This article was written by high school personal academic counselor Dr. Jeff Devens.
It’s not because I have received a better education, but a broader education that I can tell my cousins that Georgia is not only the name of a state but also the name of a country. I have had more of an international experience and this has significantly changed my outlook (Katie, 17 years old).
According to your circadian rhythm you should be awake, the only problem…it’s 2:30 in the morning! Sitting on the floor of your unfurnished apartment attempting to assemble an IKEA bookshelf, with the semi-functional tools provided, you wonder aloud "Is this really home?"
I remember the impressions of our first international move 24 years ago. In the span of 24 hours we went from sunny, clean, efficient, predictable Minnesota, USA to the wonderful zaniness that is Beijing, China. Talk about contrasts! Walking through the old Beijing airport felt like we had passed through a wormhole transporting us to a bygone era. With green military paint peeling off the airport walls, contrasted sharply with the bright red communist star on the ceiling, we knew we weren’t home in any sense of the word. What began as a two year overseas experience has grown into 21. Having lived in China, Saudi Arabia, and most recently Singapore, has afforded us wonderful life-enriching experiences, experiences that have forever changed us.
For some, this is your first international posting or deployment; a few of you may even have had to search Google Maps to locate where you were moving. For others, you’re seasoned veterans. Your current posting is but one of several you and your family have called home. In either case, there are a series of stages that kids and parents go through as they transition into a new culture, school, and country. Having an awareness of these stages can help reassure parents that what they and their kids are going through is normal.
Stage 1: Settled
This describes your status prior to your move. For children, this means they are attending a school, have a predictable routine, peer group established, and are engaged in the community. Generally, they’re responsive and responsible. Adults too have established patterns in place: their commute to work, the stores they purchase goods, and their favorite coffee shop. In short, life is predictable.
Stage 2: Leaving
At some point a decision is made to move. This may have come with several months’ prior notice, or within the last few weeks. Leaving is a time of saying goodbye and disengaging. Kids and adults experience a range of emotional responses during this time including: excitement, joy, anticipation, anxiety, denial, anger, resentment, bargaining, sadness, and loss.
Stage 3: Honeymoon
Upon arriving in an unfamiliar cultural context the common tendency is to look for what is familiar and establish routine. This is also a time when others extend themselves welcoming new families. Kids tend to feel pretty good and generally function at a high level. The honeymoon stage typically lasts 10 minutes to 2 months.
Stage 4: Disorientation
For many, the more they interact with the host culture, the more they become disoriented and melancholy. The primary reasons for this are the loss of social support systems (friends, family, community) and lack of predictability. People may experience a range of emotional responses: morning the loss of friends, feeling isolated, exaggerating problems and behaviors, feeling tired and grumpy, judging the host culture negatively, and refusing to connect. It’s not uncommon for kids to want to stay tethered to friends in their previous home and not make new friends. Holding up in their bedroom, they may spend significant amounts of time communicating with their old friends online. They may also struggle academically during the first quarter or semester of school. During this stage parents encounter the most difficulties related to the move. A particular holiday, time of year, birthday, or other significant events can trigger strong emotional responses. This period usually lasts from one to six months, and sometimes can flare up anew when parents return home for that first long holiday break.
Stage 5: Recovery and Adjustment
As kids continue to interact with their new culture they begin to incorporate their understanding of themselves, school, friends, etc. and begin to feel at home. Their level of pre-move functioning typically returns to normal, sometimes even to higher than normal levels because of all they have learned about themselves and the world. The benefits of this include increased social maturity, a broader worldview, less prejudice, and greater cultural and religious tolerance.
An important point to note regarding these five stages, one that may further complicate the process of transition, is that each of your family members will go through them at different times. There may even be periods when kids vacillate between them. What’s important to keep in mind is that what they are experiencing is by and large normal and part of the transition process.
Note: I am indebted to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken for their seminal work on understanding the transition process: Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. A must read for international families.
In part two of Moving In, Setting Up, Settling Down, Dr. Jeff Devens shares a set of questions and answers to help parents as they transition into a new culture, school, and country.
- high school