I was repeatedly advised just to “get over” missing Europe, and in many ways the resulting depression and identity challenges now feel too deep-rooted to resolve. And I haven’t been able to find much, either online or offline, to help with this — knowing others are going through the same thing provides a small amount of comfort, but I don’t see any solutions, aside from spending a ton of money on plane travel back there as often as I can (which I am starting to do as much as possible, and which does help somewhat), and accepting that I’ll feel unmoored and isolated for the rest of my life.

      1. Thank you for reaching out. I’m so sorry you’re experiencing such a difficult time.

        Something you could research is another term – Third Culture Kid (TCK) and also, ATCK which is Adult Third Culture Kid. Much has been written about the trials, tribulations and also success and quirks, using these phrases. Looking at it from this angle may help you understand the identity issues you feel.

        Good luck to you.

    3. I am so sorry . My hardest part is that I wasn’t acknowledged at all and mostly blamed for whenever I spoke how I felt . I have severe resentment towards my mother and I am still yelled at for speaking how I feel and brushed off saying how it happened so long ago and how I need to let it go . Trust me , I wish but I can’t since it’s my shadow and not many good memories to look back at.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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