Being an expat child is not something I can relate to as a child, only as a parent of expat kids.
My childhood was spent in the UK and the biggest move was from a sleepy little village in the West of England to the commuter belt of London. That, in itself, was quite a challenging situation for a child, and I’m sure felt rather like moving to a foreign country.
But was nothing compared to the challenges faced by expat kids as they relocate to overseas destinations so frequently in todays global society.
My children were seven and 11 when we re-located to the USA, an easy transition given that we all spoke the same language – well at least a similar language!
Our youngest coped well but for our 11-year-old son it was a challenging and unsettling period initially. He missed his British friends and that summer was long and lonely for him.
Stress from overseas moves can affect children as well as their parents and it’s a sign of the times that we even have a syndrome, the Expat Child Syndrome, a term used by psychologists for children experiencing stress from a move overseas.
For us the guilt was enormous and – had they only realized it – they both could have asked for a trip to the moon, or a unicorn and in an attempt to assuage that self-reproach we would have found a way.
Thankfully they only wanted a hamster!
The good news for our son was that he started school in the September, into the first grade of middle school and everyone felt lost, so friendships and alliances were soon born out of shared insecurities.
Dramatic changes yield positive influences
Encouraging your child to join local clubs such as the scouting movement, music, drama or sports is a great way for them to meet other children, be they local or other expat kids, and before you know it they have a better social life than you do!
The overseas life of an expat child can, once they have found their feet, have enormous and very positive impacts on their lives. Research shows that living in a foreign country gives your child empathy for other cultures and an appreciation for diversity, with a heightened awareness of our world … which will take them far when they begin to look at universities and careers.
If your child goes to an international school, they will not only be immersed in the nation where you live, but in the many cultures of the kids also attending the school.
This can be reliant on the overseas move “package” your company provides, as international schools are private and therefore expensive.
Some parents choose for their children to be educated in a “local” school and with that comes a quicker adaptation into the local life, language and people. But of course this depends on the standard of education in the country where you have been relocated.
Your child’s education is important so researching local and international schools before moving is vital. Your children have been up-rooted once; you don’t want to do that a second time if – once they start school – you realize it’s not a good fit.
Research on the internet, visit schools if you have the opportunity and get in touch with other expats who live in the area to get “insider information.”
An added benefit of the overseas life is the addition of a second or even third language.
There really is no better way to learn a language than when you are young and immersed in it. Many expat parents have blushed with embarrassment when they realize their children speak the local language better than they do!
Geert Sillevis, a tour guide with Get Lost Tours I met in Amsterdam, grew up in Portugal after his parents started a construction company there in the 1990’s, and Geert attended several international schools.
When I asked him if growing up as an expat kid had shaped the adult he had become, he was without doubt: “I think the multicultural upbringing helped forge an open mind to different peoples. Growing up, I had friends from all over.
“I still enjoy being surrounded by different cultures. Amsterdam is a great city for that.”
Becoming more globally aware is a definite “side-effect” to being an expat kid and Geert was sure his outlook on travel and fluency in other languages had been influenced:
My mother always told us stories of her travels when we were growing up. She insisted that we take a summer holiday every year, even if it was just a drive up the coast and a tent on a cliff. It infected me with the travel bug. I speak 4.5 languages – my French never got past being mediocre!
Every time I visit Portugal I’m struck by how lucky I was to be brought up there. The fact that going for a walk on a beautiful beach in a natural reserve was a ‘normal’ Sunday afternoon activity is amazing. As for if I have kids – there’s no choice that they’d be expats, too, since I’m a foreigner wherever I go.
So, for Geert, living overseas as a child was a blessing.
My son Thom had similar opinions, although he attended a local school in the USA:
I think that it made me more confident, and more able to deal with changes and fluctuation in my life. Being able to accept things and people as they are has definitely come from growing up in another culture. It also gave me the desire to travel, and the confidence to do so. I think through being an expat, and through travelling I have also learned that people are the same and deserve the same understanding and respect wherever you are.
As a kid, I would definitely have said it was hard to leave my former friends behind, but the new friends I made and the adventures that have been provided through living in another country were definitely worth it, and along the way I have learned to speak German and Spanish. I would definitely move to another country with kids, I think it teaches kids good lessons about the world, to live and grow in other countries and cultures.
It’s generally true that many expat children grow up with a desire to travel; certainly my son has this ”wanderlust.”
Research shows that many expat children do embrace the travel bug and continue their lives living and roaming overseas.
Maybe my son was always destined to be a global traveller.
He has certainly embraced opportunities to travel, and volunteer, in India, Mexico, and 10 months travelling throughout South America, before finally landing and working in the Vienna Elementary School, Austria…. until the “travel bug” bites again!
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at re-inventing herself! Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News. She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.