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Understanding the Expat Child Syndrome (ECS)

Moving to a foreign country with the entire family can be exciting. However, it can also make one feel anxious as it means starting from scratch and adapting to a new environment with a different culture where you hardly know anybody. If you feel this way, imagine how your children are taking it all in.

Though most people think that expat children are lucky because they get to travel and live abroad, they also have to pay a big price for it. A situation like this isn’t something you should take lightly.

Growing up in an expatriate household can be challenging for kids who are in their formative years. Your children may not be old enough to cope with the abrupt changes that’s why it is crucial that their parents or guardians are there to help them through this tough transition period.

What Is the Expat Child Syndrome and What Are Its Causes?

The Expat Child Syndrome (ECS) is a psychological term used by experts to describe the emotional stress experienced by children of expats whenever they relocate to another country.

This commonly occurs among children aged 10 to 15, a stage where they go through adolescence or puberty and experience significant physical and emotional changes. Most of the time, they cope with these changes by surrounding themselves with a close social circle. Whenever they have to move abroad, this means leaving their friends behind, and it could take a huge toll on them.

Frequent relocation can also be a factor, thus making your child more likely to experience ECS.
The struggle with finally settling in a new environment, building friendships and being separated from them again and again can be a rough pattern they’ll have a hard time coming to terms with. This can be frustrating for them especially when it’s not easy trying to fit in every single time.

You also have to consider the location your family is moving into. If it’s completely different than what they’re accustomed to, it could highly affect their psychological state. They will find the transition to be difficult and can potentially lead to emotional distress.

The language barrier and the new school also play a significant role in their ability to adapt. If they are able to attend an international school, the opportunity to interact with students of diverse cultures and similar backgrounds can help them adjust better. However, since international schools are not often found nearby, enrolling them in a local school can help them learn more about the language and culture.

How Does ECS Manifest Itself?


There aren’t any particular symptoms, but ECS can manifest itself in different ways. It can also affect some children more than others. You just have to be very keen and observant when it comes to their behavior.

Look for any signs of being disruptive or uncooperative. They can also withdraw themselves, thus being secluded and lonely. Don’t dismiss these just because you think they’re acting out or being bratty, instead give them emotional support.

Some children have a harder time accepting the move, and this could affect how they fit in. They will find it harder to make new friends and build a social circle and if not addressed immediately, could lead to resentment towards their parents for making them leave the life they loved behind.

How Can You Overcome This?

Not all hope is lost. You just need to be more understanding and patient. Child psychologist Kate Berger explains that parents are key in helping an expat child adjust to life in a new environment.

She says:

“Communication is one of the most critical components to ensuring a smooth transition. Parents must talk with their children, and watch their behavior, and listen to what they are saying about the difficulties and frustrations they are encountering. The simple act of acknowledging and validating a child’s struggle can go a long way toward helping an expatriate kid who feels lonely.”

For children who are unable to express themselves verbally, Berger points out that you should pay attention to any behavioral changes as this can be an indication of how they really feel. Younger children could show a change in their eating and sleeping habits, while older kids can withdraw from activities that they used to enjoy.

Once you notice these or other signs, make time to “create a stable support network where expatriate children feel understood, validated and loved.” Berger shares that parents must be prepared for all kinds of circumstances so that their children wouldn’t feel out of place or alone.

Encourage them to get involved in positive social interactions, such as play dates and joining extracurricular activities to help boost their confidence and meet new people. Remind them that just because they moved to another country doesn’t mean they can’t keep in touch with old friends and loved ones. Also, you can celebrate old traditions while embracing new ones to help your family cope with the changes.

See: Expat Life: Fun Activities for Kids Over the Summer

Image credits: Cornerstone Behavioral Health, Sasapost, My Asperger’s Child, The Huffington Post

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