Expat stresses

What stress can an expat possibly have?

I don’t assume that everyone who visits this site is excited and thrilled by an overseas move – searches that arrive here indicate that this is far from the case.

Moving overseas causes stress and anxiety even when you are excited about, and fully onboard with, the relocation. But if you don’t want to move to a particular country, or you feel you have to move abroad to keep your partner happy and in work, then the stress can become out of control.

Stresses can happen any time, any place, anywhere

Even if you’re already living overseas the stress of expat life can take its toll. Life and all its ups and downs carries on regardless of where you live. Perhaps your children aren’t coping in school for whatever reason, maybe you have aging parents thousands of miles away to worry about or you’re finding it impossible to find work of your own or even make friends.

Living overseas is not a holiday

Forget all those people who exclaim jealously that you’re living in so-called ‘paradise’ (ie anywhere other than your ‘home’ country!) and therefore can’t possibly have any ‘real’ problems. They are wrong. Expats have exactly the same problems as anyone else, big and small. Just because we live overseas it does not mean that we are on one endless holiday. Life goes on.

Just dealing with basic aspects of daily life in a different country can be difficult: What are the rules of driving at this junction? Am I allowed to park here? What is the postman saying to me? Is that milk or liquid yoghurt I’ve just put in my coffee because I can’t read the label? Of course, we soon get used to all these kinds of examples but it’s never at the same familiar level as dealing with stuff at home. There is a constant, low-level pressure at all times.

Difficulties are not location dependent

Illness and accidents can happen anywhere. These would be stressful enough in the home country. Negotiating a foreign healthcare system is hard work, however well-prepared you are – and that’s on top of the worry you’re already feeling.

Depression isn’t location dependent. It can happen to anyone regardless of where they’re living. It doesn’t matter if you live somewhere sunny and warm, with your own pool and home help. If the chemicals in your brain unbalance, you  become depressed: it’s got absolutely nothing to do with lifestyle.

Expat child stress

Not every child copes well with moving around, either. Of course, this depends on your child and your own situation. If you’ve emigrated permanently then it is unlikely to be as much of an issue than those who have to move countries every couple of years or so. This way of life appears to be easier when the child is very young, but once they’ve started school most kids prefer to stay put. Even if they seem to cope well, keep a close eye for issues that may arise. You know your child best. They may well appear resilient and fully able to cope, but problems may be developing under the surface that become more obvious as they grow. And then the teenage years hit!

Yes, yes, we know that we’re giving them a fantastic opportunity to see the world and experience other cultures. They have the chance to try activities, food and see places many others only dream of. But all a child really craves is stability and security. While they’re very young, you provide that for them. However, as they get older they look to their peers for this. Their friends become more important than you… and then they, or their friends, move away. Sometimes you have to put their needs above your dreams.

A friend of mine relocated every year or two throughout her childhood. She says it was OK when she was very young but became intolerable once she reached about 10 years old. She loathed always being the ‘new girl’ at school. She went from being a straight-A student to not working at all. She didn’t bother to make friends as she knew she would be leaving again soon. Now an adult, she is very settled, but it’s taken her a long time to reach contentment. She rarely, if ever, travels anywhere now and is a real ‘home-bird’.

Not all overseas relocations are ‘heaven on earth’!

Aspects of ‘relocation reluctance’ have been discussed here in the past. You may find these articles useful:

  • The reluctant expat: What happens if one of you doesn’t want to move overseas? Advice and help to overcome this problem.
  • Overcome relocation reluctance: Exercises and more advice to help you deal with anxiety over moving abroad.
  • Trouble in paradise: A personal story on how what others perceive as ‘paradise’ often is the opposite when you have to live there.
  • An unhappy expat child: How to recognise if your child is unhappy and how to deal with it.
  • Expat Child Syndrome: A term used to describe the emotional stress some children experience when they move abroad.


