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Culture Shock

Posted on: 16th Jan 2015

'Culture shock' is the term used to describe the psychological and physical state felt by people when they relocate abroad to an 'alien' environment (moving from the USA to Canada or from the UK to Ireland doesn't count!). Although many people living abroad are single, experiencing life overseas before they settle down permanently in their home countries, they also include many families, who usually relocate because of the husband's profession or career (although today it could equally be the wife's career that prompts a move abroad). The implications are far-reaching, particularly for family members who may be reluctant to leave their 'home'.

            Non-working spouses and teenage children are usually the most affected, simply because they rarely have any choice about a relocation and therefore feel the most resentment when they find themselves in a situation in which they have little control or any familiar references. These two groups may also feel more isolated - the expatriate wife left behind in the new 'home' while the husband goes to his new office or the expatriate teenager at a new school trying desperately to be accepted by a new peer group. Expatriate children (termed 'Third Culture Kids' by sociologists) run into hundreds of thousands, including an estimated 400,000 from the US alone. In general, children under 12 adapt much faster to new surroundings and tend to accept new realities and situations with far fewer difficulties than teenagers and adults. However, this doesn't mean that children will take to living in a new country immediately, or that they won't suffer similar culture shock and feelings of displacement as their parents.

            A parent should never underestimate the effects a move abroad will have on children, particularly adolescents; if you feel that relocation is likely to affect a child negatively (in the long term) rather than positively, then it's probably advisable not to make the move. Bear in mind that children rarely have a choice about a move abroad, yet their needs must be considered as one of your priorities when making the decision. If a child has learning difficulties or disabilities, relocation shouldn't usually be considered unless you're certain that you'll find experts abroad to help you cope with the situation.

            A possible alternative for teenagers may be for them to attend a boarding school in your home country or to stay with their grandparents and attend a local school while you're abroad. 

            Further information is available in our Living and Working and Culture Wise series of books.

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