Culture shock is a process we all go through when adjusting to life in a new country. Initially everything seems new and exciting. Then things can seem frustrating as everything is foreign and different. Finally you become more accepting of the new culture. Everyone goes through this process at different rates. The average time is 3 to 6 months, but it can last as long as a year.
As well as adjusting to a new house, school, country and food, children may also have to adjust to new family dynamics. For example one parent may be away more often travelling or there may be a maid or helper now at home.
So how do you know if your child is experiencing culture shock? Children may nor talk about their struggles because they are too young or lack the verbal skills to express their unhappiness. Instead their feelings may be communicated more through their behaviour. There may be physical symptoms such as sleepless nights, headaches and stomach aches, or crying and not eating well. It is important to talk to your children to find out what is wrong and normalise their feelings.
Children who move countries may experience many losses, like leaving friends and family behind. Allowing them to feel sad or angry at these losses is essential as these feelings are a normal part of the grieving process.
During this unsettling time, children will need their parents to be their rock. They need to know you love them and are there for them. Try to recreate a sense of familiarity at home, for example putting photos and their belongings around the house and keep to normal bedtime and mealtime routines. While there may need to be more flexibility than normal as you all adapt to the new country, children still need limits and boundaries. Even though they may be angry you have dragged them halfway around the world, this is no excuse for bad or rude behaviour.
Constantly moving can make it hard for children to learn how to maintain relationships so encourage children to keep in touch with friends and family back home. However it is also important for them to make friends locally. More outgoing children may find this quite easy, however quieter children may need more help e.g. arranging play dates.
Parenting is difficult at the best of times and can be even more complicated in a foreign environment as you are going through your own adjustment process. Children need parental stability to feel secure about their lives. It is obviously not ideal to be arguing in front of your children, but neither is it good to put on a false front all the time – remember you are only human! If you feel that your own unhappiness or stress is getting in the way of your parenting, then seek your own support.
Having the opportunity to live abroad can lead to many positive experiences for children. As they grow up, they tend to be more tolerant and understanding of other cultures, more flexible and open to change, and become mature, sensitive and high achieving adults. Remembering this at times of stress is helpful. Everyone gets through culture shock eventually, so hanging in there with a sense of humour is important!