For many families, the opportunity to move abroad is an exciting life-changing opportunity. Many people look at their opportunity and think how lucky, novel and romantic it will be. So many amazing new experiences ahead, perspective changing activities and events and new lifelong relationships. But frequently the opportunity can (and will) cause a great deal of turbulence, particularly for children.
When a family accepts an international assignment, one of the biggest concerns and priorities is to support the children - helping them say goodbye to friends and family in the home location, selecting the best schooling option(s), considering how to support their transition and integration into the host location, and overall supporting them with all the variety of feelings they are bound to experience.
This stress and anxiety that is caused by the move abroad has been coined as "expat child syndrome" or ECS. Expat Info Desk provides some insight when they explain ECS:
"ECS is most commonly found in children who are aged between 10 and 15. During this period of a child’s life they undergo significant emotional and physical changes and will often utilize their social circles as a mean of coping with these changes. Adolescence is a difficult period in the lives of all children, but when children are removed from their close circle of friends they can often find it even more difficult to deal with the mental and physical changes they are experiencing."
The symptoms can manifest in a wide variety of ways. Children can be more emotional, become more disruptive or uncooperative, they may withdraw or even seem depressed. Some children have a much harder time accepting a move, dealing with missing friends and family or being worried about how they will fit into the new situation.
Child psychologist, Kate Berger, is based in the Netherlands and has worked with many children and specializes in supporting kids with their feelings. She explains that parents are key to helping the expat child adjust to life in their new environment. Parents must be tuned into observing behavior, talking through feelings, acknowledging, validating and labeling those feelings which are all critical to supporting the child. And, parents should expect that each child will process and deal with the experience differently from each other. She explains, "Allow expatriate children to find a balance between keeping in touch with loved ones from back home and working on new social interactions."
Just like for adults, sometimes the most challenging part of the process is the repatriation, where returning back to the original home environment is surprisingly difficult due to the feeling that everything has changed there and the realization of how much they have changed!
As companies continue to explore what they can do to enhance the mobile employee and family experience, support expat mental health and seek to maximize the ROI of an expatriate assignment, they may want to be aware of what services are available and allow for this type of support when it is needed. Training, coaching and counseling from experts can be provided and will prove to expats that the company is engaged, concerned and committed to their success. When that happens, the likelihood that employees are more effective and engaged at work and committed to remaining with the company is dramatically increased. And what company isn't looking for ways to motivate, engage, develop, support and retain their critically important talent?
Of course making new friends is one of the biggest hurdles, especially for children who are shy or have language barriers to contend with. It can take one little thing, such as a difficult day at a new school, to make a child go into their shell and miss their home country and their old friends deeply. You also have to consider that you are likely to be much busier than usual, as you will be dealing with your own adjustment process, having taken on a new home and job for example, which can make the child feel even more alone.