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Going to an international school in a new country can give children – and parents – quite a culture shock, something experienced by all new arrivals. 

Briefly, culture shock is just that – a shock at being exposed to an unfamiliar culture. In our own country, we know what to expect and how to do things. In their home country school, children instinctively know the behaviour expectations and how to fit in with the different subcultures. The food and teachers are familiar and everyone speaks the same language in which the whole school communicates.

Stepping into an international school, children don’t know what clothing or music is “cool,” how to relate to all these peers chattering to one another in unfamiliar tongues or what demands these unknown teachers will make. Researches have identified four stages of culture shock that hit newly arrived expatriates:

  • The tourist or honeymoon phase when everything initially seems wonderful, interesting and likeable.        
  • The frustration or crisis phase when the host country reveals all that is different, strange and unlikable and suddenly, being there seems to be a big mistake.                                   
  • Reassessment and recovery, when the new arrival comes to terms with clashes and similarities between their own culture and that of the host country.
  • Finally, there is adjustment and acceptance when the foreigner feels at ease, establishes relationships and begins to co-exist with the culture and accept the way things are done.

School age children take their cues from their parents’ behaviour. They usually do well when they start school, learn new routines and expectations and make a few friends. A wise parent will try reconnecting them with favourite activities as soon as possible.

Unsurprisingly, pre-teens and teens seem to have the hardest time adjusting. Apart from hormones and angst during this stage of development, teens’ peer groups are of major importance in their lives. It can be traumatic for teens to be transplanted. They may feel that this move was a decision imposed upon them by their parents for the sole reason of separating them from their friends and everything that is vital to their existence. Anger and resentment often occur as this forces them to become more temporarily dependent on their parents until they can make new friends and "fit in" somewhere. 

Attend any orientation programmes the school offers. Make it a priority to contact your school’s PTA and talk to other parents of teens and discover what the accepted practices are regarding allowances, curfews, and parties held in homes and other activities. Find out if drugs and alcohol are problems in the community. You will want to allow your teen an appropriate amount of freedom based upon age, your own beliefs and values, and a consideration of what “all the other kids” really do.

Encourage teens to get involved in after-school activities and to invite their new acquaintances over. Ask your child’s teacher for a list of classmates’ phone numbers and try and set up play dates for younger children. Within a couple of months, they’ll soon have a set of exciting new friends and settle into a routine.

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