The Expat Child Syndrome

“Expat Child Syndrome” is a term coined by psychologists to describe an emotional stress in children caused by moving abroad.

The moving abroad of a father or mother represents great work and family challenge. Especially if this involves a change of language and culture. It is very important for the expatriate’s job performance that his family feels comfortable and calm and they can face together the challenge of international expatriation. Many times, we believe that it may be easier for children than for parents, since children can adapt better. However, this is not always the case.

In recent years, the term “Expat Child Syndrome” (ECS) has been alluded to. The syndrome can be seen in children of all ages, although it is more common between 10 and 15 years, since it is also the period when a series of physical and emotional changes begin. During these ages, children usually go through a cognitive, cultural and social adaptation that turns out to be transcendental for the rest of their lives.

The difficulties are mainly based on the gap caused by the change. Leaving behind the built life, the house, the environment, while at the same time facing the challenge and the obligation of entering into new social relationships, new friendships, entering a new school, communicating in a new language, living in a new climate, etc. Sometimes it may not be the first relocation that the child lives, a second family transfer in his life can cause a deep-rooted frustration to feel that he does not belong anywhere. The panorama before and after the transfer creates an emotional stress that in many occasions is difficult to detect.

The symptoms of ESC are manifested depending on the personality or experience of each child, parents must pay close attention to detect it. The most common symptoms could be:

  • Mood changes and irritability.
  • Isolation, lack of communication and cooperation.
  • Signs of loneliness or depression.
  • Change in your eating and sleeping habits.
  • Attention deficit or lack of adaptation to the new environment.

Recommendations to parents:

When parents see signs that their children may be experiencing difficulties related to relocation, they need time to communicate with them and make them feel valued and loved, as well as to keep in touch with their old friends and family. Some tips would be:

  • Communication: Begin planning ahead of time and inform the child from the beginning. Explaining to the child when they will move, to what country, the reasons, every detail that can be communicated is essential for the assimilation of the child. It is important to show confidence and security in the process.
  • Farewell: Let the children say goodbye, plan parties and farewell meetings, that the child perceives as a celebration. Then do everything possible to maintain contact with old friends and family, with video calls and messages so that children feel supported in the process.
  • Participation: Making the child participate in the decisions made, the new house, the new school, you will feel that you have a voice and vote in the family.
  • Environment: It is very helpful for children to know the environment in advance, previous visits to schools, orientation of the area, etc. It is important to take into consideration international schools where children can relate to other children who experience similar situations.
  • Activities: Prepare walks and excursions, visit the main attractions, introduce them to extracurricular classes such as artistic or sports activities.
  • Freedom: Give them the freedom that they can visit new friends or that they can receive visits at home.
  • Follow up: Observe and perceive the behavior and state of mind, ask for feedback from the teachers in the school to know how it is unfolding.

Recommendations to the Human Resources Departments:

The Human Resources Department responsible for the expatriation must take into account that the employee’s job performance depends to a large extent on their family being comfortable and calm. Therefore, it is recommended:

  • Pay special attention to the adaptation of the family and not just the employee, a periodic communication to know the process and the personal situation of the expatriate is ideal.
  • It is recommended to take into account cultural training programs in your expatriation policy. That they contemplate language training and personalized coaching to improve the adaptation process.
  • Be flexible if the expatriate needs permission to miss family situations, such as having to go to school or needing a few days to be with them.

If the problems persist, it would be advisable to take more measures and seek professional help. But the reality is that in most cases, it is a matter of time until the child begins to develop new friendships and is comfortable in the new environment. These children end up obtaining extraordinary abilities, such as new languages and new perspectives, in many cases they obtain the ability to be children “of two cultures”.

By Martina Familari Font – Global  Relocation Consultant – Expat Advisors 

Expat Advisors ©

Experts in Global Mobility

Tel.: +34 91 781 80 85


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