How to help your expat teen cope with moving
A teenager is a young person in a transitional life phase – and you’re adding another transitional life phase on top of all this with the move abroad! This can be 'interesting'!
Adolescence can be tricky at the best of times. However, if a teen is moved from their comfort zone and close friends without a lot of preparation and discussion, this stage of development can be more difficult to handle while in a strange place.
Learn why moving is hard for teens and how what age you move for the first time makes such a difference.
Discover what Expat Child Syndrome is, what to be aware of and how to prevent and manage it. Plus an insight into my views on the whole 'kids are resilient' belief.
Please scroll down for the transcript
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Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. This is Episode 30 and this will be the last podcast episode I'm recording. I'll explain why at the end of it.
For now, I want to talk about helping your expat teen cope with moving and living overseas. To do this tricky subject even the tiniest bit of justice, we must first consider the question we'll ask ourselves at some point, what the hell is a teenager?
Well, the dictionary says that any person between the age of 13 and 19. But come on, as parents, we know the answer is far more complicated than that, right. So the age group I'm really focussing on here is probably from about 10 or 11 up to about 17 or so, because this is when kids start to become their own person, a human, a person in their own right; a person with opinions and likes and dislikes and yet more opinions!
A teenager is a young person in a transitional life phase; someone who is experiencing puberty and the complex change in mindset and physicality from childhood to adulthood. This means we can't treat them in the same way as we would treat younger children. And for some people, that's actually quite hard to let go. And yet at the same time, they are not quite emotionally ready to be treated as an adult, despite their protestations.
So, a teenager is a young person in a transitional life phase and you are adding another transitional life phase on top of all that by moving abroad. And this is where it can all get rather fun, shall we say.
Now, adolescence can be tricky at the best of times. However, if a teen is moved from their comfort zone and close friends without a lot of preparation and a lot of discussion, this stage of development can be really difficult to handle while in a strange country. And some other issues may arise, which I'll talk about later on.
Now, why is moving so hard for teenagers? Now, this is moving for the first time, really. If they've moved several times before, they are kind of used to the whole upheaval and the new making friends and the whole new life and what's expected of them. But if you move a teenager for the very first time, it can be really, really difficult. And the reason that moving is so hard for teenagers is because they form very strong social connections at this stage in their life. Their friends are more than just people with whom they share common interests. They are a vital part of their own identity. And also teenagers still hold onto a childish confidence that they are the centre of the universe and that everything that happens within the family home is directly because of, or for them. They're basically selfish and self-centred. Let's be honest! They really are. Until they're not, of course.
If you own a teenager you'll know exactly what I'm talking about here. Hormonal changes give teenagers an unprecedented aptitude for drama and theatrics. Emotions are raw; reasoning isn't fully formed yet, and logic may seem to be absent altogether. So, they don't always have reason and logic unless they are arguing about something that they believe is true. In which case the reasoning and logic is fierce.
And due to the development of their bodies and minds, teenagers frequently believe they are adults and will feel hard done by if they aren't treated as such, even if they're not yet capable of acting the part.
Of course, this is such a massive generalisation, I am actually cringing at saying some of these things. You know how individual and special your teenager is and your teenager is most likely the exception to the rule and is genuinely excited by the prospect of a new start and the opportunities opened by global experiences. But just in case you're not that lucky, let's look at what you can do to help the average teenager come to terms with parents who seem to be hell bent on destroying their very existence.
So how can you help your teen embrace the move and the transition to expat life and cope with any difficulties along the way? And this is actually a really complex topic, and there are several factors to take into account. Like I said just now, the number of moves that they've made prior to this; it's so much easier if they are used to moving. The age of your teen, of course - a 13 year old is going to cope very differently than a 16 year old, and how mature they are as well. So the age of your teen, both physically and emotionally, is going to make a huge difference. Also take into consideration how much time there was, or there is, to prepare for the change and how smooth the transition is likely to be. So, moving from, say, the UK to the USA is going to be somewhat easier than moving from the UK to Kazakhstan, for example.
