When my husband and I moved from Manhattan to Paris in 2012, we didn’t anticipate much in the way of culture shock. We were moving from one big, international city to another. No big deal, right?
Culture shock hit us hard. My husband struggled to navigate the intricacies of his workplace in a second language.
As for me, not only did I have to adjust to a new country, I suddenly was a stay-at-home wife with no friends. I spent the days à la Carrie Bradshaw, wandering the streets and looking longingly into cafes full of people gabbing over coffee. Trips to the supermarket turned into cross-cultural minefields, once bringing me to tears as the cashier upbraided me for not having weighed my vegetables.
We adjusted. Slowly. We had a baby and enthusiastically entered him into the French childcare system. We had a mixture of expat and French friends. Eventually, we became a little bit more French than American.
Six years later, it was time to move back home. We had outstayed our welcome in France, at least according to the labyrinth-like France-US tax treaties, and it was time to cut and run.
But hey! We’re going back home to New York City! That can’t be so different, right!? NBD!
The first few weeks were easy: We caught up with old friends and rejoiced in the hyper-convenience of living in America. (Target! 24-hour drug stores! Grocery delivery!) We ate our way through the city and reveled in being able to understand everything around us.
Even though he had two American parents, he was essentially a French kid.
But our 3-year-old son was struggling. While we were reacclimating to a familiar culture, he was experiencing straight-up culture shock. Even though he had two American parents, he was essentially a French kid.
His formative years were spent happily immersed in a loving creche and his French vocabulary was stronger than his English. He was in love with Trotro but had never heard of Doc McStuffins. But he looked and sounded American, so this huge cultural difference wasn’t apparent to anyone, including his well-intentioned parents.
Culture shock is characterized by disorientation and disconnect, anxiety and frustration. For adults who can rationalize what’s going on, it’s awful. If you’ve ever been through it, then you know.
Now imagine what it feels like to a tiny person who has been uprooted from a safe, secure place filled with loving friends and caretakers—only to be deposited into a scary new place where even the fire engines and police cars make different sounds.
As I think back to the first few months of my son’s life here, I cringe at how confused he must have felt. Navigating preschool on a daily basis must have been so difficult for him: The sheer quantity of little things that he just didn’t know (like how to sit cross-legged at circle time) must have been staggering.
I imagine he felt like he was constantly in the wrong for not following rules he didn’t know existed in the first place. To top it all off, half of his vocabulary had effectively been taken away from him during school hours.
And just like the day at the grocery store where I broke down in tears at the cash register, one day my son’s feelings came to the surface. He started to act out at school, to the point that we worried he’d be kicked out.
At home, he refused to speak French and got agitated if I took him to French-language playgroups. Our sweet, fun-loving boy had been transformed into a bundle of rage, ready to ignite at the slightest aggravation. My husband and I panicked: We had broken our son.
Our first reaction was to call the director of our son’s French creche: Had he been acting like this all along and no one told us!? She assured us that this was all completely out of character, which meant that it was a reaction to the move and therefore would pass.
She also gently reminded us that this was a massive—and likely painful–transition for him. Somehow this fact had escaped my attention, and I felt like an utter failure as a mom.
Around the same time, we started to work with a wonderful child psychologist who helped us find tools to help our son through the adjustment period. For example, when he was upset, our go-to phrase had been, “Use your words.”
Turns out, to a bilingual kid who has just lost the ability to use half his vocabulary, that’s supremely unhelpful. (Damn you, Daniel Tiger!) Instead we began to narrate his feelings for him, “I bet you’re feeling really mad right now because it’s time to turn off the TV.” It’s the little things.
Five months in and it’s still an adjustment period, both for him and for us as parents. But we’re getting there.
My takeaway from this nightmare period is this: Kids are adaptable, they absolutely are. They’re sponges and soak up everything around them.
But if you’re facing a similar move, don’t make our mistake and cavalierly think that everything will fall into place by itself. It might, it might not.
Our adaptable kids need our help, especially when they’re navigating a culture that’s ours—not theirs.
Here are some tips that worked wonders for us, which I wish I had known from the get-go:
- Narrate feelings instead of asking about them. Definitive statements like “I bet you’re SUPER frustrated right now!” or “I bet you’re sad that you can’t play with your friend” are especially helpful for bilingual kids because you’re also providing them with nuanced vocabulary.
- According to our psychologist, it’s normal if a child “rejects” elements of his former home, as it may be too painful or is perceived as a hindrance to integrating to the new home. For us, it was the French language. My son refuses to speak a word of it and recently told us it makes him sad when he hears it. For other children, it might be certain foods, routines, or even FaceTiming particular friends. If you see this, know that it’s normal and don’t force these elements on your child if she’s resisting.
- Don’t hesitate to share your mixed feelings about the move. Lets him know that it’s okay if he also misses things about his former home. Use phrases like, “I really love living in our new city but I also really miss seeing my best friend every day.”
- Be cautious about introducing a new, third language right off the bat. Many of the preschools we looked at featured Mandarin- or Spanish-language portions of the day. While this is awesome for kids growing up in a monolingual environment, it can be a linguistic minefield for kids who aren’t even used to English being the dominant language. In the end, we found a preschool that just had an hour of basic Spanish in the afternoon. Our son reacted horribly to it (this is when a lot of the tantrums occurred) so we finally asked the teachers to let him sit out until he requested to participate.
- Lay the groundwork and set expectations at the new school. If, like us, you have a child who is outwardly American but culturally not, set that expectation with your child’s educators. In hindsight, we should have requested an in-depth meeting with my son’s teachers, both to understand their expectations for him and to explain what a difficult transition this would likely be.