There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice and it fosters humor. – George Santayana ‘The Philosophy of Travel’


Culture shock

The term culture shock most commonly associated with difficulties adjusting to a foreign environment.


Or in words of Joseph Shaules – the acclaimed interculturalist –these are the small differences we notice abroad are a sign that our mind is hard at work detecting, interpreting and judging our surroundings. These experiences can have powerful effects, which is one reason moving abroad can be stimulating, stressful and transformative.


Showing up in:

  • Climate
  • Food
  • Language
  • Dress
  • Values
  • Etiquette and behavior


Culture shock for children

Culture shock for children



Stages you go through & your children not quite alike:


I  Parents Preliminary stage: Learning about the host culture, preparing the move, sorting out stuff, organizing fare-well party and actually moving.

Tip at this stage: Your children look backwards while you look forwards

And it’s the big difference between parents and children.

As an adult with some life experience and a global vision, you already know the long term benefits your children will get by moving abroad.

  • Your kids will know how to speak English / another language
  • Your children will be comfortable to travel (take the plane, manage the jetlag)
  • Your children will know how to interact with other cultures in other systems (through schools)

Even if this means sacrificing current gratifications: a good circle of friends, a familiar school, a comfortable routine.

Your children on the other hand can’t tell you what they feel:

  • Because they don’t want to spoil your enthusiasm
  • Because (let’s face it) they know you won’t change your mind anyway
  • Because they don’t know how to express it
  • Because when they open the mouth, they get the dreaded but classical answer:

“You’re taking the plane in business class, you’re visiting places I’d never thought of when I was your age. You’ll speak another language. Think of other children. In many countries, they don’t even have drinking water!


II  Parents Initial Stage of euphoria / ‘culture surprise’: feels like a never ending holiday, some interculturalist call this stage ‘the honeymoon stage’ full of new sensations, exiting local discoveries, everything at biking distance, highly efficient public transportation system, unfamiliar delicious food and lots of new places to be explored. It can be viewed as a cognitive adjustment to a foreign environment: culture surprise.

Tip at this stage: Children don’t start in the new country in the honeymoon stage. They’re in crisis mode! And this is why:

Children don’t like change. And to a certain extent, nobody does.

Even if it’s good for you in the long run.
Because change means getting out of your comfort zone.


Change is scary. Change means facing the unexpected.


“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” as the popular saying goes.


And what’s the reward? the incentive? the purpose to change?
Why would you leave your friends? Those you belong to. Those you get your identity from.






III  Parents Irritability / ‘culture bumps’ : Then one fine day, you find yourself in a catch22 situation where you can’t get a subcription for your smartphone, because you haven’t managed to get a bankaccount yet. Which is quite a frustrating process because the bankemployee requires you to show your credit history; reason for not having a credit history is because you don’t have any history at all-in this country, you just arrived here.

Labels on products your purchasing at the grocery store, which you can’t read. Just guessing what is in the package you just bought.

Not knowing which bus takes you to the nearest train station, where you are trying to find this specific servicedesk allowing you to use cash to purchase a trainticket – remember you are still not owning a bankcard yet. What’s left of enjoying this highly efficient public transportation system, when going places becomes such a project instead of easy piecy lemon squeezy ….

Tip at this stage: Try to think like a child

Often one of the main problems, especially with very young children, is the difficulty they have comprehending distance and time. They may believe their old friends from their previous home can just pop over for a visit; they may not understand that they aren’t on holiday and that this is their new home now. All you can do is be honest, talk it through, and use plenty of distractions to encourage positivity towards the new home.


IV  Adults Gradual Adjustment : The culture surprise experience contains frayed threads that may start to unravel. The difference that stimulates us at the beginning of the move can start to wear us down.

Currently for a number of my clients passing their drivers licence and being able to ride their bikes here in the Netherlands really is a huge victory. If anyone, two years ago, would have told them about this sense of victory, they problably would have rolled their eyes. The thing is, for all my clients, this victory has an underlying value to it: regaining a sense of freedom and independence in their new situation. With this a sense of control.

Tip at this stage: How to help your children when you arrive


Move forward! The worst thing that you can do for culture shock is to stand still and mourn over the loss of the previous place. The sooner you get out of the house and start exploring, the faster things will start to become familiar. If you have prepared properly, you should have a good idea of where to go to find things. Work through your list and make sure to blend some everyday activities into your exploration. You will be surprised at just how quickly you adapt to the new environment.

It is important to note that moving forward does not mean that you need to ignore any feelings of sadness over the move or trip away. Take advantage of quiet times (bedtime or meals) to ask your child how they are feeling. Are they sad? Do they miss the old house? Tell them that it is okay with be a bit sad and that you also miss your old home. Let them know that their feelings are normal and okay. Then close out the conversation with a discussion of the new things that they have discovered that day. It might be something small like a new park or food or something big like a new friend. Just make sure to end the conversation on a happy note.

Culture shock can be challenging for both parent and child. Study up in advance, do your best to find a new community and keep an open mind about the new place. Before you know it, it will feel like home.


Culture stress is what we feel when our cognitive processes start to get overwhelmed by culture surprise.

  So try to find activities, which you know you like and which give you energy, lift you up and are befinicial to creating and shaping your new life.

This can be:

  • joining a writers club
  • finding hicking buddies
  • signing up for art or work out classes
  • going to study
  • visiting museums or music events

V   Adaptation : By now you have learned how to remain functioning well in your new culture and perhaps even feel a little bit part of it. Embrace its differences and accept what it has to offer. This phase is marked by low anxiety and the increased ability of to interact successfully with members of the host culture and build social relationships. This phase also brings a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and personal growth for having overcome culture shock.


VI   Re-entry phase : Reverse culture shock follows the same phases as cultural shock and similar symptoms.

Now this is why Culture shock actually is good for us:

It keeps the mind nimble and fosters humor

Please bear the above in mind and I’m wishing you and your family a smooth transition to a new destination!