So let me give you some quick tips to help. And as ever, the key point is communication. Now, communicating with teens can be a minefield. For many parents attempting to talk with their teen may be met with eye rolling, grunting, shrugging and an array of words that haven't yet made it into any known dictionary. Or with flat out arguments and drama. And actually, all of these are quite normal reactions, and you should only really, truly worry if you get no feedback or arguing at all, because that could mean that they are internalising any problems and that can be worse for everyone.
A key factor in getting a teenager to accept a life changing decision such as moving overseas is to get them involved right from the very start. As soon as it becomes a possibility to move overseas, discuss it with them. Tell them why it's a great opportunity. Be honest about your own enthusiasm and tell them as soon as possible when it's likely to happen.
Yep, exactly the same as preparing kids of any age. In fact, everything I've said in my previous episode is valid here, too. You just have to do some extra and different conversations. And so talk and listen and listen between the lines, as I explained in my previous episode.
And when they react - because they will react - make sure you listen to their concerns. Even if the reaction is one of tears and recriminations, the truth about their concerns will be in there somewhere. And this will give you pointers to plan your next steps. And this is what I mean by listening between the lines. It's very likely that they won't actually voice their key worries. You got to work them out. Life isn't that straightforward, so you have to let them know it's not easy. But that's just the way it is. Most of the time, any outbursts may be just to 'download' onto you and they don't necessarily want to hear solutions. And that's OK. Just listen, nod and empathise.
Sometimes it helps not to give instant solutions. They aren't in the right headspace to hear them. Maybe come back a bit later when they've calmed down a bit with some solutions or options for them to explore in their own time. The trick here is to make them think that it's their idea. That the solution is their idea. Try and build bridges towards independence and confidence. Give your teen the freedom to take part in the planning, to openly discuss their fears and to ask the difficult questions. Encourage and help them to research your new home and find out for themselves what it has to offer. Don't be hanging over them all the time. Find out what things would make the move more palatable and do everything in your power to be as accommodating as possible.
Refused to be drawn into drama and conflict. You will eventually win them over just with love and patience and understanding, because when all is said and done, they still need you and they just want to feel like they're an important part of your plan. Again, the same as in all other age groups, sell the positives. But let's be clear, bribes are too obvious. They work well with younger children, but with a teen, you need to be more subtle. An obvious bribe will result in a negative reaction, but selling the positives may tip the balance. For example, if you're moving to a hot country (and this is very shallow) then surely you need to go on a clothes shopping trip? And you'll get a chance to bond together and discuss plans and to try and generate excitement, as well as pandering to most teenagers love as something new and trendy.
At least one of my friends promised their kids a puppy in their new country. Whatever you promise you must go through with it. Trust is so important. Perhaps there are opportunities in the new country that just don't exist where you currently live. Maybe they can take their driving test sooner. Perhaps they can go horse riding or dune buggy driving. Maybe you're going somewhere they can take up surfing when you've lived in a landlocked country somewhere. Do some early research so that you're armed with accurate and relevant juicy facts that you can just drop into conversation as and when.
Now, changing schools at this age is really hard. Social circles are well defined by the teenage years and it can be hard for a newbie to fit in. Due to their age their self-consciousness is really high and often self confidence is really low. And this particular transition is a little easier for newbies if you're moving to an international school in an expat hub. This is because they're used to welcoming new expat kids every year and may actually have welcome committees in place to help them. It's also a little easier if you're moving somewhere where the language is the same as your native language.
Teens also need to learn and navigate new social rules and expectations for their new location. What may be acceptable and commonplace in one country could well be very inappropriate behaviour in another. So, as ever, do your research and see if you can find out what you need to know so that everybody is well prepared.
Of course, making new friends is one of the biggest hurdles, especially for teenagers who are shy or have language barriers to contend with. It can take just one little thing, such as a difficult day at a new school, to make your teen go into their shell and miss their home country and their old friends really deeply. You're likely to be much busier than usual, too, as you deal with your own adjustment process and this can make your teen feel even more alone. Plus, of course, you're a parent; they don't want to talk to you about it. Please don't assume the quietness means that they are adjusting well. Try and look for other expats or support groups to join before you leave. Members of my Expatability Chat Facebook group highly recommend this, so research as much as possible before you go.
