Think about it. Almost everything that forms the routine foundation of your lives changes. The mechanics of life change: shopping, banking, transportation around town. Social/recreational opportunities change. Educational arrangements for the children change. So much of your routine — things that you have done on automatic pilot for years — changes, and has to be relearned.
Expat adjustment is not always comfortable or easy, at least at first. Thus, much of the excitement, pleasure, and benefits of a job relocation is often tempered, complicated, and made challenging by stresse.
Usually these stresses are at least short-term and temporary. In addition to the changes in routine mentioned above, people commonly face challenges in a few other areas: loss of support network, increased pressure of a new job, and meeting children’s needs. Marriages can suffer. Family relationships can be damaged.
When you think about it, this all makes sense. The employee making the job change may know some of the people on the new job, perhaps some of them quite well, but many of the people will be new, and the job may be very visible with added responsibility. In the beginning, the employee is also less certain about whom to turn to for help with challenging situations, whom to share an easy few moments of conversation with, whom to joke with, and who will be receptive and helpful.
Family members may miss the close relationships they had at home, and children may be leaving best friends with whom they have had daily contact with or loving and supportive grandparents nearby who have had frequent contact and caretaking involvement. It is a time of tremendous change and one that cultural training makes a difference.
While new relationships are powerfully helpful, these efforts can be complicated by cultural barriers. It can be difficult to develop friendships of sufficient depth, closeness, understanding, and ease with people who come from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. Misunderstandings can easily result in distance, alienation, and hurt feelings.
Americans, who frequently entertain people in their homes, might be put off, for example, in a culture in which socializing is rarely done in one’s home, but in restaurants, bars, or other venues instead, the newcomer may wonder, ‘Why are we never invited to someone’s home? Are we being excluded?’ It is difficult and yet crucial to understand the meaning of these interactions within the cultural context of the new location. Cultural Sensitivity Training will help us with this.
Challenges with Children
Children face special challenges during expat relocation and are significantly affected by their parent’s international assignment. Finding a school that matches your child’s talents, abilities, and any special needs can be quite difficult. Since your child spends so much of his time in school and it plays such a crucial role in his development, a terrible price can be paid if academic services are poorly matched for a child.
Developing new friends can be difficult if a child is breaking into a well-established system of relationships at a school, facing cultural differences that can be mystifying and off-putting, and somewhat shy or introverted himself.
New caretakers/adults, as well as peers, may present values, expectations, and interactions that diverge from the family’s core beliefs and practices. Teachers, for example, may expect a degree of quiet submissiveness and compliance that contradicts a family’s tolerance for their children being somewhat independent, expressive, and free-spirited within some clear limits. The result can be confusion, conflict, and uneasiness for both children and their parents.
If one or both parents are preoccupied, distracted, and less available because of job-related duties and/or spousal struggles, children may lack support, structure, and guidance at a time when they need it most. This can greatly increase their sense of isolation, as well as their vulnerability to developing problems.
These risks are more serious for adolescents, who by definition are going through a period of greater turmoil and potential risks even without the additional stresses of a family relocation. If adolescents lack support within the family, as well as lose the moderating influences of extended family, friends, and neighbors, they are more vulnerable to acting-out behavior. This can take the form of peers chosen as friends, violation of family norms/expectations, social struggles, school difficulties, and experimentation with drugs/alcohol to a more serious degree.
There are many things you can do to help with expat adjustment to deal successfully with the stresses inherent in an international assignment. Read material about the city, region, and country you’ll be moving to. Prepare yourself. Find out a bit about the history, geography and culture, so you’ll have some preparation for the first few days/weeks.
1. Pay particular attention to cultural differences about social interactions, expectations, politeness, and business dealings to reduce your confusion and to help you prepare to interact more easily. Cross cultural training will help with this.
2. Search for someone (a friend, relative, business associate) who has traveled extensively, and preferably lived for a while in the area. Spend some time with that person. Ask them to talk about the enjoyable, fascinating, and challenging aspects of living in the area. Ask them about any books they’ve read/movies they’ve seen that were really informative.
3. Contact the human resource department/employee assistance program at your company and search for resources.
4. Share as much you can with your spouse and selectively share this with your children, to help them prepare as well.
Once you have arrived in your new location:
1. Keep reading, checking out local bookstores, which may have material that was not available in your hometown.
2. Seek out other expats. The support and understanding from others who have experienced a similar transition can be very valuable.
3. Search for a cultural advisor–someone who understands the local culture. This person can answer your questions, help you understand cultural differences that are confusing, direct you to local resources, and be a source of support.
4. Communicate, communicate, and communicate with your spouse and family. Offer a lot of listening, understanding of the other’s feelings/perceptions, and support. Solve problems together in joint efforts with small steps, small goals, and concrete actions in repeated conversations.
5. Be open about the struggles you are experiencing–and don’t blame the other. Respect the differences in how we each see situations and try to generate solutions without insisting that the other ‘see it our way’.
6. Lastly, if any of the more serious difficulties above develop (depression, anxiety, alcohol /drug abuse, deteriorating behavior with children), seek professional help. Your growing network of local support may help direct you, or try the EAP/human resource program at the employee’s company, or seek referrals from professional associations in the area (organizations of psychologists, social workers, counselors, or psychiatrists). Early interventions from a skilled professional can prevent more serious, long-lasting problems from developing.
Warning Signs of More Serious Trouble
There are many signs of danger that indicate that one or more family members are experiencing significant stress that requires attention. Occasional difficulties, and even more regular difficulties for a while during the initial adjustment to the relocation, can be expected.
All of us would find the adjustments discussed above to be challenging and sometimes overwhelming, especially during the first period of adjustment. If any of the following occur more than occasionally for any significant period of time however, some intervention is probably needed.
? Any significant change in a family member’s usual patterns of behavior, interactions or attitudes;
E.g. a usually cheerful, interactive, spirited child becomes combative, argumentative, sullen, or, an organized and energetic adult becomes distracted, poorly organized and lethargic
? Signs of depression: sleep disorder (sleeping more or less), changes in appetite resulting in weight gain or loss, loss of energy, loss of willingness to engage in usual activities, sad/irritable mood, feelings of worthlessness/hopelessness/guilt not appropriate to circumstances, any thoughts of suicide, reduced pleasure from usual activities, loss of sexual interest (compared to usual levels of interest/activity)
? Anxiety, which can take many forms: increased worry beyond usual levels and areas of concern, preoccupation with small details that seem unimportant, ritualistic behavior that person insists upon to reduce tension, or anxiety attacks (panic, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feeling of impending death with no clear reality based cause), refusal to leave the home or venture outside of areas that feel safe that person previously would go to
? Any increase in use of alcohol or medications to reduce anxiety, sleeplessness, physical pain that is repeated, persistent, and ongoing, which is an indication of efforts to self-medicate to deal with tension or distress
? Any change in a child’s usual pattern of school performance: deterioration in grades, lack of usual preparation and task completion, less interest in school, increased struggles with adults/teachers
? Any family member having more social difficulty than their usual patterns of shyness or initial discomfort in new surroundings: withdrawal, avoidance of social interaction, reluctance to engage new people and develop new friends.
About the Author
RW³ CultureWizard is a complete online global intercultural training facility, containing e-Learning courses, cross-cultural informational resources, and global skills assessment tools. It complements the online cultural training facility with instructor-led training that can be delivered from our virtual classrooms or from traditional face-to-face programs at your location.