Expat Child Syndrome (ECS)

This is an article published by XpatXperience.com. The entire article can be found here.
Expat Children Syndrome (ECS)

This item is particularly important if you have children around 10 to 15 years old.

To move overseas as a child is an experience he or she will never forget and, for the best part, will work in his or her advantage for the rest of his or her life. Growing up overseas gives a child an edge that no other child back home has: exposure, much stronger ability to relativate, knowledge of different cultures and, if you are from a non-english speaking country, a superior command of the English language over any other child back home.

There is, however, a hidden backlash. The effects can be found in many of the children who grew up overseas, worldwide. We don’t know if there is an official name for this, but we call it the Expat Child Syndrome (ECS)

Our view on ECS

We are not scientists, but we do have loads of experience with expatriate life and other expatriates. What we describe here is not proven, but reflects our personal beliefs. ECS comes in different forms and some children are affected by this more heavily than others, but some signs of ECS can be found in almost every child who grew up overseas at the age of (early) adolescence. During adolescence, all children undergo physical, psychological and emotional changes which have tremendous impact on them. This includes a series of very personal and embarrassing changes, such as the physical and emotional awareness of sexuality and development of group behaviour amongst peers. Children normally undergo these changes by comparing their own behaviour with that of their best friends. Friends (peers) probably play an even more important role in the forming of adulthood than parents do. However, kids do this only with friends they trust, friends they have had for a long time. When living overseas, friendships are usually short-term. You may have just moved here, or are about to move somewhere else, and if that’s not the case, then your child’s best friend will tell him/her tomorrow that he/she is going back to the USA. Either which way, friendships between expat children is often short-term and hence different from friendships between children who have lived in the same street all their lives. This has an impact on the child’s development, too. The hard thing is that the symptoms of this difference usually don’t unveil themselves until years later, when the child is around 18 years old and goes back home to start university or college.

When that happens, the child will suddenly be surrounded by peers who have know each other for years, who have not experienced the expat life, who cannot relate to what your child talks about and knows, or has seen. Furthermore, the other children have all gone through a normal adolescence with their friends, whereas your child has not. Your child will be different.

The vast majority of expat children from anywhere in the world have experienced this situation. This has resulted into many different manifestations of ECS, ranging from seclusion, (manic) depression, loneliness, fear for commitment towards a relationship, inability to ‘fit in’, heavy drinking or other addictions.

In most of these cases, the symptoms are temporary and will go away after a few years, but some expat children will continue experiencing problems in coping with social behaviour, be it with friends, in groups or with partners, in one way or another.


About tckindalife

A TCKid trying to make it through repatriation in Canada
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3 Responses to Expat Child Syndrome (ECS)

  1. Thomidog says:

    Hi, thankyou for posting this. I without a doubt have Expat Child Syndrome, and have had for the 34 years since I was brought back to Australia by my parents from England, where I’d established a close friend and a social life for the first time ever, given that we moved around so much during my early childhood. I didn’t cope at all well with the move. I’m now 48 and still dealing with that time in my life. Finding people who have any understanding of what it feels like to not have any country to which you truly belong is difficult.

    • BelgoUS says:

      It’s a huge relief to read the above, and to see Thomidog’s comment here — I’m 46 and only now beginning to come to an understanding of the impact of my family’s move from Belgium “back” to the U.S. (where I’d never lived before) when I was nine, with no family support and heading straight into a violent and difficult school situation. As Thomidog says above, I’m still dealing with that 37 years later, and unfortunately don’t see an end in sight — there was little to no understand of TCKs and ECS when I was a kid, even when I was a teenager or young adult, and in many ways the resulting depression and identity challenges now feel too deep-rooted to resolve.

      • tckindalife says:

        Thanks for commenting and glad that I can at least share some information with you to let you know that what you are experiencing is normal.

        If you would find it helpful, I would suggest looking into some Adult Third Culture Kid meetups in your area (lots of major cities all over the world have them).

        I haven’t posted on this site for years, but I’m glad that the info is still helpful.

        Good luck and know that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling!

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