And for you too! Having someone to meet up with on arrival really helps. It will give your kids an opportunity to develop friendships with their peers who understand the stress of moving to a new country. Plus, they'll have insider knowledge of the area that you're living in. Now, the key point with teens is that you must not ever look as if you're trying to force a friendship. You're not organising playdates with teenagers. That is a big fat no. It has to be done much more subtly than that. They will push back at anything that resembles childlike behaviours, if you like. Look for clubs, activities or classes for a teen to meet new friends. If they're already sporty, do your best to encourage them to continue this in their new country by doing your own research so that you can gently guide them towards the right places as soon as you can.
Now, while I advocate handing some control to all ages of children, with a teenager, this is even more important. Although your teen may not be ready to go it alone as an adult yet, they will greatly appreciate being consulted on an adult level, and given some say in the decisions that most affect them. Perhaps this may be choosing a school for themselves.
Or they may actually have genuine reasons for not wanting to leave their home country. Would they perhaps prefer to go to a boarding school. Now this can be a very hard decision for a parent. I know I've been there. I've been through the whole thing. It is extremely hard, but sometimes it truly is the best option for your child. It may provide a happy medium for your teenager and get them through their exams, for example, in a curriculum that they're used to. Exam years are really, really important, most relevant to British children, I think. So, are they in important exam years? Would they perhaps prefer the opportunity to stay back in your home country with family or friends until the exams are over?
This is quite a radical thought, I agree. But do think about it. Having stability and continuity of education and friendships at this age can, literally, be lifesaving.
Unless they have lived abroad at some point during their life, it may well just be too much of an upheaval for them to cope with such a late stage of their schooling years. Perhaps they are truly concerned about leaving their friends. If so, help to plan their first visits home before you even leave, so they have something to look forward to and something ready to plan. If possible, you could even plan for their friends to come and visit. Obviously, that's not so easy these days when we don't know when we're going to be able to fly again, but it's useful to have that plan set up before you go. And remember that even whilst rebel against your every sentence, because what do parents know? It's mainly only because you are their safety net. Rebelling against you gives them a valuable opportunity to practise their adult assertive skills.
You can take the wind out of that sails a bit by genuinely understanding their needs, and my favourite thing, pick your battles. Sometimes you may have to surrender for the greater good. Now, you may have very firm rules about devices, for example, but now may be the time to ensure your teenager has a device that allows them to foster their established friendships. It may ease the sting of moving.
Remind your teen that friends are not gone. All of their important people in the previous country or school are still there and they can still communicate via whatever social media is in at the time. Encourage your teen to take advantage of online technology. Like I say, sometimes it's for the greater good. But please do take care and put some kind of measure in place to protect them. They are extremely vulnerable right now and can fall easy prey to online predators.
Expat teens need to be in touch with their friends and this often requires communications across countries and time zones. The problem comes when they connect with people on social media, and then, even if they know the initial person in real life, there may be other connections added who aren't who they claim to be. They'll think, "Well, that's Tom's friend and Sophie's friend, so they must be OK." And add randomers all over the place. You must be very, very hot on online safety and teach them that when adding people to their networks that they are supremely careful. There are apps that you can purchase which allow you to access all of their texts and messages and even their contacts to prevent a threatening situation from developing. I need you to do your own research on this.
I just want to talk about something, and I don't want to talk about this to scare you, I just want to talk about something called Expat Child Syndrome so that you are aware of something that can go on when moving overseas. Expat Child Syndrome, commonly shortened to ECS is a psychological term used to describe the emotional stress that some children experience when they move abroad.
And I want to emphasise 'some'. It's vital to stress that ECS is impossible to predict and is impossible to prevent as it's something that all expat kids can experience, but not all kids will.
