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It's An Adjustment! Part One

A few Dutch expat friends of mine recently told me about “Sinterklass.” It’s a tradition for children where they write letters to Sinterklass to inform him they moved so that he can find them at their new home. Though Sinterklass sounds a bit similar to Santa Claus, I’m told Christmas is celebrated with food and family while Sinterklass rides a white horse and arrives by steamboat earlier that month. Children wait eagerly and sing songs for Sinterklass in anticipation of his arrival. Finally, on December 5th, Sinterklass brings gifts, like a poem and a variety of sweets!

What struck me the most, other than the joy of this magical children’s holiday and the delicious treats, is that embedded within this Dutch tradition is a way for children to cope with the stress of a move. There is recognition of family mobility and a way to help ease the stress of a transition for children through tradition and folklore.

Adjusting to a new house and a new environment is difficult. The Sinterklass tradition acknowledges this potential stress and builds a sense of culture and community regardless of where a family moves.

What is Adjustment?

“Adjustment” is a broad term used to describe the process of getting used to a new situation whether it be a new country, living arrangement, work environment, family transition, integration into a new school, a new routine, etc. In other words, it is used to describe a stressful transition we experience going from something “old” to something “new.” Adjustment is a process and is not linear.

In relation to expats, adjustment can be conceptualized in a number of ways, though it’s generally the degree of comfort, familiarity, and ease that the individual feels in the new environment (Gupta & Gupta, 2012). Acculturation and adaptation are also terms used frequently to describe this process (Erogul & Rahmen, 2017; Gupta 2012) as well as cross-cultural adjustment, (Caliguiri & Lazarova, 2001) which is the specific process that occurs when moving into a different cultural environment.

This time of year, the adjustment from summer holiday into a new school year or into the everyday work-routine can be a welcome relief. Everyone is likely settled, for the most part, into a new routine by November, but it’s possible that the emotional adjustment may be more of an issue now that all the day-to-day needs have been worked out. It can dawn on you that the last few months have been full of new experiences, excitement, and some degree of stress. So now you may be asking yourself, “What just happened? How did I manage that?” or even “What do I do now?”

Adjusting from Summer Holidays to the School Routine

For expat families with children in school, summer break may be a time of ease: no early mornings, homework to keep up with, school activities, class birthday parties, parent meetings, social drama, etc. It can be a welcome break from the daily grind. Summer is also a great time to visit home, get children re-acquainted with their home country, and receive love and support from family and old friends. It can recharge emotional batteries and provide a sense of calm and comfort. Summer also brings the promise of new adventure with many expat families relocating to new posts around the world.

However, the experienced expat will tell you that there is inherent transitional stress in the travelling process. There are countless hours spent on planes, trains, and in cars. There can also be some stress and family drama as expats work to see everyone they can in a short period of time. My friend Janet once described summers with children as a love/hate relationship between enjoying precious moments of time off and the underlying stress of the holiday experience. She said, “We don’t go on vacations… we go on trips.”

Getting Settled

As an expat, we may experience a wide-range of emotions jumping back from summer holiday into the fall and winter. It’s a process of ups and downs and trials and errors in order to find our way to stability and routine. As with every year abroad, there can be some adjustment to the loss of friends who have moved away and some hesitancy in making new ones. Or, maybe you have been in your country more than one or two years already, so everything is familiar and stable without much effort. Expats who have spent a longer time in one country may encounter an identity shift as they become more bonded to their host country.

For those expats who have moved to a new country, there are a lot of questions and unknowns. There is great anticipation regarding where the family will live, what the community will be like, what basic transportation is accessible, which foods are available, whether the schools will be good, and whether there will be a positive social network. We also tend to worry greatly about how our children will cope in their new environment.

What Emotions to Expect in the Adjustment Process

It is normal to experience a wide array of emotions as we go through transition and experience change. Sometimes people assume that if they experience distress, something must be ‘wrong.’ In fact, that can’t be further from the truth. Distress and uneasiness is normal given a huge change like moving.

What feelings can we expect as we go through the process of adjustment?

  • Distress

  • Anxiety

  • Frustration

  • Confusion

  • Excitement

  • Wonder

  • Curiosity

  • Annoyance

  • Isolation

  • Loneliness

  • Helplessness

  • Anger

Notice the mix of positive and negative emotions in the above list. It is normal to have many emotions that change over time as you do. So, if you have some or all of them, give yourself some time to work through the process.

What Impacts Expat Adjustment?

When moving to a new country, there are many facets of the expat adjustment process that will determine how we settle-in. Gupta & Gupta (2012) name 4 key dimensions of Expat Adjustment including: Work Adjustment, Career Enhancement, Family Adjustment and General Adjustment. All of these dimensions work in concert to drive positive adjustment to a new environment. No wonder we may experience excitement and exhaustion at the same time.

There are a few specific things that may inhibit our ability to adjust well to a new environment. However, these can be managed and overcome. Factors that may hinder positive expat adjustment include:

  • Greater cultural differences between home and host countries

  • Personal characteristics such as introversion, decreased ability to tolerate stress, negative perception of the transition

  • Homesickness

  • Problems with housing

  • Problems with healthcare

  • Relationship difficulties with spouse and/or family

  • Over-looking needs of the family and spouse

  • Inability of spouse to adjust

Fortunately, there are many things that can help a person adjust well. These may sound basic, but sometimes we may need to actively initiate these things that can help.

Factors that help foster positive expat adjustment include:

  • Relocation support (housing, schooling for children, etc)

  • Social support (family, friends in host country and at home)

  • Availability and opportunity for interaction with others (Gupta & Gupta, 2012)

  • Informational support (general information regarding day-to-day living, security, transport, food, entertainment, etc)

  • Supportive work environment where the expat receives job and role clarity, mentorship, language training, general assistance to integrate, understanding of family needs, etc.

  • Support for spouses’ career needs and goals

  • Support and assistance to attend to family circumstances (children with disabilities, etc)

  • A sense of belonging to increase self esteem and reduce anxiety

How to Help Yourself in this Adjustment Process

First of all, remember that the stress of adjustment is normal. You are not alone in this experience, nor are you going crazy. Whether you are preparing for a big move to another country, an expat family trying to help children transition between seasons, or a long-term expat who has spent years in your host country, there are tangible things you can do to help ease the stress of the adjustment process.

  • Increase your social support! (attend social activities with both home and host country contacts; join a local club or social group, get involved in your child’s school)

  • Increase cross-cultural training and understanding of your host culture (attend trainings, brown-bag lunches, talk to your neighbor or locals at work or your child’s school, etc)

  • Increase your participation in your home country celebrations locally

  • Challenge yourself to try new things, no matter how little that may be (a new food, a fitness class in a foreign language, coffee with a new acquaintance)

  • Set-up regular communication with family and friends at home (regular face-time calls, create a WhatsApp group with old college friends)

  • Reach out for help when things get stressful (take a day off work to relax, ask for assistance from spouse/partner, talk to a trusted friend)

Some Final Thoughts for Brave Expats

Life as an expat is exciting and a great adventure! The experiences we have in other countries is life-changing and fulfilling. It is a unique life and full of opportunity. Most of all, it is a journey like no other guaranteed to have highs and lows. Enjoy your time abroad and know that adjusting to life overseas can be powerful as you learn more about yourself and your new world around you.

Next month, we will discuss more on cross-cultural adjustment, and how this can change your experiences overseas. So stay tuned for more information on what happens when we move to and live in very different places from home. Happy Thanksgiving, and take care!


Dr. Sanness

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