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Helping Children Cope With Culture Shock

By Leah Freeman-Haskin

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We often hear that children are extremely adaptable to change. However, it’s not uncommon for children to feel culture shock in the form of disorientation, withdrawal, and “acting out” when traveling or moving to a new country. This is especially true if the new culture and environment are vastly different from the “home” in which they’ve grown accustomed. I spoke with a licensed clinical social worker, Kassia Ringell, for tips on supporting children through difficult adjustments and feelings of culture shock.

What does culture shock look like in children?

Depending on the child’s age and communication level, adjustment issues can present themselves very differently from one child to another. “A transition to an entirely new environment may present some real challenges and heighten anxiety,” says Ringell. “This might look like more frequent temper tantrums, increased irritability or seemingly ‘over-reactions’ to benign situations.” It’s important to recognize these behaviors for what they are and not label them as simply bad behavior.

As a parent, what can you do?

“Parents can and should explain, in as much detail as possible, what to expect before the new change occurs, to help ease children into the transition,” says Ringell. Here are a few more tips:

1. Reading Stories

Find stories where characters are going through similar situations to help children imagine what this change might look like for them.

2. Play Experiences

Games, puzzles, and art “can help the child work through potential feelings of anxiety or frustration,” suggests Ringell.

3. Build Excitement

Learning about the new culture together as a “family fun practice activity” through real-life scenarios “can reduce anxiety and instead build excitement and confidence about navigating the new experience,” Ringell notes. For example, a trip to the grocery store can spark the question, “what might be the same or different about going to the grocery store in a new city or country?”

4. Affirmation of Emotions

“Most importantly,” Ringell continues. “Affirmation and acceptance of the child’s fears and anxieties are comforting, and offer opportunities for parents to validate the child’s feelings and then praise their efforts toward working through big feelings.”

How can you help children identify their emotions?

For younger children, it may be difficult for them to communicate or even understand what they are feeling. As a parent, it is important to help children identify their emotions. “If a child acts out or is hostile, parents must work together to identify what the exact cause of frustration is, help the child identify the feeling associated with it, and then problem solve alternative and healthy ways to cope,” explains Ringell. Toddlers may require more comfort strategies like a transitional object, whereas older children can engage in a conversation about their feelings. For all ages, Ringell recommends storytelling through reading and visual arts as helpful tools for improved self-regulation.

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Leah Freeman-Haskin

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