New and unfamiliar situations can be intimidating, 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 and they don't know what to expect. And this feeling of unsettledness can be a huge challenge for a lot of kids and can become problematic.
There is no set list of symptoms to look out for. 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've been affected by the move to a new country. ECS 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 anyway, with the whole hormones raging and dealing with the 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. And I believe it hits hardest the older your child is when they move for the very first time. And that's because they've had more years of building up their life in their home country in familiar situations before moving.
It's not only age, it can have an impact on the likelihood of Expat Child Syndrome occurring. Frequent relocation can also have a detrimental effect. If you have to move often, say every couple of years or so, your child will be more likely to suffer from Expat Child Syndrome than someone who moves overseas for 10 years at a time. Because as soon as they settle into a new location and make new friends, they have to start all over again. And this can be frustrating and upsetting when they've worked so hard to fit in. Location can have an impact, too. How similar is your new location to your home or previous country? If the place you are relocating to is drastically different and it may make the transition extra challenging for your child and therefore most likely to have a greater impact on their psychological state. The physical distance between your home and host country will also have an impact. If you moving to the other side of the world, it can be very easy for kids to feel as if they'll never see their friends and family again, which again can lead to emotional distress.
The key aspect is usually friendships. When you relocate, your child leaves a support network of close friends behind, which is why it's important to develop a stable support network in your new location. Try to help your child make new friends without putting pressure on them. Encourage them to get involved in extracurricular activities and try and create non-cringeworthy opportunities for your teen to meet new people, which will help build their confidence. Getting the balance right between working on new social interactions and keeping in touch with old friends is also important.
One thing you will notice about all of these contributing factors is that it is very difficult to change any of them and therefore you certainly cannot stop ECS from occurring. But you can help your child deal with the challenges that come from moving abroad. If you know the signs and scenarios that are more likely to cause them emotional stress, you can be better prepared to help them through it. So what should you look for? Well, that's actually a really tough question.
It's very easy to dismiss them as acting up because they didn't want to move abroad in the first place. It's also easy to dismiss any emotional issues as either post-move stress or most commonly 'just being a teenager'. But do be on guard for escalations. Not every teenager behaves in certain ways. It's not uncommon for ECS to show itself in the form of a constant resentment against you for making the move away from home. So it's really important to give your child support during this period before and after moving, I mean. And simply being aware of ECS will help. As ever, it's all about communication and truly knowing your child. Often simple acknowledgement of your teen's feelings and struggles that they are encountering can be a massive step in helping them to deal with the emotional stress that they are experiencing. And remember, they may not be able to actually put their feelings into words, or may not want to upset you about it, and that's very common.
In most cases, it's simply a matter of time. Your child will probably settle down really quickly and find their feet shortly after arrival. Phew! If not, you'll probably find out that as time passes in your new home country, they start to realise great things about their new home and the benefits of their relocation and find themselves.
I always reckon it takes a full school term to begin to settle. It may take a term and a half, it may take two. But if there are still problems, or the problems are getting worse, you need to act. And by this I mean get professional help. And by that I mean counselling, of course. Try and find someone who has at least some concept of expat life, if at all possible.
Pay very close attention to your child's behaviour as a change in their attitude can be a key indicator that they are suffering. You may notice that they're becoming more disruptive than usual, more uncooperative, or they may withdraw into themselves showing signs of loneliness and seclusion. And I'm going to be blunt here; it may even move into more frightening problems, such as hanging out in the wrong crowd, eating disorders, self-harm and worse. If it's got this far. Get help quicker.
Now, I'm only telling you about this because moving overseas is traumatic for many children. It's not traumatic for all children. But knowing that it can be, can help you keep your eye on the ball a little bit more.
So now that you know that there are lots of things that can be done to help your teenager move overseas, please follow my tips.
And now I want to share a rant I popped onto my social media the other day as I feel it's relevant to the whole Preparing Kids series, and it's all about the phrase 'kids are resilient'.
Now, I truly hate this phrase. It's used as an excuse, a get-out clause. Resilience is not a natural born-with-it skill. The abilities needed for resilience are learned, or not, from an early age. Resilience means the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. Challenges and difficulties can range on so many levels, but all cause some kind of trauma to the developing brain.
