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How to Help Teens Deal with Culture Shock

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Culture shock is a real problem for anyone moving to a new country or drastically different area. After a move, you need to relearn a lot of what you know in order to understand and fit into the foreign culture. Teens are hit especially hard when trying to adjust to a new culture. If there are teens in your family, take a moment to consider how to help them through this especially difficult transition in their lives.

Why are teens so susceptible to culture shock?

  • The move to another country or region is not usually their choice. Most teens would rather stay in a familiar area than move to a totally new school with totally new friends and new culture. But teens often have to move with their family since they are still dependent and have little say in the matter. They also have a tendency to be change-adverse -- people take longer to make adjustments when they disagree with the change.
  • Hormones. Teenagers are already dealing with a lot just by being in an age of transition, so adding another life transition on top of it can be overwhelming. The physical and emotional aspects of puberty complicate everything. It is likely teens are also leaving someone they have feelings for back in their native region. Moving from a crush or significant other can lead to huge emotional outbursts.
  • School. School is work for kids, and high school is difficult for many reasons. Changing schools within their own town can be hard for teens, but going to a new school with new culture is bound to cause culture shock. The entire school system can be drastically different, even within one country. All familiar teachers, classes, and schoolmates are now replaced by something foreign. This can lead to many challenges, and often the result is bad grades.
  • The language. If you're moving to a new country where English isn't the primary language, teens are sure to be lost for a while when trying to learn the new language. Teens are past the stage in development when picking up a language comes quickly, and they'll probably find that school-taught language is not exactly applicable to common teen-speak in the real world--colloquial phrases will be a challenge. Teenagers may not understand what anyone is saying to them for some time.
  • The social aspect. Teens cling to their friends, so the loss of their local ones will be draining. Making new friends will be difficult because the new culture can create a barrier. Local teens could be cruel and stereotype your teen, as well.

How to help

School, friends, language, relationships, puberty-- there is a lot for a relocated teen to deal with when adjusting to a new culture. There isn't one way to make everything better for the teen in your life, but teenagers are old enough to take your honest advice, which may help if you understand why things are so hard for them.
  • Tell them they'll adapt. Let them know that feeling like and outsider, not understanding the culture, and having no friends are all temporary. Just hearing that you have confidence that given time they will feel better may help. Some cultures do exclude foreigners more than others, but after time, your teen will almost certainly be adopted into some type of group of friends. It helps if your teenager remains open to the idea.
  • Let them spend limited time maintaining old connections. Using the internet or phones to talk to friends from back home will help teens feel less alone. However, you should remind them that they are doing this to ease a transition, not avoid one. They have to unplug and deal with the world they are living in now in order to make new friends and prosper.
  • Tell them that they'll get over it. This may sound harsh, but sometimes a dose of hard truth is necessary. Teens may be really missing their friends from home. If your teen has ever broken up with a significant other before the move, use that as reference. Remind them that it may hurt now, but eventually they will get over the loss of friendships and relationships as they make new ones.
  • Look for positives in the school. There are a lot of variables in how a school is run in a different culture. Chances are, at least one thing about the new school is better than the old school for your teen. Figure out what new teacher, class, or activity your teen likes and help focus on that.
  • Keep home, home. Your home, and especially your teen's room, should be a sanctuary from the strangeness of the new culture. Having a place that feels "normal" is very important to a teen. 
  • Learn together. You need to adapt to the culture yourself. Since school may be overwhelming, try learning the language and discussing some cultural inconsistencies with your teen at home. Teenagers are usually resistant to talking with older family members, but if you are the only constant from before the move, teenage children will look to you for guidance.

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on November 24, 2014 - Moving Expert
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