Discovering a new country, learning to appreciate different cultures and to accept differences… For a child, an expat experience has undisputable benefits. But leaving a familiar environment to settle abroad isn’t an insignificant change in a child’s life. According to the last Global Expatriates Observatory survey by Berlitz, 52% of the expatriates due to depart considered that a child’s adjustment process was an easy challenge to meet. How can one help a child feel at home in a foreign country? How does an expat kid, who is endlessly hopping from one culture to another, deal with identity issues?
Letting your child take part in the expat adventure
Whether you are heading for a first-time expat experience or are about to settle in yet another host country, you need to let your children know about your plans well in advance. A child’s concerns about expatriation will vary depending on his age and personality. A three year old might worry about what will become of his toys whereas a teenager could be reluctant to leave his circle of friends. Involving your children in the process from the start is an effective way to build their confidence and see expatriation as a positive and exciting change. There are many ways to let kids take part in the adventure:
- allow them to help organize the move by asking them to mark some boxes or fill them with their things,
- ask them to assist you with some of the paperwork and administrative procedures: enrollment in a school abroad, passport or visa requests, finding a new home, choosing an expat insurance solution…
- enroll them in language courses,
- learn about your destination with them by looking at maps, reading guides, logging into discussion groups or suggesting they select the first places to visit,
- help them choose extracurricular activities they could begin upon arrival,
- frequently discuss your future life abroad with them…
The more a child is involved and knows what to expect, the smoother the transition tends to be.
Anticipating integration issues
Leaving everything behind and getting used to new surroundings and habits requires a great deal of adaptability. Though expat children often succeed in adjusting to life abroad surprisingly quickly, being at their side during the integration process is essential. Depending on the country, blending in is more or less easy. For instance, the 2014 HSBC Expat Explorer Survey reveals New Zealand is the best place to raise children while Switzerand ranks 10th.
There are various ways to help a child fit into the host country
Creating socializing opportunities.
School isn’t the only place to make friends! Taking part in extracurricular activities and meeting other expat families will allow children to make new friends.
Embracing a new way of life while keeping some old habits.
Did you use to always play the same board game with the children on week-ends? Would you all head to the swimming pool once a week? If you can, keep these routines alive! Being an expat doesn’t mean you have to let go of all the habits and “traditions” your children enjoyed in your home country.
Learning the language: does your child need some help?
Young children often are able to pick up a language very quickly. For a teenager, language learning tends to be more tedious: enrollment in languages courses will sometimes be a must.
Expat children: rootless or world citizens?
Children who experience long-term or repeated expatriation sometimes face identity issues.
I’m from nowhere!
What is it like to be a British kid spending most of his childhood in Singapore or being Spanish and having already lived in three different countries before even turning ten? For an expat child, constant switching from home culture to host culture is a tricky balancing act. Building a sense of belonging, succeeding in not feeling like a stranger everywhere he goes might be tedious tasks. Children tend to create their own expat culture, embracing parts of each culture without ever completely feeling like they belong to one or the other. These children often are called “third-culture kids”. A child who believes he is from everywhere, though never really fitting in anywhere, will often use his expat experience to build a sense of belonging: he will naturally feel close to children who have lived similar experiences.
When I grow up, I’ll be an expat!
The Global Expatriates Observatory survey reveals that 22% of the expat respondents came from families who had lived abroad and 19% from a multicultural family. Probability for expat kids to choose a nomadic lifestyle (temporarily or permanently) once grown-up is high. Some will see sedentary life as dull; others will wish to settle somewhere. Consequences and benefits of expat experience never are insignificant: expat kids usually grow up to be very adaptable and open-minded individuals.