Culture shock in children

Sad child

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is not a medical or clinical condition that can be treated with a course of pills unfortunately; it is a highly disorientating feeling that comes from being submerged into something completely different from what you’re used to. It can hit you as soon as you arrive at your new life or it can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Either way it can knock you quite hard and leave you feeling depressed, anxious and like you’ve made a hideous mistake in your relocation.

What is ‘culture’?

Culture is made up of all the little things that we learn from our family, our friends, the media, literature, and even strangers to a degree. Not just how we speak or what we eat but also basic things like how we look, act, and communicate. Very often when you move to a new country, that culture can be vastly different from the one you know and you can find yourself getting very homesick – not only for family and friends left behind but for things as simple as being able to have a glass of water from the tap or buy your favourite brand of cereal. This is no different for our children but they may have fewer means of expressing it and understanding it.

What causes culture shock in kids?

Things that have always felt familiar to them; sounds, smells and even the weather, are all now completely different and it can be hard to prepare a young child for these changes in advance. Small things can help keep your child’s equilibrium as they adjust to their new lifestyle. Favourite toys, familiar books, the same lampshade or bedspread will help give them an anchor as things around them change. Ease them into the changes gradually. However tempting it might be to take them to see all the new wonderful sights that there are to see in the first week, hold off; baby steps, one thing at a time.

Language and friends are always going to be the way to help your child, and you, feel less disorientated. Children don’t seem to need language to make friends, but not being able to understand what people are saying and not knowing how to make people understand what you are saying can be frustrating, so learning the language of your new home is a must. Helping your child learn to count to ten or say simple phrases like “hello” or “thank you” can be a fun way to help your child get over the language barrier and get excited about this particular difference.

Even if the basic language doesn’t change from what you are used to, the chances are you don’t know a lot of the slang and local words for things; even in the UK there are dialectic differences – is that type of bread a cob, a bap, or a roll? This is one of the many reasons why it’s a good idea to make some local friends as soon as you can. Your children will learn more in an afternoon with local kids than a week listening to you.

Symptoms of culture shock in children

Communication and friendships will help both you and your child feel more settled, but every child reacts differently to moving to a new place. Even if your child starts off being really excited and enthusiastic about their new environment, keep a close eye on them. As the cultural changes become more apparent they may begin to feel overwhelmed. Signs that culture shock has hit them can include things like being extra sleepy, irritable, depressed or generally disinterested in things around them. Time and patience is the only cure for this I am afraid. As they begin to deal with the changes they will learn to integrate what they know from their old culture to their new culture.

Most places you go will already have an expat community, make use of them, even if you intend to fully integrate, as they can be a wealth of help and understanding for your child especially if they are starting school.

Finally, don’t panic – children are far more resilient than us grown-ups, everything around them could change but as long as they know your love for them isn’t going anywhere, they will cope with all the rest of it.

By Carole Hallett Mobbs of

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Carole Hallett Mobbs is a British expat mum of one currently living in Pretoria. Before moving to South Africa she lived in Japan for nearly five years and Germany for two. She runs the website which provides practical information about moving overseas with your children.

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2 thoughts on “Culture shock in children”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! Informative and at the same time you feel the love behind it, brilliant.

    Our oldest daughter, now turning 4 soon, showed all of these things after our move to the Netherlands. When she was almost 2 we moved from Tanzania to Sweden and she didn’t so much as blink. Given the huge difference in, well EVERYTHING, we had expected a tough time ahead but it was as if she had never lived anywhere else.

    Because of that, we didn’t really see her extreme reaction coming at all, since Sweden and Netherlands is quite similar in language, culture, weather, nature etc, so we were taking a bit by surprise. The first couple of months she didn’t even want to leave the house! She is normally such an outgoing child full with energy, it was so difficult seeing her so anxious and moody!

    We tried to do what you say, take it slow, expand her circle of surroundings and people gradually. Perhaps we could have taken it even slower, looking back. Now, 6 months later she has made dutch friends and speaks a lot (more than me!) and loves riding around the neighbourhood on her bicycle! It’s nice to have her back 🙂

    So having seen culture shock in a child first hand I think this is such an important topic to be aware of! Like you say, make sure they know that with you they are always safe, be their pillar, and take is S L O W!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Cynthia.
      Yes, there’s a huge difference in a child’s cognitive abilities between 2 and 4 years old, so I would expect a certain amount of ‘issues’ with the move. It sounds like she’s found her way with your help. Good luck with the future!

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