4 Ways to Help Kids Adjust to the Realities of Life Overseas

Elizabeth Jones from Planet Nomad.
Dance revolution

Dance revolution. Photo taken in South Africa by Lilith DdB.

My children officially became Third-Culture-Kids (TCKs) when they stepped off an airplane into a hot dusty Saharan night in April, 2001. The stars were obscured by sand and the wind felt like it was coming off an oven, but we were all too tired to care. My oldest was nearly 6, and the twins had just celebrated their 4th birthday. In 28 hours, including layovers, we had traversed the globe, moving from Portland, Oregon (USA) to Nouakchott, Mauritania (West Africa) with 12 suitcases and one guitar. None of our luggage showed up with us.

How can we, as parents, help our kids successfully transition between cultures when we are going through culture shock ourselves?

Although I had read myriad articles and books on raising children between cultures, nothing really prepared me for that first meal of goat head; or for how I would react to children wanting to sit next to me on the couch when it was 115 degrees out and I was sweating in places I had no idea it was possible to sweat.

I had tried to prepare them for the big changes coming, but the fact is that they were too young to understand the implications of moving halfway around the world. But by the time we moved from Oregon to Morocco last August (2008), things were a little different. The twins were 11 and Elliot was 13, and they were all very aware of what was involved in yet another international move, our 5th so far.

It all comes down to this: How can we, as parents, help our kids successfully transition between cultures when we are going through culture shock ourselves? There’s no rulebook and different things work better for one family than for another, but the following are some ideas that have worked for us.

1. Let your kids be sad about moving

As modern parents, sometimes we feel threatened by our kids’ negative emotions; we tend to measure our success by their happiness. But happiness is ephemeral; it is best grasped when you are not looking directly for it. Negative emotions are a part of life. Our family doesn’t wallow in sadness, but I think acknowledging that goodbyes are hard makes them easier to deal with in the long run. We also say “goodbyes” to more than just people; we include places, animals, and special foods or drinks. Knowing ahead of time that there will be times when homesickness is acute will help you deal with those times when they come. Cultivate times of family discussion, when kids can feel safe venting their frustrations about their sarcastic French teacher, for example, or how they are affected by the foreign policy of their passport country’s president (think bullying on the playground).

2. At the same time, emphasize the positive

We research our new location as much as possible, and look for things familiar or exciting. For example, when telling the kids about Morocco, we pointed out to Abel that we would be able to buy Legos in Rabat and told Elliot he could skype with his friends. That’s what was important to them. They couldn’t wait to see snow in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, or check out the waves at Rabat’s beaches.

If you can, talk to someone in your new location to find out what is and isn’t available there. But nothing beats experience, especially since what is essential to one person isn’t even on another’s radar. I would recommend bringing a first Christmas or birthday stash of gifts until you get to know better what’s available, or until you get to know people in your community who can be coerced into bringing you things in their suitcases. (This is getting more and more complicated with increasing weight limitations imposed by airlines)

3. Keep continuity where you can

Celebrate Thanksgiving even if everyone had school and work that day. We started a “Taco Tuesday” tradition in the US last year, and the whole family loved it. So now, even though it means making tortillas and salsa from scratch, we’re keeping it up. There will be certain family traditions, ways you celebrate holidays for example, that your family will do in a certain way because of where you are. During our years in Mauritania, we went to the beach on New Year’s Day, and went camping in the desert during the February vacation. Adding rhythm to the chaos of everyday existence helps everyone to feel more settled.

4. Avoid the “expatriate bubble”

It’s good to spend time with people from your own culture; it aids in times of stress and can feel unexpectedly relaxing. But if that’s all you do, you will never feel at home in your new location. If you can put your kids in a local school, do it. (It’s not always possible depending on language and educational level of local schools. We’ve opted for French International Schools, which gives our kids a local language and interaction with local kids, but also an education that will transfer anywhere in the world). Try to get to know your neighbours, other parents at the school, local colleagues at work, etc. Every expatriate I have talked to lists times spent with local friends, celebrating local holidays or rites of passage or simply drinking tea, as a highlight. It really makes all the difference in how much you feel at home in a place.

As a part of this, be willing to try new things. If adults have a sense of adventure, kids usually do too. Your kids pick up on how you’re feeling. In Mauritania, we got served goat intestines; here in Morocco, we get served prunes. For the kids, the intestines were actually the easier of the two!

We spent nearly six years living in Mauritania. We learned to eat with our hands, to deal with beggars, and to sleep through the 4 a.m. call to prayer. We survived coups d’etat, both attempted and successful, by eating brownies. I learned to cope with heat and sand and having to eat goat’s head, and my kids learned to be adaptable and adventurous. Was it all full of rainbows and world peace? Not even close. But we spent last year in the US, and I was amazed to realize how much our travels have changed us for the better, widened our perspective, and brought us closer as a family. I believe that by choosing to raise my children overseas, I have given them a great gift.