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  1. Thank you for your article I really think you are right about the children/teenagers. I will share this on FB

  2. Carole, I hope you keep writing articles like this one – its such an important topic to understand. For us, one of the primary long term stresses that an accompanying partner can experience is loss of identity from giving up a career or an aspect of life that is important to the way that person values her/himself. If you’re moving overseas as the the accompanying partner and are going to be the one who takes care of the kids, its easy to put their needs first and neglect your own, but the “happy children, happy Mum/Dad” adage often doesn’t hold true in the longer term. Working on rebuilding your identity in your new country and circumstances is important too. Of course I’m biased because this is what we do but I think its an important source of stress that often gets lost in the shorter term (but perhaps more acute) stresses of the move itself.

    1. Thank you Evelyn,

      This article sort of popped out of nowhere really! I can’t say I whether I will write another one as I only have my own experiences to draw upon – who knows what will happen next? If you’d like to write a guest post on the subject I’d be happy to publish it 🙂

      1. We’d love to. It’s a little crazy at the moment with the launch of Thriving Abroad but let’s talk about doing something later in the year. You have a great site!

  3. Thank you for reading and commenting, Chris. It’s interesting how some people can cope with the ‘newbie’ status while others can’t.

    I’m glad you’ve made this decision and wish you all the very best in beautiful Madrid!

  4. Yes, it can be very stressful and I’ve seen families struggling for
    months, years with this. I think there is a real need of helpers out
    there, people who need to help our children in a much more professional
    way to cope with these constant movings. With the fact that they have to
    say good-bye over and over again. I can understand that a child gives
    up and doesn’t want to make friends, because he knows that in a year or
    two he will be leaving again. I think these emotions, especially the
    grieving, is often too much for the children (and some adults too!).

    1. Hi Ute,
      Helpers could be one way to deal with this, for sure. I know some kids can deal with this just fine while others really struggle. And you don’t know which child that will be until it’s almost too late.

      1. I know that parents often think that they don’t need help to cope with this, but they have so much to deal with themselves, that they may not see one child suffering in silence. I’ve seen children not talk for months because they were grieving, whereas their siblings just did talk about their feelings or you could tell from their behaviour that they had a hard time. But some really settle in very well, very soon. – Expats are often relocated with a very short notice, and I’m wondering if these companies couldn’t respect a bit more the families with children and prevent these stressful situations. Parents and friends would have more time to prepare the children and to make at least the leaving “easier” (it’s difficult to arrange last-minutes playdates, outings when you’re packing etc.) Sorry, it’s just a thought.

      2. Don’t apologise! They are great points!

        With regard to the companies – yes, I totally agree they should be doing more to help families, and taking the families into account should be a normal part of the process. This often doesn’t happen.

        We had to move mid-year. When we asked if we could postpone it until the end of the school year the answer was “no, you should have thought of that before your moved overseas in the first place.” ie 4.5 years previously and when the job initially started. That lack of flexibility has long term effects.

      3. Oh yes, that happens so often (too often). And when you have children who have exams during that period, the families often have to split – which doesn’t make things easier! – i.e. one parent stays with the children until the school is over and the other ones makes the move (with a suitcase). And often the mums are the ones in charge of all the administrational stuff, the stress of the moving and the good-byes (theirs and the ones of their children). This is more than stress. Someone should do a study about the family-friendliness of those companies.

      4. Haha! Oh we’ve tried 😉 Doesn’t happen. Or if it does, the answers are ‘guarded’.

        I know a few families who live on different continents due to schooling, it’s far from ideal.

  5. I agree with your friends comment about being the “newbie” at school. I went through a similar experience and even now if someone asks where I come from I have to go through the motions of where I started, where I moved to and where we eventually settled and then say so I don’t really come from anywhere in particular ! I promised myself I wouldn’t put my kids through the same experience and then 7 years ago we moved to Singapore with a young daughter, my son was then born over there.

    With my own promise still strong in my mind we relocated back west to Madrid at the beginning of 2013 and are making our life permanent here. Greater stability for my kids whilst still having a great lifestyle !

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