How to Help Your Kids Cope with Culture Shock

How to Help Your Kids Cope with Culture Shock

By Sue Holloway

When children move to another country, they often have no idea what to expect. They experience a massive range of emotions, from elation and excitement to frustration and homesickness. As adults, we know this process of “culture shock” is entirely normal, and will pass. Kids have a different experience. Not only do they often feel they have no control, they might also have unfamiliar feelings of anger and resentment. They might not even understand how they feel, or know how to put it into words.

When James* was told he was moving to China from France, he was very angry and upset. “I was 9 and had made really good friends. It felt like we’d just got here. I couldn’t believe my parents were uprooting us all and moving us again. I felt really angry that I didn’t have any say. My Dad had got a new job, and that was that.”

It can be very difficult to predict how kids will react to the news they are moving. Some react with anger, others withdraw. Your child might feel so angry with you, they find it hard to talk to you about it or they might scream and shout. Some find it hard to talk because they don’t want to upset you.

Sam* appeared to be coping well when he moved to Singapore from Amsterdam aged 10. It was his second move in two years. After 3 months a friend of his parents asked him if he’d settled in and made friends.

“I struggled at first to make friends because I couldn’t really see the point. I’d had two really good friends in Amsterdam, and it had been so hard to say goodbye. I was worried that if I made friends again, either we’d move, or they would, and I’d go through it all over again.”

As they grow up, though, their reactions can change. Three years later when asked what he thought of international schools, Sam* said, “It’s sad at times when your friends leave, because people stay a few years and then move on. But when someone leaves, two more people arrive and you quickly make friends with them. You have to put yourself out there and make friends. If you do that, it all clicks into place.”

“Third Culture Kid” or TCK is a term coined by Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s. It describes kids who grow up away from the country of their birth, their parents or their passport. Their first culture is their “home culture.” Their second is the country in which they live. The third is the shared environment where they mix with other kids from different cultures. During their childhood and into adulthood, TCKs often identify most with other kids who have lived away from “home” no matter where this was in the world than with other people from their home or host countries.

The great news is, TCKs generally do very well in life. In 2011, Denizen carried out a survey of over 200 TCKs, average age 29. Most respondents had a college degree, 30% had a postgraduate degree. 85% spoke two or more languages, 47% spoke 3 or more. Half the respondents had been in a relationship for more than 5 years.

TCKs are often resilient, they have to be as they move so much or their friends do. They are culturally aware. They often go to schools with kids from all over the world and are sensitive to differences in religion, behavior, and values. TCKs live in a world where people work hard, strive to improve themselves and take risks. They certainly learn how to cope with change. All of these skills make them very attractive to employers.

But how do you get through the anger, resentment, or the cold-shoulder treatment to get your kids to this point?

Involve your kids in the big decisions

You might not be able to give them a choice about whether or not you move, or you might feel they aren’t emotionally mature enough to see the bigger picture. You can talk to them, though, and actively listen to their concerns. You can try to help them feel a sense of control by allowing them to help you decide which school they should go to, and where you should live. They can help you research your new country, find fun things to do and plan a trip for when you arrive.

Say “goodbye” well

This move is a big deal to them just as it is for you. Allow them time to say goodbye to their friends, family, your house, and your favorite places. Have a celebration. Having the opportunity to leave well will help your children feel more prepared for the change, and mark the transition with a positive experience.


Take advantage of the honeymoon period when you first arrive to explore your new country while you are fresh and excited. Try the food, work out the transport system, be a tourist and check out all the sights, make a game of trying out the language. The first few weeks are likely to feel like a vacation. Make the most of them by getting out and about and embracing the change. Lead by example. If your kids see you looking forward positively, they are more likely to do the same.

Surround your kids with familiar objects and routines

After the first few weeks, at the time when you’d be going home after a vacation, you might find that small things start to frustrate your children. The differences in expectation at school, for instance, or they might realize they are missing the familiarity of their friends. Having a safe environment with the comforts of home will help by giving them a break from all the newness.

Encourage them to pursue their passions

While you want them to get the most out of the place you are living, remember that this is their life, not a vacation. If they had passions before they moved, find a way they can pursue them in their new country. If they loved soccer, or drama or swimming, find a team or a theatre or a pool. Enabling them to do what they like best will not only help them feel more like themselves, they will also meet like-minded people. And making friends is the best way for kids to feel at home.

Watch for changes in behavior

If a child reacts with anger it’s easy to spot. A child that withdraws can be more difficult, especially in the chaos of a move. Whatever their reaction, be aware, be open for communication, listen actively and let them vent if that’s what they need.

Some kids react to change by holding back and watching for a while. If this is your child, give them the space they need. Others jump in with both feet and may need support after the first few weeks when exhaustion hits.

Be the thing that doesn’t change

In all the chaos of all the change, be the constant for your children. Listen to their worries, allow them to express their anger, keep calm and be their sounding board. But stick to your guns about your family’s values. Be consistent with expectations. This will give them a firm foundation on which to build a life in their new country.


You are bound to worry about your kids. As you know well, that comes with the territory of being a parent. Actively listen and be there for them, but don’t give in to guilt. Always remember, you made the decision to move because it was the best thing for your family. Growing up as a TCK offers your kids incredible opportunities not only for an exciting childhood but also a fulfilling future.

So enjoy the honeymoon period, ride the frustration, look forward to acceptance. When asked what advice she’d give to kids starting out as TCKs, Katie* (age 9) said, “I’d tell them to try everything. Don’t hold back. Just don’t be afraid.”

*All names have been changed

[Photography courtesy of Sue Holloway]

Sue Holloway is a freelance writer. She has been an expat for 5 years and now lives in Singapore with her husband and three kids. You can find her on her blog, or connect with her through Facebook and LinkedIn.





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