Moving Overseas and Teenage Expat – We Are Already There, So What Do We Do?

Overseas Relocation and Teenage Expat
is a Complicated Situation, But it’s Definitely Manageable


It’s early in the morning; the plane is about to land. You can see the signs of ground through the windows of the plane.
 
The moment you have waited for with excitement and anticipation has finally arrived. You look at the seat next to you, where your teenage expat is still sleeping. In the next minutes he/she will wake up to a new world and a new life.
 
These are the last moments of quiet where you can relax and take a deep breath before your expatriate life begins.
 
In a previous article we addressed the unique characteristics of adolescence and their implications on the expatriate family’s decision to relocate oversea. We also discussed various ways of dealing with difficulties that may occur in adolescents before moving abroad.
 
This article will discuss the after overseas move period. When you and your teenage expat begin to experience a new and unknown reality, and are faced with complex challenges.
 
Ready? Let’s dive in…
 
At the beginning of your expatriate life you are probably living in a hotel and are busy with finding an apartment for rent, buying a car and searching for schooling options for your kids, or visiting those that you have pre selected before your overseas move.

A little later you are mostly busy with unpacking, organizing, and getting familiar with your surroundings (grocery, playground /sports, etc’.).
 
You are probably feeling physically and emotionally tired, drained, confused and not belonging.
 
For your teenage expat the feeling of confusion and emptiness is much more intense. After all they have left behind their entire life, but are still not engaged in new social and educational activities.
 
This period of vacuum has important psychological value. It allows your teenage expat to prepare for his/her new life.
 
William Bridges (2004) called this period “Neutral Zone”. He argued that this period marked by the experiences of confusion, disorientation and detachment, is a period that separates the “what was there” to “what will be here”.
 
teenageexpatThis period allows the teenage expat to do the important inner work of transformation and preparation for the future. However, this period must be limited and bounded in time. If it lasts too long, it may make it difficult to adapt.
 
For the teenage expat “real life” begins upon entering school and dealing with the new reality.
 
To integrate socially at school the teenage expat needs to study a new language in all its’ forms (vocabulary, idioms, slang, reading and writing). And to learn new social and cultural codes – what’s popular and what is not, how to dress right, what is considered “cool” and what’s not.
 
This is not an easy task, as Sigal Magen clearly describes it in her book “Gal is moving abroad” (2007):
 
“My first day at school was a day of depression. It was the first day of the year and it seemed to me that all the children know everyone except me… I noticed that most girls wore gorgeous boots, very different from the boots that I bought. When I got home I cried to my Mom telling her that I had to buy another pair of boots that resemble the boots of the other girls…”
 
It is therefore no wonder that
 
The period of adjustment in adolescents is a difficult period that may take time and can cause a variety of reactions.
 
In the remaining of the article we will discuss some possible reactions of teenage expat after the overseas move. We will also suggest a few tools that can help you cope with those reactions.
 
Before we start it is important to emphasize that not all adolescents will experience all the reactions that we are about to describe, and definitely not all teenage expat will experience them at the same intensity.
 
Moreover, some adolescents might show other reactions that we did not mention in here. However, the principles for coping with the overseas relocation reactions are similar.
 

Possible Reactions of Teenage Expat after an Overseas Relocation

 

  1. Painful Emotions such as Sadness, Concern, and Anger.
     
    During the adjustment period most adolescents (and not only them…) can have a wide range of emotions:
     
    Your child may feel sadness, concern, anger, frustration, and stress.
     
    He/she is worried about losing connections with his/her friends back home. And that he/she won’t adapt, or find new friends.
     
    He/she is concerned about his/her academic success, angry at all the difficulties he/she has to face, and furious at you for separating him/her from his/her familiar environment, and bringing him/her into a new environment that does not understand him/her.
     
    Your teenage expat might also feel upset with himself/herself for not being able to adapt as quickly as he/she expected.
     
    These strong feelings are quite common in the early stages of adaptation, and are expected to decrease with time.
     
