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Expat Child Syndrome: Moving to/from Mexico

Expat Child Syndrome (ECS) might not be in the psychology textbooks, but ask any parent who's moved their family abroad—those emotional ups and downs are real! The move may be positive from the parent’s point of view. It may improve opportunities, wealth, and cultural experiences exponentially. However, for your kids, it's more than just a change of scenery. Imagine swapping friends, sports teams, and the comfort of your favorite snacks for a whole new world. It’s like starting a video game on hard mode without a tutorial. Even if there’s a sum total of gain, the process is often stressful.

After touching down in Mexico (or anywhere new), your kids might start acting differently—maybe they're more clingy, cranky, or just not themselves. Some might even withdraw or act out. It's their way of coping with all the change. These changes may also be seen later in the move, once the excitement has worn off and the real challenges have begun.

Imagine your kid, fresh off the plane, navigating a Mexican school where English isn't always the go-to language. Never before have they had to navigate the social complexity of two different languages being spoken all the time. Perhaps one student joins the group they’re in and everyone effortlessly switches over to Spanish. A joke is made and everyone laughs. However, they don’t get it. It’s tough! Feeling embarrassed, they remove themselves from the group and sit alone.

Without room to explore this, patterns such as withdrawal (a common coping strategy for those with a more anxious disposition) can quickly take off. Feeling embarrassed, the child becomes nervous about joining a group again. They keep to themselves. However, they then miss the opportunity to get the ‘corrective feedback’ that most of the time nothing disastrous takes place. Instead, the fear and anxiety grow. Social withdrawal leads to school withdrawal, often accompanied by complaints of feeling unwell. Falling further behind on schoolwork and still with few friends, the idea of attending school daily becomes overwhelming.

A new pattern emerges and is reinforced by the relatively stress-free experience of staying at home.

Here’s where you come in. Your mission: support and listen. Instead of swooping in with all the answers, try being their listening ear. Ask open-ended questions like “How was your day?” or “What was tricky today?” Show them you get it when they’re embarrassed or frustrated. Validation goes a long way!

Resist the urge to solve the problem for them. If someone feels misunderstood, judged, or shut down, they’ll keep their experience to themselves the next time. However, if they feel like they have space to talk and will receive some empathy, they’re much more likely to open up and connect.

My rule of thumb is, however long you think you should spend just listening and not giving advice—double it and then add some. After this, if advice is needed, encourage them to think about ways they can manage the problem. Offer suggestions if it feels welcomed and necessary.

If their struggles seem to be getting worse instead of better—like skipping school or feeling sick a lot—it might be time to call in a pro. A bicultural therapist who knows the ropes can help your child bounce back and embrace their new Mexican adventure with gusto, allowing them to experience the wondrous growth and opportunity that come from a move abroad.

Here’s to making every expat child feel at home, wherever home may be!

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