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Matt Healey

Matt Healey

challenges faced by expat teens and how you can help them.

I don’t usually share much of my story here as this space is really for you not me. But I feel compelled to share a little about me and the the complexity families face when they decide to move internationally. This is part of an ongoing series of blog articles about expat families. In this article we look at challenges faced by expat teens and how you can help them.

I am reflecting on my experience of emigrating to a new country when I was 14. It was definitely a formative experience. A real mixture of highs and lows. Some very high and some very low.

When I moved abroad for the first time I understood it would be only for two years, then after two years maybe two more. I wish the reality of expat life had been explained to me. But like many expat families it wasn’t.

everyone faces their own version of change in a family that relocates

Often the reality of the expat experience is not spoken about, at least not in any great detail. Finally when we did talk about it what became clear to me was it wasn’t just me having a difficult time , it was everyone. Everyone faces their own version of change in a family that relocates. And everyone reacts differently to change.

My experience showed me that my parents did not have the resources to help me because they were fighting their own battles, and staying strong and silent in the process. The result was a splintering of the family unit. This is a common occurrence among expat families that struggle for long periods during their relocation.

our sense of identity is shaped by our sense of belonging

Ten years after I had emigrated I did move back to my country of origin but both of us had changed so much. I discovered that I no longer had that sense of belonging. This was a strange feeling and one that took me quite a while to understand. Most of us take for granted our sense of identity and belonging. Its only when these things are displaced that some of the foundational aspects of who we are can get a little shaky.

This consistent low level existential stress can build and really take a toll on your health and well being. And its not just teens that face this. The whole family can experience the sometimes harsh reality of expat life, and often do.

Adolescence is not an easy age. Puberty has already begun in most cases and teenage angst is either just getting started or is in full flight. This is and important time not only for physical and emotional development but the development of identity too. Its a chaotic period of life and the balance can tip pretty easily. Expats are twice as likely to suffer from depression, which places expat teens at risk even more.

expat teens face considerable challenges

Young people identities are shaped by many factors, including family, cultural and societal expectations, experiences with institutions like school, the media and friends.Having to start again is a really tough task for anyone but particularly so for a teen. Younger children adapt pretty quickly to a shift in living but teens face a much bigger challenge.

Much has been written about third culture kids or TCK’s. Which means kids who spent their formative development outside their parents native country(ies). TCK’s face interesting problems. On the one hand they are keenly adept to deal with cultural shifts and changes, but on the other they have a uneasy sense of belonging, a lot of unprocessed grief and suffer a hindered experience of being able to plan due to an underlying sense of uncertainty about the future.

Problems can manifest when the TCK returns to their native country and discover that they feel like they no longer belong there. For most of us looking for a place in the universe is part of the human condition. For some of us its a lifetime of work figuring out who we are and where we belong. TCK’s experiencing a crisis of identity is especially widespread.

therapy provides a valuable scaffolding for expat teens to grow

A crisis of identity can be quite shocking, depending on your level of resilience you will either grow positively through it or negatively. Many deep and unsettling questions can arise. For expat teens it can sadly be a time that fundamentally changes their life path, or severely slows it down.

Working positively on building the internal resources and a strong sense of identity is crucial. Therapy provides a valuable scaffolding for expat teens to grow. It will provide them with an independent confidential space to discuss and learn how to best manage their circumstances. So they can thrive and utilise all the wonderful and highly sought after skills they are developing.

In therapy I teach adolescents a combination of valuable interpersonal skills. Including stress management and meditation, mindfulness, how to process difficult emotions and navigate existential worries. I work with adolescents helping them develop a strong and resilient sense of self. Providing your teenager with this extra support while they are abroad can make such a difference to their growth and development.

Putting in place sensible strategies to protect the mental health of yourself and your family will help make your expat experience an easier and more enjoyable one. If you are concerned about your emotional health or the health of a family member please feel free to contact me for a free consultation.