Although you may have found the perfect international school, what happens if they are still struggling to settle into their new home? 

If your child is not settling after several months abroad, they may be suffering from expat child syndrome (ECS). 

Expat child syndrome is a term used by psychologists to describe children who are suffering from emotional stress because of a move abroad. Although it can impact children of all ages, those approaching or in adolescence tend to suffer most. Teenagers rely heavily on their peers for support when going through the changes associated with this time of life. Removing them from a close circle of friends in their home country to living overseas can be especially difficult.


Symptoms can vary quite significantly from child to child but some of the most common to look out for include:

  • Behavioural changes: particularly common among younger expat children who cannot express their feelings, they may struggle to sleep or stop eating.  
  • Seclusion: is your usually extraverted teen isolating themselves since you have moved?
  • Loneliness: are they complaining of feeling lonely in their new home? Have they been successful in finding a new group of friends to spend time with?
  • Disruptive behaviour: has your usually well-behaved child become disruptive either at home or school?

If your expat child is experiencing some or all the above, they may have ECS. While it is frightening to see your child’s demeanour change, there is a lot you can do to help them cope with the stress of moving to another country.


As well as the symptoms listed above, moving to a new country can have a psychological effect on a child. Their social skills that enable them to make friends can suffer and they can become extremely introverted. Some children will naturally settle into their new surroundings after some time but others may remain secluded, behave disruptively and harbour resentment towards their parents. 

Parental help is essential to children trying to overcome ECS, although some expat kids may show resentment towards their parents initially.

Some of the most beneficial ways to help a child struggling with expat child syndrome are:

  1. Communication

Communicating with teens may be difficult but do your best to talk to your children. Ask them specific questions about settling into expat life like:

  • Is it easy to make friends at school?
  • What is your favourite thing about your new school?
  • What is your least favourite thing?
  • What do you like about our expat life?
  • What do you miss most about our home country?

Really listen and acknowledge any difficulties they may be having. Do not dismiss them as normal teenage challenges. This is likely to help your child feel understood but if there are practical steps you can take to help, that is even more useful.


  2      Positive social interaction

If your child is struggling to meet or make new friends at school try to encourage them to find other opportunities to interact with people their own age by:

  • Joining extracurricular activities either inside or outside school
  • Trying a new sport or activity
  • Finding a youth group
  • Volunteering in the community

Taking part in some of these activities could help your child find others with similar interests if they cannot be found in their new school.


    3    Find a balance

Help your child find a balance between staying in touch with friends at home too. Sometimes a Skype call with a good friend from home will help them to touch base and ease their transition into their new life abroad.

4       Research

Some useful books about expat child syndrome:

  • Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child by Julia Simmons 
    This book will provide you with practical storytelling techniques that you can use to increase your child’s vocabulary around emotional resilience and emotional intelligence to help them adapt to their new home.
  • Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken
    This highly rated book explores real life experiences of third culture children who have spent most of their lives living abroad. It examines the effects on maturing, developing a sense of identity, and adjusting to life in another country.
  • Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents and Professionals Offer Support, Advice and Solutions in Response to Expat Life Challenges as Shared by Expat Teens by Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit
    Often teenagers have a higher risk of experiencing the symptoms of expat child syndrome. This book addresses the needs and different challenges that Expat Teens face throughout their lives with real life accounts and advice from expat teens, parents, and professionals. 

How can the Human Resources Department help with expat child syndrome?

The HR department can support expat families as a whole in a number of ways:

  • Provide support and assistance to the family unit – not just the expat employee. Help the whole family to adapt with predeparture training, company events and mixers etc. Introduce the family to other families within the business to help them create a network of contacts.
  • Provide cultural and language training to the family to help them adapt to their new location
  • Be understanding and patient with your expat employee as they try to settle in with their family. Allow flexibility around their hours if they need time off to bring their children to school or spend extra time with them.   

Don’t forget your children’s health and wellbeing while you are abroad. We include an Expat Assistance Program as part of our international health insurance plans which offers multilingual, professional and confidential support services for families.