How to Help Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad

Expat LivingTravel Tips

In the expat world, summertime is moving season, and we’re excited to greet lots of new students to our international school in a few weeks. Moving to a new country is difficult at any age, but it can be particularly challenging with kids, especially tweens and teens. While learning to balance a new life, routine, culture, and language. they’re also dealing with all the hormonal junk that comes with adolescence. It’s good times.

If you’re moving soon or recently arrived abroad with teens, we just moved to Germany a year ago with my own teens so it’s still fresh in my mind. Here are tips to helping your teenagers adjust to a new country.

Connect Ahead of Time with Other Teenagers in Your New Country

Help Your Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad | Connect with New Location

Gone are the day of true “pen pals,” but it’s worth trying to forge something similar by today’s standards. Reach out to the new school, your company’s relocation organization, or consulate/embassy to get the name, WhatsApp contact number, or email for someone close in age who can help get your teenager excited.

My kids emailed with the consulate Community Liaison Officer’s kids for a few months before relocating to Germany. They asked all the important questions about snow days, homework, computers, extra-curricular activities, teachers, and clothes. That connection with someone else on the other side really made them feel a little easier about starting a new school.

Contact the New School to Get the Full Academic and Extracurricular Picture

Help Your Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad | Connect with School

Most international schools are accustomed to a transient community. So don’t be afraid to ask all the questions which help teens (and you) feel comfortable. Make sure your teenagers have a good understanding of what they are headed into from an academic perspective. Sometimes credits can be lost or courses won’t transfer perfectly. If he or she is going from AP to IB, there’s a few things to sort out and understand. If the school is teaching at a different level, getting a tutor lined up ahead of time may help.  

Perhaps the new school doesn’t have a Lacrosse team, but instead has rugby. Get a good picture of what the situation is at school before you get there. Tryouts for a local team may be required if the school doesn’t offer a sport activity.

Print and Frame Pictures of Friends from Home

Before we left Washington D.C., my friend threw our family a going away party. As part of the decorations and a parting gift, she kindly printed and framed a dozen or so pictures of my kids with their friends in light-weight plastic frames, suitable for packing into our suitcases. When we arrived in Germany with only two suitcases each, the first thing we hung in our new home were all the little frames. It’s nice to see happy smiling faces of people you know and love on your walls when nothing else seems familiar.

Manage Expectations for Communicating with Friends

The sad and very real truth is once teens (adults, too) move away, your real friends become obvious and some friendships don’t withstand the ocean between. While social media, Skype, WhatApp, Google Chat, provide tools to stay connected, it’s you and your friends who have to make the effort. It’s unfortunate friends don’t stay in touch as much as you might think.

Time differences and a new routine can strain friendships. Social media can actually even create a bigger divide since teens away can see the “fun” others are having without them.

  • Help teenagers connect with friends back home in the beginning by hanging around on a Sunday evening so they can call friends or allow them the same apps as friends so they can easily connect.
  • Send small (and light weight) gifts from the new country helps them feel connected, too.
  • Mark important friend birthdays and send cards or small packages.

Facilitate the Making of New Friends in the New Country

Help Your Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad | Make Friends

This is one is critical.

Making friends is hard! As expats, I think we can sympathize. Not only are the kids making new friends, we are too. Encourage everyone in the house, not just the kids, to try new things. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but take every opportunity to meet new people. While baseball may have been your son’s “thing” in his last school, encourage the opportunity for new activities, too. Be a joiner until finding your squad, which may mean attending events or meetings that otherwise wouldn’t be of interest at home.  

Provide the opportunity to invite new friends over. Offer to drive/pick up to encourage time together. We hosted a party in October for all the new friends the kids made in the first few months of school. This gave us a chance to meet parents and make some potential new friends, too.

Invite Teens to Plan Trips and Vacations

Getting kids involved during a move is important so they feel they have some control over the new situation. Once arriving in your new country, have teens find places to visit or restaurants to eat at. It’s not guaranteed these places will be “touristy” sights or museums that top TripAdvisor. More than likely it will include places like bowling alleys, escape rooms, ropes courses, laser tag, beaches, or trampoline centers. That’s OK! It’s likely the time abroad will be filled with plenty of museums, castles, churches, and historical sights.

Depending on the location, moving to a new country might mean the perfect set up for vacations during school breaks. Fortunately, the international school systems loves its breaks, which affords us the time to go more places. Living in central Europe also means we can get almost anywhere very easily. Our kids were given the chance to make their “must-see list” for our few years here. They were very excited to help plan the first few trips to Berlin, Vienna, and Barcelona.

Teach Teenagers How to Get Around with Public Transportation

Adjusting to New Country | Public Transportation

Being independent is important for teenagers. Moving from the US to Europe might mean new drivers no longer can get behind the wheel. (Driving age in Europe is 18). But in most places, there are other alternatives. One of the first projects when arriving in a new country is wrapping your head around the transportation options. If bus, trains, or subways will provide your kids with extra independence to meet up with friends, head to soccer practice, or stay late at school, go with them and practice. Getting our kids passes and the local transportation app on their phones means they can come and go faster and easier.

Learn the Money Basics: Coins, Notes, Credit Card

Help Your Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad | Learn Money

New coins, currency conversion, or payment methods can add stress to the mix for teenagers. Once I can easily identify money, especially all the new coins, and understand the local transaction culture, I feel a bit more relaxed.

Do a run through at a variety of shops and restaurants with teens by paying with cash and card, including adding a tip. The tip part can be complicated as many countries have different rules. In Germany, you have to tell the waiter to add the tip when he/she runs the total. We learned in Croatia no tip can be added to the bill at all. You have to pay cash. Which means, you need cash with you. In the German grocery stores, they expect you to tell them ahead of time if paying by card, and then wait for the cashier to activate the card reader.

All simple things once it’s done a couple of times.

Learn Some Basic Words and Phrases in the Local Language

Help Your Teenagers Adjust to Life Abroad | Learn Language

It’s true most places speak English, but it’s helpful to know a few words and phrases. Duolingo is a great place to start learning vocabulary, even before landing in the new country. Basic phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” “I’m sorry,” and “goodbye” will help teenagers feel like they can connect a little more with people. After Duolingo, make sure Google Translate is ready to go on all the phones. There are a million apps out there that will translate for you, but I still go right to this one. It’s super easy, quick, and does the job.

Depending on the country, many times, signs won’t be in English. Together, try to learn a few important words that may help decipher some of the sign. When in doubt, use Google Translate. In a country where the letters are foreign, scan signs with apps such as WayGo or Papgo to get a quick translation.

In the end, help your kids as much as possible, but in order to really adjust, you need to push them out into the great unknown, according to my oldest teenager. He said, specifically, “It’s great for you to show me the coins and the train, but I needed to go out, make purchases, and figure it out on my own to feel completely comfortable and independent.”


Main photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

Email photo by Web Hosting on Unsplash

Money photo by Keegan Houser on Unsplash

Friend photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Street photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

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