Expat kids and the school of hard knocks
They speak three languages, have jam-packed passports, and have studied among students from all over the world. These are “third-culture kids”; they don’t belong fully to China or to their home country – their identities come from their experiences of living abroad long-term. When parents have jobs that require relocating to a new country, their young globetrotters face a slew of adjustments unique to their transition overseas.
The good news, according to psychologists at international schools in Beijing, is that adolescents don’t necessarily have more emotional problems even though they’re adjusting to the transition of a new school in a new country.
“They’re expats, but I don’t think the issues are really any different for these kids,” says American Steven Sutherford, a psychologist at the International School of Beijing (ISB). “They still have the same issues of growing up – they are at the age where they begin to push away and deal with the challenges of making friends and being a student.”
Perhaps the hardest part of moving is leaving behind friends and losing the sense of belonging at school. With frequent relocation, expat children and teenagers may adopt an attitude of giving up.
“Children who move every two or three years don’t keep the same friends, and sometimes they get depressed,” says Austrian Ariane
Kininger, a psychologist at the German Embassy School of Beijing. “They don’t want to make friends anymore. For the first six months, they may be quite sad. They know they’re leaving in a few years, anyway, so they give up.”
Each move requires expat kids to reestablish their status and redefine their identity. Students can learn about the school’s rules and grading systems in classes, but it’s the implicit culture that takes longer to pick up, according to Dominique Poli, a French guidance counselor in her third year at ISB. For instance, it takes time to get to know the right kids, the right teachers, and what courses they should be taking.
Depending on the school or social group, class differences might also pose a challenge. Kininger divides expat kids into two categories: those who move frequently and can afford many luxuries, and those who stay in the same foreign country but have less money. The second type of student might not be able to relate to the lifestyle the kids from other families enjoy, like a driver or a fancy home, says Kininger.
The student’s age at the time of moving also plays an important role in how well an expat kid adjusts to relocating. “For those who move at ages 13-18, I think adjusting is a bigger problem. They might have had their first experience with love. If you stay at home, you get the chance to experience that fully, but here, you’re always moving,” says Kininger. Kids who experience expat life at a younger age are better prepared to make friends quickly and learn how to say goodbye, although each child experiences the changeover at his or her own pace.
“It takes a while to sort out switching schools and countries. Parents should recognize that children may deal with feelings and emotions differently and at a different pace. They can’t force that,” says Sutherland.
Poli estimates that for those who have a tough transition, it takes about 3-6 months to get adjusted to a new country and school. For emotionally healthy kids, the transition should be manageable in a few months, but for children who suffer from acute insecurity, anxiety, or struggle academically, it could be harder. Parents should look for warning signs such as withdrawal, acting out and falling grades in school.
Even before the actual move takes place, parents can take several steps to make the transition smoother for their children. Learning as much about the new culture as possible eases fears; if possible, families should first visit the new country and tour the schools. It’s best to allow kids ample time to say goodbye to friends and family, and then relocate before school begins to allow for a period of adjustment in the new environment.
Kininger stresses the importance of creating a sense of home for children while they are abroad. “It’s very important that everyone in the family has a say in picking the house and choosing his or her own room,” says Kininger. Having dinner at home at least two times a week and doing activities together as a family on the weekends also creates a comfortable atmosphere.
A sense of home doesn’t mean absolute leisure, however. Children need to have responsibilities as family members, and parents ought to set the tone. The expat lifestyle creates unusual circumstances, such as having an ayi to pick up after children, and sometimes there are negative consequences.
“Some kids can get kind of spoiled and don’t learn to take responsibility for their own actions at home,” says Sutherland. “Chores are part of basic building blocks of working and taking care of yourself to prepare for responsibility later in life.”
To make a transition as smooth as possible, parents should discourage children from comparing China with their home country. “When we move to another place, school system, or culture, we can’t expect it to be the same. Sometimes even teaching styles and systems are completely different,” says Poli. “You have to be able to see what the new place has to offer.”
Students often take advantage of Skype, email, and digital cameras to keep in touch with friends in different countries. Sports and activities outside of school also provide the opportunity to meet new friends, or to pursue an existing interest. In general, families have the least trouble adapting when they get involved in their community and meet other families who have also made the transition to Beijing.
Lastly, patience comes in handy for both parents and children. “Transition is not something that happens overnight,” says Poli. “Be flexible, but try to control what you can, like doing homework. Once you feel you can control something, you feel more self-confident.”
Even after adjusting to a new lifestyle, however, kids who frequently move at a young age often suffer a loss of a national or cultural identity as they approach adulthood.
“They finish school, and then they wonder where should they go to college. They might go to where they think home is, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore,” says Kininger. “I see lots of children who don’t know where home is.”
Despite the difficulties of moving from country to country, however, the benefits of living abroad and studying with students of different nationalities have proven to be invaluable for most students. They adopt global perspectives and are exposed to different ways of thinking.
“They learn to make friends fast, they’re very adaptable, they learn new languages, and they learn how to say goodbye,” says Poli. “It’s not easy, but I’ve met kids who are completely happy about it – they love being unique.”