Expat Child Syndrome – What is it?

Expat Child Syndrome (ECS) is a term used by psychologists and other mental healthcare professionals to describe the emotional stress some children experience upon moving to a new country.

Expat Child Syndrome doesn’t affect all children who move aboard. After all, children are unique individuals who react to external changes in different ways. What’s exciting for one child might prove stressful for another, and vice versa. That being said, there are certain factors that seem to influence the likelihood that a child will experience ECS when moving abroad.

Predictors of Expat Child Syndrome

Age

ECS is more common among older children and is most common between the ages of 10 to 15. It’s no coincidence that this is also when adolescence occurs. Adolescence is a tumultuous time in child’s life when they experience an onslaught of physical, emotional, and psychological changes associated with puberty. During this period, friendships play a particularly important role in a child’s life. It is right around the time children start to “branch out” from their parents and rely on their peers as a source of support and identity. When children move abroad, it’s one more huge change they have to go through, and it can be overwhelming. While that might be stressful on its own, separation from their friends (their support network) can make coping even more difficult.

Disparity between home country and new country

ECS is more likely to occur when the expat child is moving to a new country that is drastically different from home. Moving to any new place will be an adjustment, but moving to a country with a very different culture, or a language barrier, can be particularly challenging. Not understanding cultural norms, or not speaking the local language can make it difficult for children to fit in and make friends. Feeling like an outsider in their new home while missing their old friends can be very isolating for the expat kid.

In general, people have a harder time adjusting to big changes than small changes, so it makes sense that going somewhere really different would be more jarring for an expat child.

Frequency of relocation

Children who have relocated more than once are more likely to experience ECS. This may be because having their routines and social relationships disrupted again adds extra stress. It may be because they become frustrated with the prospect of having to start over again in another new place. When families relocate multiple times, the children might feel resentful towards their parents for disrupting their lives again. Those feelings can be hard to deal with, both for parents and children.

School setting

Given the importance of friendship during the adolescent years, it’s not surprising that an expat child’s school life plays a role in how they adjust to their new circumstances. After all, school is where children meet most of their friends. Going to a new school is always difficult at first, but if that new school is in a new country with a new curriculum and new rules, it can be especially hard. If the child struggles to fit in and make friends, they may feel negatively towards their new school and withdraw. Withdrawing from school activities can reinforce isolation.

If there is an opportunity for the expat kid to attend an international school, it may be beneficial. International schools adopt a curriculum based on an international standard and tend to attract expat students. This makes it more likely that the expat child will have an opportunity to interact with people of similar backgrounds, which may make their adjustment period easier. Meeting other expats gives them someone to identify with, and can help them feel less isolated in their new home. In an international school, it is also less likely that an expat child will struggle to adjust to a foreign curriculum.

Recognising Expat Child Syndrome

ECS doesn’t look the same in all children and can be difficult to spot. A move abroad is bound to bring about some behavioural changes. It can be hard to tell what’s normal and what’s cause for concern. The important thing to look for is a sustained change in behaviour or disposition. These changes could include being withdrawn, seeming lonely, or engaging in self-isolation. If an expat child seems unwilling to engage in activities outside of the home, it could be a clue that he or she is self-isolating. Alternatively, a formerly agreeable child may become disruptive or petulant.

Dealing with ECS

The good news is that most expat children who experience ECS will eventually adjust to their new home and recover on their own. Jonathan Lavercombe, co-founder of Schoolviews.com recommends that parents who suspect their child is struggling with Expat Child Syndrome and not making progress consider reaching out to a counsellor who has experience working with expat children. Lavercombe adds: “Parents planning a move abroad can help their child prepare for the move by being open and honest with them. Giving them time to accept the idea, and answering any questions they have can help a child prepare psychologically.

Visit Schoolviews.com for more information and resources.

By – Sandra Parsons