When I first expressed my concern to friends and family about how our kids (then aged 3 and 6) would cope with our forthcoming move from London to California, everyone was quick to reassure me how adaptable children are.
...it turned out that uprooting ourselves from our little patch of West London was more stressful than we had imagined.
At home we couldn’t go out to the corner shop without bumping into a friend, and the kids’ grandparents were on hand for regular babysitting. Landing in San Francisco, where everything was so different, and where we knew no one, was a shock to the system. My husband had to get to grips with his new job immediately, which left me entertaining the two children on my own during the remaining 3 weeks of the summer holidays. The sun may have shone every day, but when my son wailed for the 10th time “who can we have a play date with?!”, and my daughter had another tantrum about nothing, I would have gladly traded the blue sky for London’s grey.
School started and I went into friend-making overdrive in order to make the playdates happen…and to create a much-needed new support network for myself. Luckily, this was easy to do in California, where people are outgoing and (at least superficially) friendly. We got used to buying super-sized, unfamiliar products in the enormous supermarkets and gave up trying to walk anywhere.
By the time we left the US, three years later, we were very much part of the local community and had shared so many formative experiences there that our ‘re-entry’ back to London was more traumatic than the original move – something I never would have expected.
I imagine my story will resonate with anyone who has relocated with a family in tow. Culture shock is a universally acknowledged phenomenon. Surface cultural differences (those things that are most visibly different about a new country such as weather, clothes and food) are easily adapted to. What takes longer to overcome is the feeling that you have lost your identity: you know no one, and no one knows you. What’s more, you no longer have a grasp on social norms and your communication skills appear to have vanished overnight. In short, you just don’t belong.
According to Douglas Ota’s excellent book ‘Safe Passage’ about how mobility affects people, belonging is a big deal. In Maslow’s classic ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid, ‘love, affection and belonging’ are the next most important requirements right after physiological and physical safety needs. Other scientific research has shown that recently relocated individuals experience a strong need to ‘attach’ to a new community in order to feel secure, that social exclusion lights up the same parts of the brain as the experience of physical pain, and that being in the presence of trusted others makes us less daunted by challenges. We also know that when someone (adult or child) is experiencing an overload of stress and difficult emotions they are less able to perform and fulfil their potential. In short, feeling like a cultural outsider brings many negative consequences.
Luckily there are many things parents can do to help themselves and their children adapt to these cultural transitions, whether they are relocating overseas or returning home again.
Polly Collingridge is Family Global Mobility Manager (EMEA) at Parental Choice
Bowlby, J. 1998, Attachment and Loss (Volumes 1-3, cited in Ota’s book)
Coan et al. (2006), Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat (cited in Ota’s book)
Eisenberger et al. (2006), An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection (cited in Ota’s book)
Maslow, A.H. (1943), A Theory of Human Motivation (cited in Ota’s book)
Ota, Douglas W., Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it.
Parental Choice are working in EMEA and APAC to help families with their relocation.
We can help with finding schools, childcare, local orientation and extracurricular activities. Get in touch to see how we can help.