An unhappy expat child

“I am an expat child and I don’t like it”

This Google search term led a young reader to ‘Expat Child’, which was a shock, and gave rise 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 confided in an adult. The fact that they ‘asked’ Google, leads me to believe that they haven’t 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.

This article will deal with the situation from the viewpoint of the parent, and will give tips on recognising the situation, and dealing with it. We will follow up with tips for children in a separate post.

Recognise that your child is unhappy

Generally the older the child, the greater the risk, so pay close attention to children over 10 years, 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  • Withdrawn behaviour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.

<door slams>

No wonder the child feels misunderstood. She has told her parent that she is unhappy, and he has dismissed her feelings as mistaken, and wrong. She feels alone and misunderstood, her parent feels cross that she is 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.

Have you experienced these emotions, either in yourself or your child? How did you deal with them?

In the next post we look at ways to improve your child’s happiness.

By Lynn Schreiber

Lynn Schreiber 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 Jump! Magazine, an online resource for pre-teen girls. She blogs on her personal blog and for Gates Foundation blog
Lynn’s first book ‘Learn Twitter in Ten Minutes’ was published in September 2012.

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  1. I experience this phenomenon, the “don’t talk about our travels”, only I was born in the USA and have never had the opportunity to leave permanently. I became disillusioned with the country I was born in at the age of 5, shunning the American flag and resorting to Canadian speaking habits as early as 8. I converted to using British spelling (ironically) by the age of 8 as well. But you also “don’t speak of your dislike” for a country you were born in, I’ve found. Or at least not the USA where everyone’s feelings take precedence over your own and patriotism is apparently a birth trait. So besides the fact that I never acknowledge US holidays outside of professional necessity, ‘it’s not a well known fact. Mind ya, I don’t mind Americans in general. They get a bad reputation for what a very small amount of folks are actually guilty of. Maybe I could move to Alaska and be happier… or Hawaii where I could surf my cares away.

  2. 70% of international ventures fail due to cultural differences. Unfortunately, unhappy kids make up a part of that number.

    I’m in the military and we deal with these types of things all of the time; however, we also have a closed community that contains an array of programs and services to help our families adjust to the new environment that they’re living in. Our strategy in by no means “fool proof” because a few of our families experience the same symptoms as non-military families despite our efforts; however, it’s imperative that we have a strong support system in place for our families so that our Service Members can do their jobs safely and effectively.

    Another important step we take is “screen” our families “readiness” prior to sending them over. We check for any serious “red flags” that could seriously hamper their ability to adjust, to includes their health. This in itself keeps our failure rate well below the 70%.

    Being that there are laws prohibiting civilian organizations from doing most of what we do to screen our families, my recommendation is for parents to screen themselves and their families readiness in a similar way prior to going, in an effort to help themselves and their children with this transition. Here’s how…..

    Assessing and Improving you and your families Cultural Intelligence (CQ) prior to embarking on your new adventure will pay huge dividends down the road. Studies show that increasing your CQ increases your chances of a successful transition, because it results in increased cross-cultural adjustment, increased personal well-being, increased job performance, and increased profitability.

    A program run by Dr. Dave Livermore, the assessment is broken up into four categories: CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Action and CQ Strategy. (All areas that we prepare, train and coach our military families for, prior to and throughout their tours of duty.)

    For more information visit

  3. Hi – can I just add, it can be just as difficult to re-intergrate when you return home. Your child might want to slot straight in back with her old friends, but those friend’s will have moved on and will have new friends. This is when your child might need some extra support – when her previous best friend has a new best friend, things can be pretty tough!

    1. Hi Clara,
      Yes, I agree. That must be horribly tough. Although it will depend on the age of the child when they first moved.
      Repatriating and reverse culture shock is a massive subject I need to look into. We haven’t experienced it – yet…
      A friend’s son who repatriated last year discovered very quickly that you ‘don’t talk about your travels’. I wonder if this is just a British ‘thing’ or is encountered across the globe?

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