Relocating with teens: tips for expats

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Understand why an international move is so difficult for teen-age children before your expat employees go abroad.

Contemplating the idea of leaving the familiarity of home and friends to move to an unknown country is often exhilarating and overwhelming for the entire family, especially for teenagers.

When expatriates and their spouses/partners accept the offer of an international move and take advantage of a new career opportunity, that decision ideally occurs after a period of reflection based on a review of their options.

The younger members of the family are not always privy to this decision-making process. While they may view the international move with enthusiasm and fervour, it is not unusual for them to experience some level of anxiety and confusion.

Teenagers, on the other hand, often have a more intense reaction to an international relocation.

Why is it often different for teens?

Teenagers typically form close relationships and bonds during and after the school day. Friends and social activities become crucial components in their lives, and ¡§fitting in¡¨ is a vital part of their existence.

When initially informed that their parents have made a decision to move the entire family to a foreign country, they may react angrily, even fight with their parents and threaten not to come along.

This type of response is often due to the lack of control and feeling of powerlessness experienced by teens in relation to their parents¡¦ decision. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that, developmentally, teenagers are undergoing significant physical and emotional changes in their lives, as well as learning to form self-chosen values and independent choices.

From their perspective, the impending move to a foreign country will disrupt all things that are central in their lives. Consequently, teens are often the most upset about the transition, as it can be tougher and more traumatic for them than their younger siblings.

What parents can do to help

Relocating parents sometimes underestimate and overlook the feelings that their teenagers are experiencing. This oversight is often a direct result of their involvement with the demanding logistics of the move ¡V closing accounts, selling the family cars, researching suitable schools, deciding what to ship and what to store, finding a new foreign home, renting their home-country residence, and so forth.

Parents frequently err in assuming that the rest of the family will not understand or even care about all the details involved in the relocation. As a result, they do not actively involve other family members, who may feel excluded ¡V particularly, the teenagers.

ddressing the needs and concerns of all their children is imperative for parents. To maintain a harmonious home life, both in the home country and overseas, it is crucial to take the time to explain to each family member the reasons why:

  • The entire family is moving
  • The international relocation is a positive choice
  • The parents feel the move is valuable

Involving children in the relocation and recognising their concerns and issues will help facilitate communication within the family unit. What also helps the family dynamics both before and during the assignment is for everyone to make the effort to be appropriately open and honest with each other.

The best practical support parents can provide for their children would be to guide them toward helpful resources.

The Internet, one of the most highly used communication media by teenagers, provides easy access to up-to-date country information (see sidebar, Resources for teens). With this material, along with books addressing culture shock and relocation issues, they will have a better idea about what to expect when they arrive in their new foreign destination (see sidebar).

Resources for teens


  • Teens – Expatriate reference desk (
  • Third Culture Kids (;
  • United Nations Youth Information Network (
  • Teen Directory of the Web (
  • Beverly Roman, Footsteps Around the World: Relocation Tips for Teens (BR Anchor Publishing, revised edition 2000)
  • Sara Mansfield Taber, Journal of a Traveling Childhood (The Foreign Youth Foundation 1997)
  • David Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds (Intercultural Press 1999)
  • Linda Bell, Hidden Immigrants: Legacies of Growing up Abroad (Cross Cultural Publications/Crossroads 1997)
While valuable and informative, however, written material can go just so far. A cross-cultural training programme specifically designed to address teen concerns is often the best source of practical and insightful advice.

Although it is advantageous to attend an orientation session before the actual move, doing so upon arrival in the host location is still useful should timing and circumstances prevent the family from participating beforehand.

Knowing that a customised training programme will address their teens¡¦ concerns about the relocation is often a huge relief to parents.

As a part of the training, parents typically receive feedback about worrisome issues, which neither party has had the time or energy to address and resolve. Through such a programme, families can develop a more pro-active approach to communicating about the move, thus facilitating the overall connection among family members.

A common cause

Each expatriate family faces a different set of challenges. For those families who are uprooting one (or more) teenagers, the following key points are useful to remember:


  • Sharing big decisions with the rest of the family ¡V and, in particular, providing a safe space for teens to voice their objections, opinions, and concerns ¡V should help ease the initial shock of the disconcerting news.
  • Creating a sense that the international assignment is a shared adventure should encourage greater communication within the family unit, as all members will face the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the foreign country together.
  • Preparing for the international move by seeking out practical resources and cross-cultural training programmes ahead of time (where possible) can help enhance the transition experience.
  • Staying in touch with friends and family by e-mail shortens the distance between home and abroad, allowing life events at either end to be more readily shared. Telephone calls, although more pricey, are often needed; after all, hearing a good friend or extended family member's voice may make all the difference in attitude or state of mind.

And remember, every teenager ¡V even within the same family ¡V may experience the international move in a unique manner, related to his or her own developmental stage, learning style, self-image, sense of identity, and personal circumstances.

Recognising this fact will allow the entire family to have a smoother transition and participate in a more enjoyable experience.

Reprinted with permission from Expatriate Observer.


U.S.-born interculturalist Saskia Meckman grew up in France, Germany, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands, with an Ecuadorian mother and a Dutch-Austrian-Danish father. As Director of Intercultural Services at the Interchange Institute, in Boston, she conducts research on families relocating overseas and trains children and teens to deal with transition issues. For more information, go to

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