Global assignments and expat children: advice for parents

20 March 2018

A relocation may be prompted by a single person, but its success often hinges on the ability of the whole family to prosper in unfamiliar surroundings. While the challenges facing the “trailing spouse” are well-documented, expat families can be slow to consider the needs of younger family members.

Global assignments and expat children: advice for parents

One fundamental piece of advice applies long before you leave the country: make them feel part of it. This was already noted in our previous blog post on the topic. It’s important that they are invited to share views on where to live, where to go to school and to talk about what life will be like in the host country. Failure to do this could lead to problems later on.

Younger children may feel happier about the upheaval if they can share in the excitement of packing to go away. Give them a chance to help (rather than sending them away to the grandparents while you get the job done) and they will feel that they are part of the process. 

They’re not stupid, they’re children

Some parents underestimate their children’s ability to understand what a global assignment means. While it is important to be positive about the move, glossing over the complexity and pretending it is “just like a long holiday” may be setting yourself up for a fall.

Many experts recommend an upfront approach. Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, suggests dealing with it head-on, which means celebrating the departure itself. “You have to think about how you’re going to say goodbye,” she said.

Staying in touch

Staying in touch

Technology has made it much easier to maintain contact with friends back home and it can help enormously to counter any feelings of loneliness.

No teenager needs much encouragement to spend time on social media, and the global nature of online communities helps to normalize relationships. They may be in different countries, but they’re still part of the same WhatsApp group.

Making new friends

While children may often be more flexible than grown-ups, one of the main difficulties they will face is in forming new friendships offline. The sudden absence of close friends and family members, combined with a new environment, strange food, and new experiences every day can be truly disorienting.

Making friends gives them a point of reference, especially if these are expat children who can empathize with their experiences. Bear in mind, however, that an expat family’s time in any given location is only temporary and those friends may not be around for long. One expat noted that her “girls have had to become quite skilled at continually making new friends” and that the constant goodbyes can be difficult.



The choice of school is hugely important, and much depends on the age of your children. If you are staying less than five years, or if you have older children, you may find an international school offers a curriculum that is closer to the one back home. This will reduce the risk of problems when your children have to fit back into the education system back home.

Younger children, by contrast, have a more fluid curriculum and may benefit more from a more local education. For more considerations to think about, please read our article on expat schooling.

Bi-lingual or bi-cultural?

Your children’s learning capacity is, of course, greater than yours. That’s why many expats invest in additional lessons, both before departure and whilst overseas, in order to seize the opportunity of giving their children another “string to their bow” in the form of a foreign language skill.

Be aware, however, that they are not just learning a language but a value system, which may well be different from yours. This “dual-culture” status can be confusing for your children when they are expected to act differently at home and at school. 

They call it ECS

Most expat children are very positive about their experiences overseas, but sadly that is not true of everyone. It is well known that early repatriation of expats is most often due to domestic unhappiness, and much of that surrounds children’s ability to thrive in a new environment. Psychologists have even given it a name: Expat Child Syndrome.

It occurs most often in children aged between 10 and 15 for two main reasons. First, older children are likely to have formed stronger friendship bonds with their peers at home and, second, they are also often going through profound physical change at that age. Being a young teenager is difficult enough without the stress of relocation. It’s not fair, it’s all your fault, and no one understands them, OK?

Stick together

These can be both overwhelmingly exciting and confusing times for children – and parents have the task of dealing with these two contrasting emotions. Also, bear in mind the enormous positive effect on your children of spending time abroad. The immersion in another culture – not to mention the chance of near-native proficiency in the local language – will be hugely valuable to them as adults.

Parents, therefore, need to communicate these benefits sensibly. It will be fun, it will be strange, it will be exciting, it will sometimes be a bit weird. Give them as real a picture as you can of what is happening in their lives and invite them to be a part of it. You are going through this together, so plan it together.

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