By Joshua H. Wood
One of the more important factors taken into consideration when a person enters expat training or expat counseling is the stage of life of the person. If it is a family, it is important to have an awareness of where each family member is from a human development perspective.
What does this mean? Well, there are several major psychological theorists that have a lot to say on the matter, but one of the most accessible for many of my clients has always been Erik Erikson.
Erikson described what he called "Psychosocial Stages," and in each stage there is a key "task" or "crisis" that individuals must satisfy that helps develop a balance between ourselves and our social environment. As expats are immersed in cultures other their own, this can be quite confusing if they are not able to successfully adjust to their host culture. If an individual is unable to satisfy a task in one stage, this likely will make it more difficult to satisfy those in the next stage and those that follow.
Here is how Erikson described the Psychosocial Stages, and how they might apply to expats:
Infancy (birth through Year One): Trust vs. Mistrust - Infants develop a sense of trust through the care they receive from their primary caregiver(s). If key needs are not met (being fed regularly, receiving proper care and affection), their will likely be tumult in interpersonal relationships.
For Expat parents: Those who go abroad with infants need to be keenly aware of the impact that their move abroad has on their child. The maintenance of regular care should be paramount. Importantly, remember that the relationship between the parents needs attention to help foster an environment in which AT LEAST one parent is highly responsive to the infant.
Early Childhood (Roughly Ages 1-3): Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt - Children need to learn how to be autonomous individuals that are not overly reliant on parents. This, of course, is meant in an age appropriate way. Natural curiosity and experimentation should be encouraged. If a parent squelches these traits in their child, self-doubt and a sense of shame can hamper social development.
For Expat Parents: As much as possible given the restraints of your situation, allow your children to be curious and explore their new environments. In many ways, you may be providing your child with the ability to develop some great skills via the variety of experiences they will encounter after moving overseas. However, be sure to provide proper encouragement and guidance. Your job is to ensure they experience success in their explorations!
Pre-School Kids: (Roughly Ages 4-6): Initiative vs. Guilt - Children need to connect with activities they find engaging and be allowed to pursue them. This fosters initiative, competency and self-efficacy (a sense that one can do things). If one does not successfully complete this psychosocial task, these activities will create a sense of guilt or a lack of purpose over not being able to plan and engage in activities in their environments, according to Erikson.
For Expat Parents: You want your child to have the sense that they are able to accomplish things. Help them find activities suited to their interests and aptitudes, but allow them to do as much as possible on their own, in their own time. If they find something new and you are tempted to say "no," ask yourself "why am I saying 'no'?" If there's really no reason, let them have at it!
School Age Kids: (Roughly Ages 6-Puberty) Industry vs. Inferiority - Building upon their ability to be purposeful and accomplish things, the child now needs to expand their skill set and develop competency in a range of activities, particularly those required in the school setting. Children compare themselves to other students and is one key determinant as to whether or not the child will feel "inferior."
For Expat Parents: This age group is far more perceptive than they are ever given credit for. As these kids attempt to develop new skills, it is critical that they perceive their progress as positive, especially in relation to peers.
Adolescents: (Teens-early twenties) Identity vs. Role Confusion - Teens have a need to identify who they are and what they want to do with their life. Too much interference from parents may lead teens to continue to question who they are beyond an age that is appropriate. The teen also needs to identify their own values, goals and what will bring meaning to their life.
For Expats: For expats with a well-developed sense of identity, they may find that the expatriate experience is a logical extension of who they are and what they want to accomplish. Those that don't, may either find that the expat experience defines them, or perhaps more probably, that they made the wrong choice and will waffle as to whether or not they should ever have moved abroad.
For Expat Teens/Parents: As everyone knows, this can be a very rocky time for parents and teens, alike. This is a critical time for children to explore their identity and test boundaries. Parents would do well to let adolescents learn from the consequences of their own behaviors. As expats, the cultural and legal ramifications are important to understand in order to avoid unpleasant situations. Ideally, different roles should be experienced, and the teen can then integrate the aspects of each role into their own identity.
Young Adults: Intimacy vs. Isolation -
Now beyond the scope of parenting, young adults must find a way to form intimate relationships. While this obviously is about whether or not to have a spouse and manage that relationship well, it is also in relation to friendships. If one has not satisfactorily resolved the issue of their identity in Stage 5, this will be far more difficult - both for the self and those with whom the individual tries to form intimate relationships.
Regardless of the type of relocation, one of the most important aspects to a successful transition is establishing meaningful relationships. Often, expats will say that just one significant "connection" was all it took to get comfortably settled. It's an important stage for those who move abroad as young adults, because this is when many decide to get married. While it can also be true at home, expats will be exposed to many potential mates of another culture. Intercultural marriages can be an enriching experience, but such relationships also present unique challenges. For expats that move frequently, remember that intimate relationships are an important foundation - or stumbling block - for the next stage. If one is focused on a lack of a significant relationships in their life, or have difficult relationships, it's hard to stay focused on the creation of something meaningful in Stage 7. It's easy to feel isolated as an expat, so don't marginalize the importance of getting settled!
Middle Agers (Mid 30s-Early 60s): Generativity vs. Stagnation - Adults in the heart of their lives need to be productive and have a sense that they are able to create something of value in their lives.
For Expats: What do you hope to accomplish as an expat? How is it going to impact your long-term goals? Do you have long-term goals? When one elects to move abroad, a lot of soul searching is likely to take place. Take advantage of that by giving some real thought to where you've been, where you are, and where you hope to get to in terms of accomplishments.
Retirees: Integrity vs. Despair - Does the individual have the sense that they have more to celebrate than regret in terms of what happened over the course of the lifespan up to this point.
For Expats: Retirees, like all other expats, who choose to move abroad are likely to be exposed to new experiences that will be transformative. We've all heard the expression that it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but retirees that move overseas will have little choice. For those that look back on their life with integrity or a sense that their life was meaningful and created something of value, international living can build upon this sentiment and enhance this sense of enrichment.
Remember, just evaluate where you and/or your family members are and keep in mind that these are stages. If you're in the middle of one, don't expect to have completely accomplished the key task. For instance, if you have 16-year-old son that has no idea "who he is," that's normal. What is important is that he has a healthy perspective about it and wants to ACTIVELY work on figuring out "who he is" between now and the time he hits his early 20s.