About the author:

Late last year, Elizabeth Jones moved to Morocco with her husband and three kids. Stop by her blog, Planet Nomad for her engaging account of expat life in Northern Africa.

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Discussion »

  • #1marina k. villatoro

    what a great post. we are actually in the process of relocating from costa rica to guatemala. when i moved to costa rica it wasn’t hard cause I was without child. now, with my son, it’s sooo much harder. we have a life in costa rica, he has been with his nanny for 5 years who is part of our family. we’ve spent time in guatemala preparing him with super cool stuff, but he keeps on saying that costa rica is the best.
    funny, i try so hard to avoid the sad moments, but maybe you’re right, maybe we should let them happen!

  • #2Lilith

    Excellent article! I wish my parents had read it before dragging me around the world!

  • #3Sharon

    Hi Elizabeth

    What a great post, and brought so many memories back.

    You are absolutely right about the 4 ways to help your kids to adjust, and avoiding the expatriate bubble is true also for adults.

    I would just like to add a couple of things that can help kids to accept the move better –

    Tell them as early as possible about the expected move, and let them be a full part of the preparation. You can ask them to prepare a special moving box and to include all those essentials they might need during the move.

    Help them to plan their goodbyes. Make sure to ask them how they want to say their goodbyes – some might want a party others would like to have a few friends over. Help them to exchange gifts, e-mails, phone numbers, address books etc’.

    The way they say Goodbye can affect how they adjust to the new country.


  • #4LIB

    What a well written post. I think your suggestions are very practical and helpful.

    Your children will grow up more well-rounded than many.

  • #5Kim

    Great post! I’m going to bookmark it and save to share with others.

    We went to Uganda for a year when our daughter was 14 and it was the BEST thing we could have done for her at that age. It was an amazing year and I agree, the overseas experience changes you for the better. Oh, and our son took a semester off college and joined us for the last five months we were there :-) We think every young American should spend an extended time overseas if at all possible. We hosted two the year we were in Uganda (one for two months, another for one) and we look forward to doing the same here in Argentina.

  • #6Kathi D

    I don’t know how you manage it! Your kids are getting such rich experience from this. I have learned more about other cultures through travel than I ever could have known otherwise (but I am always glad to be back home, too).

  • #7jolyn

    What a great article. I especially loved number one. Let it all out! Then move on, literally. For those of you who aren’t already familiar with Elizabeth, go to her personal blog and walk around. You won’t be disappointed.

  • #8jolyn

    Oh, and I just wanted to add re: #4. Sometimes people try to avoid the expatriate bubble to their detriment; when adjusting to a new culture, acquainting yourself with others who have done it before you can be a wonderful way to introduce yourself to the local ways. Fellow expats can serve as an introduction to locals they have already befriended, which can help ease the transition to making your own friendships.

  • #9Beck

    Hey, great post! I love reading about your adventurous life, and look forward to reading more posts about the nuts and bolts of making such a change.

  • #10Kelly @ Love Well

    Too busy to comment, since I’m packing to hop the next plane to Africa with my kids in tow.

    Not really, but I wish I could.

    Good grief, woman, this was absolutely fascinating.

  • #11jean

    Great post as usual. I love hearing about your life and travels. Because of you I’ve learned more about world. It constantly amazes me how much people are the same yet so different. Thanks for the education.

  • #12Mary Witzl

    Another wonderful post, and I found myself nodding in agreement at every paragraph. When we lived in Japan, we occasionally met other native English speaking families who’d spent years there without managing to learn any Japanese or make any friends who did not speak English. It seems like such a waste of time not to learn any of the language or customs.

    I worry that North Africa would do me in: I really don’t DO offal. My husband still fondly recalls the huge pot of soup he was served from in Sudan, chock full of lung and intestines. He can make all of us sick just describing it. I had to close my eyes when I walked by the butcher’s in our town in Scotland so as not to see the haggis hanging in the window. I feel like a real wimp after that goat’s head story of yours.

  • #13Carrie

    Thank you, Beth! Encouraging post! Hope I remember these things if we ever move overseas with little ones (which I hope we do!).

  • #14Solo

    It is always nice to see people learn from whatever experience they come accross. Travel around the world is one of those experience that will open your eyes and make you think about life in a broder perspective.

  • #15Oman

    I agree ‘ let them step outside the box’ – the world is an extraordinary place and keeping them with the ordinary will make them ordinary.

  • #16Kelake

    Yes having your own family traditions that remain constant no matter where you are in the world gives the kids a sense of continuity. Christmas dinners, pancake saturdays, Sunday dinners and all the traditional food that is seldom available where we live forces us to learn how to make these dishes from scratch. It’s a great education for the kids to see where their food comes from and how to prepare it. It’s much healthier than the processed and packaged alternative we would likely buy if at home.

    Nice post.

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