An expatriate assignment in a far away land should be an exciting adventure with new opportunities and learning experiences for all. And part of that success is solid preparation and communication with family members. You don’t simply leave for the assignment without getting input from family members, especially children; and ensuring that they are part of the whole planning process.
Before embarking, explain the cultural differences between home country and expatriate assignments, and the challenges and adventures they may face. Let them know that, while it may not be like home, it’ll broaden their horizons and can be not just fun but a life-changing experience that will set them apart from their peers at home in terms of their overall education.
After settling in to an assignment, encourage children to experience the culture firsthand, which could include asking them if they wish to attend school in a language other than their own and encouraging them to become involved in the new culture.
More than ever, it’s important for parents to take an active interest in their childrens’ lives. Understand what they are doing and who their friends are. If a youngster gets into trouble, it could mean repercussions for the child, the entire family and even the company’s reputation, and if serious enough, the relationship between the countries themselves.
Having done a few expat assignments with my family during my State Department career, and having observed my children and their friends, I can say that these assignments seem to have been a very positive thing for most families, although there were some cases of poor adjustment. In the case of our three children, I can safely say it turned out to be a very positive and valuable experience for them to have lived overseas. They all attended French schools while abroad and were positive about our multiple assignments , and thrived on the experiences so much that they majored in foreign languages in college and did study-abroad years as undergrads, and are now involved in careers where they have opportunities to use their languages and cross-cultural skills. I think part of keeping it positive was doing fun things together as a family while abroad, and another part was making sure they were part of the major decisions, e.g., switching from the English-speaking to the French schools or taking on another overseas assignment.
Expat assignments can be difficult for some children, especially at first, but there are ways to ease them into the new environment and ensure that it becomes a very positive part of their lives and development. The key is to mitigate the possibilities of an experience turning sour.