    During this period it is important to give your teenage expat room for expressing painful feelings, to empathize with his/her challenges, and not to panic if these feelings come in great intensity.
     
    As a parent it is painful for you to see your child suffers for several reasons:
     
    First – You might feel guilty and responsible for your child’s current situation (even if it’s not necessarily true, as similar difficulties could have occurred in your home country). Moreover, many times your teenage expat throw this fact into your face, increasing the already existing guilt you are feeling.
     
    Second – As a parent it’s difficult to see your child in pain. After all your children are your most precious thing and you probably feel that as a parent you must protect them from experiencing difficulties (this is also a problematic concept which in itself justifies separate consideration).
     
    Third – The difficulties that your teenage expat experience which might result in social, language and learning difficulties can leave you the parent with feelings of helplessness and lack of control. In addition, you might feel frustration as you can’t solve your teenage expat problems, and can’t produce for him/her a supporting social and educational environment.
     
    So how can you make room for your child painful feelings?
     
    Quite simple – Listen to your teenage expat, even if it’s hard to hear.
     
    Do not dismiss him/her by saying something like – “sure you have friends, yesterday met with Johnny” or, “no one here is a snob, they just do not know how to contact you”.
     
    On the other hand, do not empower their feelings by saying – “Yes, it’s very hard to find friends. To Jennifer’s daughter it took a whole year until someone agreed to talk to her” or, “Yes, everyone here is a snob, this is terrible”.
     
    It is important to be there for your child and to let him/her feel that you understand what he/she is going through. You can say- “It’s not pleasant to feel that you have no friends. I know how much friends are important to you” or, “The fact that the new environment still do not understand you can make you feel that everyone is a snob”.
     
    Avoid giving instant solutions to your child. Instead think together with your teenage expat and come up with coping strategies that can help to reduce his/her painful feelings. But do this only after you gave your child a place to express his/her difficult emotions.
     
    In addition, it is important to convey an optimistic message about the fact that these painful feelings will lessen in time.
     
    However, if the feelings persist over time and affect the proper functioning of your teenage expat it is recommended that you seek some counseling.
  2.  

  3. Teenage Expat Loss of Confidence
     
    One of the feelings that adolescents report about is a loss of confidence.
     
    In early adolescence (12-13) it is expressed by increased dependency on you the parent, and a growing need to be around you and to use you directly.
     
    In later years it can be manifested by a tendency to introversion, a difficulty to act effectively and to be active.
     
    These experiences are hard for you and for your adolescent, as both of you have already got used to freedom in your daily routine.
     
    Therefore it is crucial that you make every effort to restore a sense of security in your child.
     
    In early adolescence it is important to spend time with your child and to be available to him/her while he/she is busy adapting to the new environment.
     
    Phrases like “Are you a little boy?” or, “You do not need me, you can do it on your own” are not suitable in these cases.
     
    Instead you can say “Now it is hard for you but I’m here until you feel confident and can succeed alone.” These statements convey the message that the difficulty is temporary and things will get to normal in the near future.
     
    To older adolescents you can assist to return to active action through conversations, and by helping them in the background to find and implement solutions.
     
    It is important that your teenage expat will continue to do the same chores he/she used to do back home. This will help to reduce the damage to his/her self-identity and will strengthen his/her independence.
  4.  

  5. Teenage Expat Aggression
     
    An overseas relocation can be a source of pressure for both you and your teenage expat. And it definitely has the potential to reduce patience and increase aggressive behaviors for both of you.
     
    It is therefore important to set clear boundaries for permitted and forbidden behaviors and yet be empathic to the difficult emotions that induce these behaviors.
     
    You can say for example – “I understand that it is hard for you now because you miss home, but I won’t allow you to sass me.”
  6.  

  7. Teenage Expat Unwillingness to Adapt
     
    Quite often a teenage expat, who opposed from the beginning to the overseas relocation, and arrived to the destination country with a feeling of anger and resentment, will not invest any effort and won’t try to integrate in the community.
     
