What Your Child Wants You to Know About Reverse Culture Shock

by Mariel Tavakoli

As your child prepared to go abroad, you may have heard the phrase “culture shock,” a common concern of travelers as they immerse and adapt to a new lifestyle in a foreign culture. But what about when your child comes back home? This transition from a foreign to familiar culture is called “reverse culture shock” or “re-entry,” and it may surprisingly present more of a challenge.

Person looking up at the Statue of Liberty
At first, familiar foods, sights, friends, and family will be exciting, but the process of reacclimating to life at home has its ups and downs.

Whether your child was abroad for a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, they will likely experience some form of reverse culture shock upon their return home. Regardless if it’s outwardly visible or not, your child will be attempting to reconcile the ways they have changed with the home they expected to have stayed the same. They may not know quite how to articulate it yet, but here are some likely things your child wishes you knew about reverse culture shock:

Readjustment will take time.

Although you may have been impatient to be reunited with your child, the process for them to reorient back to hometown life is just that, a process. At first, they may be excited for familiar foods, sights, friends, and family, and it will appear that their time abroad has been forgotten. Other times, returned travelers may exhibit extreme emotions of sadness or nostalgia.

The U.S. State Department cites John and Jeanne Gullahorn’s phases of reverse culture shock that resemble a “W-curve,” with extreme highs and even more extreme lows being initial phases of the return. In whatever form, your child must arrive at a balance of recognizing that their abroad experience has happened and determining how it now fits into their life back at home. There is no list of generic steps or a program to follow. Rather, every child will need to navigate this path on their own.

What they will appreciate is that you are patient and give them time to readjust at their own pace.

They’re scared.

Going overseas can be a gamechanger. Think of the learning curve of their freshmen year at college PLUS being a toddler and discovering how the world works. That’s a lot of new knowledge and self-reflection to handle. Your child may return home exhausted, but once that fades there is a lot they may fear, from the surface to the core. What will their friends at home think of the new person they’ve become? Will that person disappear now that they’re home? Will their past relationships change? Will their classes and major now seem useless? Was this experience even real?

Girl looking out at a field and lake
Getting back into the swing of things takes time.

Returning home from such a life-changing experience overseas is scary, because it can be a wake-up call to the grand uncertainty of life. For perhaps the first time, your child has been awakened to a whole world of possibilities. How they handle this uncertainty will start with you. When your child arrives home, begin with setting an open tone for discussion. Their time abroad should not be a closed chapter of their life. Rather, talk with your child about how their overseas experience can be applied to their lives at home and in the future. 

They view the world differently.

Being abroad means exposure to new points of view from different countries, different cultures, different academic theories, and different parts of their home country. Whatever type of program or experience your child was a part of, they have intimately learned the ways of a new culture through classes, activities and just partaking in daily life. They likely also were involved in many candid conversations about the world that may have questioned their values or turned their perspective upside down.

As a result, according to Forbes, “Looking outward makes [them] realize that there is a world outside [the USA] which has a lot to offer in the ways of opportunities and culture.” Listen as they express their newly developed views and opinions. Yes, they are still your child, but they have gained a unique insight as a #globalcitizen that is valuable as they continue their lives at home or abroad.

They view themselves differently.

Your child will be dealing with a lot of emotions upon their return and a lot of this will have to do with a change in how they see themselves. As they return, your child will not only be navigating the transition of moving between locations and cultures, they are also likely to be managing to reconcile two senses of identity. At home, the relationship between you and your child has defined them over the course of their entire lives. Overseas, your child had an opportunity for growth that is entirely independent and defined by their personal experience in their foreign destination.

With reverse culture shock, your child will be recognizing how they may have changed while abroad and how to integrate those newly realized aspects of their identity into their lives back at home. These changes may be visible to you, or they may be subtle.

Give your child the space to continue their personal growth as they apply the lessons learned about themselves abroad to their lives at home.
People deplaning in a terminal
They won’t quite know what to expect coming home, and it might scare them a little. 

They may not want things to go back to “normal.”

Reverse culture shock is inevitable and ultimately a natural byproduct of the life that your child built abroad. While it may have existed miles away, in a different environment and possibly in a different language, that life is just as real to your child as the one you have continued to lead in their absence at home. Whether it comes to who they are, their interests or their routines, or a desire to break old habits and cultivate new ones, your child will be looking ways to connect the “normal” they remember to their “new normal.” 

Coming home may be comforting, but that does not guarantee that they want things to go back to the way they were pre-departure. Create space for your child to try out different aspects of their international experience at home. Give them the floor to confidently share a lesson learned in class or the kitchen to cook their favorite recipe from overseas. While your child may insist on eating with only chopsticks for a few days, they will slowly settle into a normal that blends both the old and new.

They don’t mean to be jerks.

Watching your child struggle to eat french fries with chopsticks may prompt you to roll your eyes. You may get frustrated when they constantly slip in words in a different language or “forget” an English word. That or the 100th story that begins with, “When I was in Barcelona…” or when they are quick to speak disparagingly about their (your shared) hometown, home country, or home culture.

Try to remember that your child is not trying to be pretentious. They’re not trying to belittle your normal. They’re not trying to rub their adventures overseas in anyone’s face. What you see as unpleasant behavior may be their way of keeping the memories and language skills they developed while abroad alive. While you may be excited to tell them about all the things they missed while away, remember that the same timeframe of months and holidays corresponds to their life in their overseas destination.

The experiences they will want to share with you are evidence of their transformation from a tourist to a traveler and from a child to an adult. Be proud that your child was learning while overseas, whether in class, with a language or in their cultural observations, but teach them to be tactful (if necessary) when it comes to this interesting overlap of new realizations in old places.

Group of teenagers standing together talking
They’ve changed. A lot. Remember that change and growth is a good thing.

They need your help.

Any returning traveler has nightmares in dread of the following question: “Wow you were overseas, so how was it?” While this question is scary personally, it is even scarier when in a professional or formal setting.

An experience overseas can translate into a lot of skills that will standout on your child’s resume or in an interview. However, according to Lisette Miranda, CEO of PINC International, which provides immersion and professional development programs for young women abroad.

It takes time and practice to articulate the newly developed hard and soft skills learned. Our programs dedicate time at the end to work on how to talk to future employers, professors, family and friends in a way that highlights and showcases how their time abroad has made them a more well-rounded individual.

As a parent, don’t throw your child to the wolves by putting them on the spot about their time overseas. Instead, work with them when they return to continue to reflect and parse out an “elevator speech” over time that encapsulates their overseas experience in a short blurb. 

From the moment your child steps off their plane and into your arms, you will become an intimate part of your child’s experience with reverse culture shock. As their parent, the best thing you can do is be aware and communicate with your child about their unique reactions to re-entry. Sometimes they will want to shower you with stories and pictures, but other times, they may prefer to be alone or to call on a friend from overseas.

No matter your child’s behavior, they will appreciate your respect and that you value their time overseas as a new component of the person they will grow to become as a result of this experience.