The Expatriate Family – are you ready for the challenges that lie ahead?

by Dr Rona Hart.

The challenges of international move

Truth to be told – there are many.

The following presents some points to consider when thinking about and preparing to move abroad with a family and young children. 

When you relocate, your family becomes a hub.  An expatriate family often has no extended family or community around them for support. It is the role of the adults to look to one another for the support that usually comes from extended family, friends and community. When that support is absent, the well being of both the adults and children can quickly decline, and loneliness can set in. The risk for the relocating family is that they may become dysfunctional. When family members are able to support each other during the initial period of relocation, then family ties bring the family even closer together, and enable them to quickly form new networks and build new relationships to support them.

Separation is an experience that dominates the life of expatriate families. However, separation from an extended community and family is only one of the types of separation that expat families may encounter.

Separation of family members from each other is often the most pressing issue. Travel demands on relocating employees are often high.  Business requirements, hosting or entertainment may regularly involve both parents, leaving children under the supervision of unfamiliar babysitters or nannies. It is therefore crucial to prepare for this in advance and to take time to find the right person to take care of your children.

Intergenerational differences in cultural orientation is also a potential issue confronting the expatriate/immigrant family. By moving abroad we separate from the ‘homeland’ and the comforts of living in a familiar culture. Relocating families, especially those who relocate for several years, may experience a dynamic that is common among immigrants; intergenerational differences in cultural orientation. First-generation expatriates bring with them their original cultural heritage, and tend to maintain their home-national identities. Their children, who have been raised abroad, however, are bi-cultural. They are influenced by multiple cultural traditions; that of their parents’ and of the local culture. They may well reject their parents’ national orientation, and adopt the local culture. Awareness of this phenomenon and offering cultural and language classes to children with the aim of maintaining their heritage and connections, can be very helpful in shrinking the intergenerational gap.

However integrated or acculturated an expatriate family may become, it is likely to stand out from the host society in various ways.  As a consequence, family members also face the pressure of high performance standards. It is not uncommon to hear expatriate/immigrant parents say “Be careful how you act, you are an ambassador for your country.” It is therefore important to provide private spaces where family members can be authentic, where they can be themselves, and practice their own cultural traditions and family customs away from the public eye.

The sponsoring organisation plays a significant role in the life of the relocating family. In fact, it often forms the basis of the expatriate family’s identity. “What does your father / husband do?” is one of the first questions children and spouses are typically asked. The answer places the newcomer in the expatriate network, and ranks them in the expatriate hierarchy. It is therefore important for the organisation to cultivate their ties with the expatriate’s family members, and to create a support system for them.

While moving abroad as a family can present significant challenges, preparing yourself and your family by knowing what to expect and how to handle any obstacles can make your move a much easier one for everyone involved.

Dr Rona Hart is the author of the forthcoming book ‘PREPARING FOR YOUR MOVE ABROAD: Relocating, Settling in, and Managing Culture Shock’ which can be found in our Guide section.

One thought on “The Expatriate Family – are you ready for the challenges that lie ahead?

  1. We moved as a family several times so far!

    First UK – London, then India – Delhi, then USA – San Francisco and now East Coast Pittsburgh… and I’m sure It’s not over yet…;D

    We feel stronger than 8 years ago, when all this traveling started, on so many levels.

    It was not easy, but definitely rewarding.

    After many moves you know which are the phases you will be facing… it’s like a cycle!

    My kids are part of what has been wisely called the “third culture kids” generation and I’m sure that this life always on the move that challenge so much their resilience, adaptability and social skills will be so rewarding in their adult life!

    So even in tough moments, you know that they are living a great life and this is a privilege!

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