    How could these feelings be expressed in his/her behavior?
     
    Your child might seem reluctant to join social activities; he/she will be passive and unwilling to accept invitations, and external attempts to integrate in the new community.
     
    In extreme cases, he/she may deliberately try to sabotage his/her adaptation process. This can result in aggressive, disrespect and unpleasant behavior in social situations.
     
    Your child will try to prove in any way possible, that the trip was a mistake and the price he/she pays is high. This behavior will make it difficult for your entire family to adapt to the new country.
     
    How can you react in this situation?
     
    If your teenage expat is a passive adolescent you should give him some time.
     
    But if he/she is actively trying to jeopardize the adaptation of the whole family to the new country, then you must set limits and define the expected behaviors.
     
    It is important to understand that these reactions are natural and therefore do not panic by them. Eventually your teenage expat will understand that these behaviors will not cause the family to repatriate.
     
    With appropriate attitude from your side, these behaviors will lessen and will finally disappear.
  8.  

  9. Parents Attempt to Compensate Their Children
     
    You might feel that you did injustice to your child by moving him/her to another country, or you may feel uncomfortable when you see the difficulties that your kid experiences.
     
    These feelings of guilt may lead to a compensatory behavior like flooding your kid with gifts, or not insisting that he/she continue to do his/her basic tasks.
     
    These behaviors won’t help. On the contrary, it may even create opposite results; if your child sense an apologetic behavior from your end, he/she will start to believe that he/she is really “unhappy” and therefore worthy of compensation.
     
    So, be aware from the tendency to behave in a compensatory way and try to avoid it.
  10.  

  11. Teenage Expat Idealizes the Past
     
    In light of the difficulties that your teenage expat experience during the period of adjustment, there is a tendency to idealize the past, and to believe there were no difficulties or obstacles back home.
     
    Your kids’ memory can become quite selective; friends from the past are seen as perfect, all fights are forgotten, struggles at school back home are perceived easy, and all the difficulties in the past disappeared.
     
    This tendency is natural and there is no need to convince your child that the past was all bad and now everything is good.
     
    At this stage it is important to focus your teenage expat on the present, and to think with him/her how to utilize his strengths in his new environment.
     
    You can do this by reminding him/her how well he/she dealt with difficult events in the past, and how successful he/she was

There are extreme cases where, despite attempts to adapt, your teenage expat feels that his/her place is in his/her home country and would express his/her desire to return back home.
 
This phenomenon is more common in older ages (grades 11, 12 ), and can definitely be a difficult experience for your teenage expat and for the whole family.
 
When such request is expressed by your child, you shouldn’t dismiss it right away, but discuss it seriously with your kid.
 
Try to find out what led your teenage to request to return back home, examine if this is a realistic option, and whether you can fulfill his/her request; can your extended family take care of him/her, will he/she have a place to live, and how will he/she manage in the day to day life?
 
In addition, it is important to examine what can be the implications on your child and on the rest of the family that stays abroad.
 
If necessary, don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling before making such a dramatic decision. And if you reach a decision that it is better for your kid to go back home, then it is necessary to prepare for it thoroughly.
 
However, do remember that in most cases of overseas relocation, after the first difficult adjustment period, the tension is relived and the daily life gets back to normal.
 
Moreover, many adolescents and expat children eventually remember the overseas move and life abroad as an enriching experience, which contributed to their development.
 
And expat parents indicate that the living overseas adventure had contributed to the unity of their nuclear family.
 


 
The article “Abroad Relocation and Adolescents – Does it “go” Together?”
was written by Liat Erel and Liat Marmelstein from www.relocation.co.il
 
The writers are psychologists with experience in educational psychology and organizational psychology, and are also involved in preparatory processes for Overseas Relocation..
 


 
Bibliography
 
Bridges, William (2004), Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes.
 
Magen, Sigal (2007), Gal is Moving Abroad.