With an ever more globalized world, international business practices, and increasing ease of travel, more and more often in psychological practice we treat expat children. Some have moved abroad at a young age and settled down; others have an almost nomadic existence. Expatriate life has advantages and disadvantages and has a different, often more profound effect on children than on adults.
What are expatriate children?
Expat children are children who grow up in a culture other than that of their parents or their country of origin, for example, because their parents work abroad. Expat children, therefore, often have little connection with the culture of the country they come from, but also not with the culture of the host country. They are characterized by adopting a kind of third culture that is, as it were, in between. Expat children are, therefore, also called third culture kids.
Difference from adult expats
Moving abroad is especially drastic for children because they are still in the middle of developing their identity. Adults have already built up their own identity, certain norms and values, and stable relationships in the country of origin. As a result, they will always feel connected to the homeland and be able to pinpoint a place where they came from. Children do not develop that core identity through expatriate life. This makes being an expat an entirely different experience for children.
What are expat children good at?
Expat children learn things that other children may never learn. They go to many interesting places, meet different people and come into contact with all kinds of cultures. As a result, they develop great adaptability, are resilient and curious, and dare to take on new challenges. They are also good at networking, make friends quickly, have great empathy and quickly include others in their social circle.
Expat children often mature relatively quickly because of all these experiences. They know a lot about topics such as politics, culture and religion, speak several languages and often get along well with adults.
What risks do expatriate children face?
However, expat life is not easy. Especially when children move several times, a lot of stress, sadness and loneliness can occur. Children struggle with the uncertainty of whether they will make new friends at the new destination. Even if the child does not move, they often have expat friends who move away. The life of an expat child, therefore, consists largely of saying goodbye and starting all over again.
Expat children often have a hard time answering where they are from or where they feel at home. This is confusing for them. Moreover, having to continuously say goodbye to a place of residence, friends, school, and regular activities and rituals is akin to losing a certain part of one’s identity. Many expat children describe themselves as a ‘chameleon’: they easily measure themselves against different personas, but do not really know who they really are.
Feeling of guilt
However, expat life is often accompanied by a lot of luxury. The children live in beautiful homes and attend highly regarded international schools. Also, many parents abroad have the option of hiring a nanny full-time. Expat children can, therefore, feel like they can’t complain. After all, they lead a privileged life, right?
Symptoms of grief
What many expat children actually suffer from are symptoms of grief. Saying goodbye over and over again, to a certain environment and with that a part of one’s own identity, simply causes a lot of grief. The cause of the symptoms, however, is not as clearly identifiable as, for example, the death of a loved one. Therefore, the symptoms are often ignored and expatriate children run the risk that this unacknowledged grief will at some point surface in a destructive manner. Expat children are, therefore, at increased risk of developing depression. Therefore, when an expat child experiences psychological problems, it is specifically referred to as Expat Child Syndrome.
Psychological help for expat children
Have you moved abroad with your children? Then make sure to be a listening ear. It is important for children to be able to share their stories and any grief they may have. Even though they may now be living in paradise on earth, that does not mean that saying goodbye to a previous place of residence was not incredibly difficult. Give your child the feeling that that grief is allowed to be there.
A (child) therapist can offer support in this. Many of the therapists affiliated with The Online Therapists live abroad themselves and, therefore, know exactly what is going on with you and your child. Psychological assistance consists of offering comfort and understanding, so that the child can let the mourning process take place. Next, the expat therapist offers help in developing their own identity and building deep relationships and friendships, something expat children often have difficulty with. Children also learn not to let their adaptability get in the way of setting boundaries and priorities.
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