THE EXPAT LIFE:Expat Children

Article by Karen Arango

Moving abroad with children is a real challenge. The experience depends on each individual child and family circumstances, but it is always an opportunity for personal growth. Not only does it provide them with an opportunity to learn how to adapt, but will also create a great foundation for their future in many ways. Expat children speak several languages, possess strong communication and interpersonal skills and usually grow up to be very adaptable and open-minded individuals.

Apart from the benefi ts, there is always the risk of Expat Children Syndrome (ECS) occurring:

ECS is the psychological term to describe the emotional stress in expat children. ECS is more commonly found in early adolescence, between 10 to 15 years old; this is the time when they start to experience physical, psychological and emotional changes. Adolescence is a difficult period in the lives of all children, but when children move to a new country far from their close circle of friends, they can often fi nd it even more diffi cult to deal with the changes they are experiencing. If your kids experience changes such as shyness, anxiety, diffi culty to make friends or to adapt to new situations, disobedience or eating disorders for a long period of time, it is really important to face the problem and look for help and advice: reading books, getting help from support groups and seeing a psychologist.


1 Communicate:
Listen to their feelings, frustrations and emotions. Support and encourage them. This will help strengthen their self-esteem and selfconfi dence.

2 Set up routines:
Establish a routine and responsibilities as quickly as possible and try to keep the habits that you had before.

3 Get in touch with other expats with kids:
Taking part in activities for expat families allows you to extend your support network and share information about good schools or kindergartens, playgroups and nurseries, sports, parks, restaurants and activities.

4 Keep Positive:
Being enthusiastic and positive about the new life and place will have a good effect on them.

5 School:
If the kids able to attend an international school they will have an opportunity to interact with children from similar backgrounds and it will be easier for them to adjust to their new environment.

I wanted to broaden my professional view by asking 4 Xi’an expat parents about their own experiences of moving abroad with children and what advice they may have for others. Special thanks to the families for sharing their experiences and advice.

Jenny and John
One son, 3 years old

What do you think is the most benefi t for your son by being an expat?
He has the opportunity to learn about a new culture and a new language. I think that having the opportunity to live in a different country will give him a different perspective of life; at the end it will be very benefi cial for him and his development.

What do you think is being the most diffi cult challenge for your child, if any?
The most challenging thing for toddlers in Xi’an (under 3 years) is that they are not accepted at schools or any extracurricular activities (sports, dancing or gymnastics), basically they are treated like babies, and it is very hard for them to interact with other kids or to be active, which is what they want at this age.

Do you have any recommendations for other parents living in China?
If you have kids that do not go to school yet, make sure that you make friends with kids of the same age so your child has playmates, it is very important because there are no other activities offered for them. Also, if you have an active child, you can try going to the malls where they have play areas for kids of all ages, especially in winter time.

Hillary and Tony
2 daughters. Ages: 10 and 4

What do you think is the most benefi t for your son by being an expat?

I think the most benefi cial thing for my children to learn while being an expat is acceptance of different cultures. Whether it’s Chinese, Korean, German, or French I want them to know that we all need the same basic things and there are traditions that make each culture special.

What do you think is being the most diffi cult challenge for your child, if any?
The most diffi cult challenge has been getting out of our comfort zone. When we fi rst arrived I found myself feeling scared to leave my house. Really it was the fear of the unknown. Not being able to communicate can be hard, but I’ve found that the local people are very kind and will point me in the right direction. Even now a few months in I have to plan an activity to get us out of the house and exploring a new part of Xi’an, because it gets so easy to just stay in our comfortable routine.

Do you have any recommendations for other parents living in China?
Find other families to spend time with, join a play group, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s easy to feel alone when you are thousands of miles away from everything you know, but don’t isolate yourself or family. We’ve tried to keep up with the same things that made us happy at home. We get together with friends for dinner, play dates, and game nights.

Ashley and Brandon
3 daughters. Ages: 8, 5 and 2

What do you think is the most benefi t for your son by being an expat?
Through necessity the children have had to learn how to be fl exible; to adapt to new situations, food, and cultural behavior. While there have been some bumps along the way, the children are developing skills that will be invaluable throughout their adult life.

Living abroad has helped develop a better understanding and acceptance of cultures. The children have learned we all have more commonalities than differences. Once the hildren have recognized similarities they have built friendships. Because friendships are based on similarities and shared experiences, differences in language and culture do not matter as much.

We can’t always fi nd the ingredients we need to make familiar foods and we can’t do the same activities that we are used to, but I am amazed at the creative solutions my children come up with. Many times I say something can’t be done, and they come up with creative solutions that actually work

What do you think is being the most difficult challenge for your child, if any?
It has been diffi cult balancing being kind and friendly to the Chinese while maintaining our personal space and privacy. Our family sticks out in Xi’an because we have three daughters and they are fair haired. We literally get stopped every day for photos, and many people will touch their hair and try to pick them up. While this is fun for them most days, sometimes the children want their personal space. I have gotten good at saying “ta hen haixiu”, which means she is shy. The Chinese are usually understanding and give them their personal space when I say this.

Do you have any recommendations for other parents living in China?
Decide what you want your expat experience to be like, then make that happen by writing down and planning out deliberate goals and or purposes. If you want your children to experience the culture, as a family go to events, local markets and tourist areas. Make your expat experience what you want it to be.

Antonella and Carlos
Two daughters and one son.
Ages: 6, 13 and 14

What do you think is the most benefi t for your son by being an expat?
It’s a great experience, they can learn a different language, meet a new culture and friends and fosters respect for each other. In the future they will see their lives like an opportunity to be better and face the challenge in a positive and creative way.

What do you think is being the most diffi cult challenge for your child, if any?
Our kids speak Spanish and Italian, but in China it is very important be fl uent in English and Chinese. At the beginning that is a big challenge but with time it will be a great opportunity to speak several languages. Another thing is the air and water contamination.

Do you have any recommendations for other parents living in China?
If your kids aren’t fl uent in English or Chinese they must take some private lessons, fi nd activities for weekends and nights like table games and movies. Listen and support them 100%.