Safeguarding the well-being of children of the foreign service

March 2023

Expatriate living has become increasingly popular with many families making the decision to relocate long term, motivated by financial or lifestyle advantages. For these families, settling into a new life abroad has a permanency which is lacking for those living a foreign service lifestyle. Foreign service families are presented with the same opportunities and challenges as traditional expats, however, for them country, language and culture may change every couple of years with each new assignment.

Some foreign service children thrive in this dynamic environment, while others find it difficult to adjust to the constant changes brought on by each new assignment. Being uprooted every couple of years can deprive children of a sense of belonging and may make it difficult for them to maintain friendships.

Making new friends and saying goodbye to old ones becomes routine for foreign service children. Unfortunately, when the bonds of friendship are being formed, it can be time to say goodbye as a new assignment begins in another location.

The difficulties associated with the creation and maintenance of friendships are most acutely felt when joining and leaving school. Moving a child from school to school every couple of years can be emotional for the child and disruptive to their education. For this reason, children’s education, along with their healthcare, is one of the key considerations for diplomatic parents when deciding on an assignment. In addition to choosing the best type of school for their child from the available boarding schools, international schools and local schools, parents must also consider the continuing education of their child, ensuring that they remain on the same syllabus and course of study.

For foreign service children, the stresses of moving to a new school and developing new friendships, can be heightened if their favourite subjects are not available for study, or they join the school in the middle of term time and are forced to repeat lessons and topics which they have already covered. Parents can help their children to settle into life at their new school by keeping detailed educational records of syllabi and grades, ensuring they are placed within the correct classroom.

Foreign service children have a unique opportunity to learn several languages, a portable skill they will carry throughout their lives. However, owing to their transient lifestyle, they are consistently forced to start and stop languages. As they become proficient in one language and accustomed to being taught in that language, they may change countries and find themselves required to begin again on another language, which can lead to difficulties studying and confusion with grammatical rules.

As a result of cultural and geographic separation, foreign service children may also struggle with maintaining relationships with extended family. Although technology helps with facilitating communication, meaningful face to face time can be limited to annual vacations. Children may also find it difficult to cope with extended separations from parents who take unaccompanied tours and frequent temporary duty.

The need to relocate regularly and the sporadic connections with extended family can make answering the question ‘Where is home?’ difficult for foreign service children. Home for foreign service children may be the birthplace of their parents, however, this may be a place where the children were not born or raised, but who’s passport they carry. The parents of foreign service children constantly negotiate helping their children adapt to local customs in their host country while still trying to engender an affiliation with their ‘home’ country. Not having a traditional sense of home can create identity issues for children and cause confusion when developing emotional allegiance, for example who to support in the World Cup or Olympics.

Although foreign service children may enjoy the cultural diversity of their family’s lifestyle, they may never fully adapt to any of the countries they have lived in, finding it difficult to immerse themselves into their new surroundings and remaining an outsider in different host cultures. 

For many foreign service children, one of the greatest challenges they will face is returning to their ‘home’ country if and when they are no longer leading a diplomatic life. The perception is that this is the country in which they belong, but in reality, they often feel out of place. They may have more in common with peers in other countries and find it very difficult to adapt to this permanent move.

We use the term ‘culture shock’ so flippantly in the modern world, it is easy to forget it is a recognised psychological difficulty suffered by many who find themselves in an unfamiliar place. Due to their continual absorption in new cultures, the children of the foreign service are at heightened risk of culture shock. Like many psychological conditions culture shock usually involves several phases. Some people experience these phases in a linear way. For others, the order and timeframe can vary. Although culture shock is a process, it can be challenging at a time when children have a lot of other things to deal with. It is important that parents are aware of the risks associated with culture shock and have access to professional assistance when required.

Life as a diplomat may see families placed on assignment in locations where they are exposed to increased danger from crime, terrorism or natural disasters. It is not uncommon for families to undergo forced evacuation where they must relocate without knowledge of how long their evacuation will last. It is important that diplomat parents acknowledge these dangers and the impact they could have on their children. Crucially, diplomat parents must be able to avail of a robust crisis management programme that can be put in place at a moment’s notice to ensure the safety and well-being of themselves and their family. These programmes should provide emergency medical support and evacuation services and all other support services necessary to help families get back on their feet, following a disruptive and traumatising event.

If further support is needed after an event, it is vital that diplomat families have access to the best care, whether for psychological or physical issues. Crisis management programmes must be constantly reviewed and updated, to reflect ongoing changes and challenges in a location. Time invested in proactively planning for these kinds of contingencies gives a level of comfort to diplomat families. They will know that everything that can be done to mitigate the risks, is being done, and that steps will be taken quickly and efficiently if something, unfortunately, does happen.

Foreign Service parents have the opportunity to offer their children a window on the world exploring global cultures, which most children never get to experience. But the foreign Service family needs to plan carefully and prepare to deal with the unique challenges of foreign service life, as they arise.

Diplomacy often happens far from home. It is the very nature of the mission you have been entrusted with to be international. To support you and your staff in missions abroad, we have been building international health cover with the specific needs of ministries of foreign affairs, consulates, embassies and other attaché offices for over 5 decades. We provide tailored solutions and flexible set up to fit budgetary constraints and language requirements, while providing access to healthcare for staff. 

At Allianz Care, we have been taking care of the specific needs of Diplomatic Missions for over 50 years. Discover our Summit plans for Diplomatic Missions - International healthcare plans specifically for consulates, embassies and other attaché offices.