One of the great challenges for educators who work with expatriate families is learning how best to assist agencies with the issue of sending families cross-culturally for the first time with teenagers. Most of us in the field of cross-cultural education would admit that it is an issue fraught with challenges. Some say it should not be done at all. Others try to soften the potential difficulties with careful screening, training, and counseling. Nevertheless, we still have our fears that it may not go well.

What are the hazards for families and for the teens themselves? Primarily, the challenge comes in what is happening in the development of an adolescent during those critical years. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the following are characteristics of the developing adolescent[1]:

  • Struggle with sense of identity
  • Feeling awkward or strange about one’s self and one’s body
  • Focus on self, alternating between high expectations and poor self-esteem
  • Interests and clothing style influenced by peer group
  • Moodiness
  • Improved ability to use speech to express one’s self
  • Realization that parents are not perfect; identification of their faults
  • Less overt affection shown to parents, with occasional rudeness
  • Complaints that parents interfere with independence, and
  • Tendency to return to childish behavior, particularly when stressed.

Medical doctors at explain adolescent development with these broad statements[2]:

  • Experiences of middle adolescents are broadened by their relationships with adults outside the family.
  • (Adolescents) complain that parents interfere with their independence. Teens during this stage experience the most conflict with their parents. There is a lowered opinion of parents and withdrawal from them. Achieving independence from their parents is particularly important to a middle adolescent.
  • Friends mean “everything” to the middle adolescent. Picking good friends is important, and loss of friendships can cause serious depression. Strong emphasis on their peer group and the need for peer approval uses much of the teen’s energy. Middle adolescents often confide more in each other than in their parents.

Perhaps it is not so hard to see then why moving at all, let alone outside one’s familiar culture, could result in major issues for any adolescent. When one considers what happens in an international move—distancing from peer group, loss of identity and status, awkwardness and feeling strange in the new culture, lack of ability to communicate, and plenty of stress—it is easy to see that the adolescent is going to be at a great disadvantage compared both with his younger siblings who are content to be with parents, and with his parents who have already settled many of these identity issues.

Can it work to take teens overseas for the first time? One important factor seems to be just how different the new situation is from the old. If language is not a factor, if clothes and leisure activities are similar, if there is a subculture of comparable expatriate teens, if there is a community that upholds the values of the teen’s family, or if there is significant affirmation from outside the home, then perhaps the effect of the new culture will be somewhat lessened.

All of us who consult with cross-cultural families have seen success stories where teens have been able to handle the added stress and sort through what is important to establish a strong sense of identity. We have also seen teens struggle to gain their footing and work through identity issues without the guideposts of close friendships and language skills for intimate conversation. We have seen parents make the mistake of trying to provide a cocoon of protection for the teen within the family.

One cannot categorically state that every teen will suffer. We have only anecdotal evidence from teens and their parents about the benefits and challenges of moving overseas as an adolescent. We worry, though, that agencies and parents who ignore the developmental needs of teenagers, knowing that they are adding levels of stress and identity struggles into the hothouse of adolescence, will later have to deal with serious consequences. Is it worth it? Entering into the situation in ignorance is not advisable; everyone who feels called to cross-cultural ministry had better be certain of his or her calling and well-informed about the potential hazards.

©2012 Thrive.

Questions to Consider: Parents of teens, what say you on this subject? Agree? What has made the transition go well for your teenagers? What are things you’ve learned the hard way not to do?