From something as tragic and life changing as losing both parents in a war zone, to an event most of us have been through - a child getting lost in a large shop. Both are traumatic events, albeit on completely different scales. In both cases, the child survives. However, there is a huge difference between surviving and thriving. And yes, I know that that is a much used phrase these days. Children can be a bit like animals; hiding their mental pain, trauma and confusion well. And, on the surface may appear to be resilient because they're just getting on with the life that's been dealt them. But have you perhaps wondered why there is such an explosion of teen mental health problems in recent years?
Usually, the phrase, "Oh, it's OK, kids are resilient", is trotted out to calm some form of guilt. Maybe it's said by someone else trying to make you feel better about something you're worried about, or feeling guilty about. Sometimes it's used to justify poor decisions by the parents. And yes, I did say that. We often get it wrong, parenting, I mean. If we didn't have great parenting models growing up, it's possible we will make mistakes, too. It's like that famous poem by Philip Larkin. Google 'This Be The Verse' if you don't know it, because I'm not going to repeat it here. You'll see why!
We can help our expat kids with this whole resilience issue by properly preparing them for the move, for the change of school, for everything. We do this by listening to them deeply and not just shrugging off their concerns with the "oh, OK. What are you worried about that for?"
Perhaps reconsider your idea of dropping your 14 year old into a native language local school with no preparation and no language training? Maybe don't assume that at 18 years old, because your child is now officially an adult, that they don't need you anymore.
I could go on, but I'm not going to. Just please don't assume all children are resilient and need minimal preparation. Some cope better than others. Some cope worse than others. Help build your child's resilience from birth. You can do this by building self-esteem, confidence, independence and encourage problem-solving skills and give them tools to help them relieve stress in safe ways.
When I asked in my Facebook group which strategies help them move with teens, the answers were mainly, "we didn't have much trouble". And they all use the approaches that I've shared here and on ExpatChild.com.
However, I know for an absolute fact that there are many teens who did not have a good move at some point in their lives. Of course, it's totally understandable that their troubles are not shared widely or spoken about in a large group. This stuff usually comes out in a one to one, a private conversation. It's traumatic, it's upsetting and it's sometimes terrifying. And it's normal for parents to feel massive guilt and a sense of failure if their teenager suffers from mental health problems.
Now, if you only take one thing from this, it's this... It's really, really important to recognise that adolescence can be a traumatic period of life no matter where you live. Even if you didn't move abroad, your teenager may still go through issues and troubles. You'll just never know if moving abroad made it worse or not. It's possible that they would have had the same issues if you'd remained in your home country.
It's so important that you don't beat yourself up on this. You're doing your best and parenting is flipping hard regardless of which country you do it in. I genuinely cannot emphasise this enough. Staying put in your home country is not the answer to preventing teenage mental health problems. Just look around you.
So just a couple of reminders to sum up; keep channels of communication open and you'll all find your way. Make family time a priority. Be conscious that your teen may well be lonely. Go out of your way to do fun things together and grab this time while you can. It's very quickly over. Pick your battles. Even more vital when you're a parent of teens. Does a tidy room really matter in the grand scheme of things?
And above all, remember this too shall pass.
Thank you again for listening to my ramblings on Expatability Chat. I may come back again at some point with other episodes, but for now I'm knocking it on the head. It is incredibly time consuming. It's very, very, very time consuming because it's only me doing all of this! I've still got a lot to say, obviously, but I'm not very good at talking at people. I much prefer to have an interactive experience and I'm not getting that with this podcast.
And with my husband moving to Afghanistan at the end of this month, my life has naturally got to change quite dramatically. So I need to prioritise what I do with my days. And for now, the podcast is coming to an end. I'll keep the episodes online as long as I can and please come and find me on my websites, on social media and drop us a line by email or book, a call if there's anything that you'd like to talk over with me. Do keep in touch and I'll find you again somewhere soon. Take care now!