How to Help Your Family Survive the Shock of Re-Entry
“Why is everyone white here, Mom?” our 17-year-old son asked upon arriving in rural America.
It wasn’t a pejorative, racial question. It was a culture shock question—a “reverse culture shock” reaction.
Our son’s world, since birth, had been one of diversity. Having lived in North Africa since the age of three, he was used to being the minority. He was used to being a white boy in a “world of color.”
Suddenly, our family unexpectedly and involuntarily found ourselves in mono-cultural, mono-lingual, rural America.
In response to our son’s inquiry about ethnic diversity in the area, we said, “You notice the absence of color, but people here would notice the presence of color. You come from a different world. You are a TCK (Third Culture Kid).”
It’s true, there seemed to be no one of another culture, race, language, or country in the area. Our son’s colorful, multicultural world was colliding head-on with his new white, mono-cultural world. He was in serious reverse culture shock, and we had not prepared him well.
We watched our son during the next few months as he wrestled with feelings of anger, frustration, and disorientation. He became very critical and judgmental of our home culture, comparing everything to North Africa and Europe. He began to withdraw and escape—only keeping in contact with his friends abroad—in the place he called “home.” When invited out by new friends, our son declined. He strongly resisted adapting to our home culture and became quite isolated and lonely. This place certainly didn’t feel like “home” to him.
The Effects of “Reverse Culture Shock” on Children of Different Ages
Although every expatriate who returns to their “home culture” after living abroad will experience some type of “reverse culture shock,” each person has a unique experience. Children of different ages will also have various reactions.
A major move represents big changes. As a result, familiarity and routine are especially important. For younger children, things such as moving to a new house in a new town, not having some of their favorite toys, and leaving behind friends they loved are especially difficult.
We add to that the exhaustion of overseas travel, a new language, a new culture, saying goodbye to friends, and trying to fit in. It’s not surprising that regressive behavior and sickness may reflect our children’s re-entry stress and culture shock that cannot be expressed in words.
While it is a challenging task psychologically and emotionally for anyone to try to fit in, teenagers are in a season of life when it is crucial to feel like they belong. They don’t want to have to begin again with new friends in a new school—trying to understand how to dress, how to talk, and what music is popular.
I can recall our teenage boys telling us some of their awkward and uncomfortable moments back in our “home culture” for the first time. They would hang out with American peers who often discussed their favorite music, movies, or TV shows.
“We had no idea what they were even talking about,” they told us. They felt too embarrassed to interrupt the conversation and ask their friends questions to try to understand. Rather, they would just nod and smile, leading others to believe that they understood—that they “knew.” They longed to fit in. They desired to belong.
How can we prepare our children and teenagers for re-entry and reverse culture shock?
Just like pre-departure preparation is essential before entering a new culture overseas, the U.S. Department of State advises its returning expatriates and families to prepare well for re-entry.
They suggest considering these three simple main points:
Home has changed.
You have changed.
You have adapted to another culture and now you must readapt.
We can take time to openly dialogue with our kids about the reality of reverse culture shock before ever hitting the ground back in our home culture.
Here are some steps we can take to help our families prepare for the shock ahead.
Pre-Departure Preparation: Educate yourself, talk to other expat families, and expect disruption in your family’s routines and life. “The most important thing you can do to deal with reverse culture shock is to expect that it will happen to you,” explains the U.S. Department of State.
Getting Closure: The U.S. Department of State also advises that “An essential part of entering your new culture is getting closure on your foreign experience. If you don't feel like you've said ‘goodbye’ to the foreign culture, then you might have a harder time accepting your new home. Do everything that you can to make sure that you have no regrets when you return home.”
Let your kids visit all the places and sites that they have on their “must see” list.
Encourage your kids to record memories through pictures and videos.
Make time for your kids to say proper goodbyes to friends.
Buy special “host country” memories and souvenirs for your family to take with you.
Host a farewell party for your kids to say goodbye to special friends.
Update the contact information (phone numbers/addresses) of friends with plans to stay in touch.
Make a family list and intentionally plan the last month’s events so that nothing is missed before leaving.
3. Transition Back “Home”
Make the new home as familiar as possible. Allow children freedom to arrange their own bedroom, transferring “cues” from the host culture: photos, toys, favorite foods.
Love your children and let them know that they are loved through the transition. Parents are the greatest source of stability and encouragement to children through change. Give them the attention and support that they need during this time.
Encourage your children to get involved in activities that they may have missed out on by living abroad: sports, extra-curricular activities, youth events, etc.
Help your kids set realistic expectations about life back in their “home culture” with school, friends, etc.
For teenagers, help them to stay connected to their “home culture” as much as possible while abroad by educating themselves on their home culture, staying in close contact with friends and family, learning how to drive and get their driver’s license, being “low-key” about their overseas experience as other students may be put off or intimidated by them, not judging the other students harshly who have never had an opportunity to go abroad and experience what they have . . .
Coping Strategies for the Whole Family
1. Communication Outlets—find others who know what you are feeling and experiencing. Our family got to know other internationals in our area, and they became like family to us. They understood much of the culture shock that we were experiencing.
2. Stress Management—establish good family routines, maintain health through regular exercise and a good diet, set goals and objectives, and take time to relax and have fun!
3. Transfer and Modify Cues—According to the Department of State, “Cues are any of the little things that we are familiar and comfortable with in a culture. Transfer cues from the foreign culture into your new home culture, or modify existing cues to represent your favorite cues of the host culture.” Think of things that remind you of your foreign home: favorite recipes, local music, art or literature from the host country, pictures and videos, decorative objects, or local dress items. These cues become reminders for us and for our children—like a bridge or link between cultures.
We Can Help Our Kids!
When our kids don’t know the “Star Spangled Banner” but have memorized the words and tunes of the Tunisian or Moroccan national anthems . . . when our Caucasian kids draw a self-portrait portraying themselves as a “person of color” . . . when our kids look like they should fit into their public junior high school class, but they clearly don’t feel like they belong . . . when they are shocked that some students in their class don’t know that Germany is a country . . .
We can help our kids. We can prepare our children for a smooth re-entry and healthy landing back in their parents’ home culture.
Children raised in these unique environments are "third culture kids" who will eventually see themselves as global citizens. If we prepare our children well for the times of transition that we face in returning to our “home culture,” we will all see more of the positive benefits of being a cross-cultural family.
Together, we can reverse the negative effects of “reverse culture shock.” Instead, we can make transition another family adventure—full of new learning experiences!