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Teen Transition- Learning from Research

“I would say to my parents, thank you for dragging me along, even though I hated moving at first. But I know from experience that it’s only the first month or two that’s really difficult and once I get used to the place, it really becomes my home.”

According to a recent YouthCompass survey, most TCK teens valued their international experiences, but struggled with the pain and loss that transition brings. This research highlighted the importance of not confusing the challenges of transition with an overall distaste for international childhood experiences. When asked to take a step back and consider overall how they would rate their experience growing up internationally, the average score was 8.8 on a 10 point scale and over 90% of teens gave the experience at least an 8. This is an overwhelmingly positive response, clearly indicating that this generation of TCKs offer an optimistic outlook and are generally far more appreciative of their experiences, when compared with responses of older participants of this study and other research reflecting on how their childhood shaped their adulthood.

However, when asked about a specific transition, in this case their move to/within Europe during their teen years, we see a different picture. 60% of the same respondents gave the transition a score of 8 or lower and the average score was 7.6. Unlike in the case of growing up internationally, which had very few outliers and was highly concentrated at scores of 8, 9, and 10, these responses were far more spread out. The same percentage gave their transition to Europe a 5 as gave it a 9, showing a far greater number of teens and young adults preferring the overall international experience to the move itself, which will not come as a surprise to most of those that have experienced frequent transition. These findings, along with considerable qualitative data from the survey, show that even those individuals that strongly prefer being a member of the international community experienced pain, loss or other challenges during transition.

This data leads us to conclude that when speaking with teens about their experience, we must encourage them to celebrate the positive elements of living internationally, while at the same time recognizing the pain, challenges or other hardships that high mobility and frequent transition carry with them. Acknowledging difficulty helps teens to know it is a regular part of transition and does not negate or destroy the memories they treasure. This perspective and distinction are also important to share with parents and other adults interacting with internationally mobile teens, especially during the transition process.

“If you tell an adult the unhappiness you feel during the transition, or afterwards, all they said was that even though you may not be able to see it now, this is the opportunity of a lifetime – to be thankful for the experience because lots of people never even travel. Yeah, I know all that, but that doesn’t make the move any less difficult. I also miss out on what those people have, which is a tight group of friends and a really close relationship to my [extended] family.”

When assisting families during transition, it is also important to recognize that each member of the family is going to process the transition differently. When teens were asked to describe their dominant emotion during transition, 38% of respondents used the word “Excited” while 33% used “Uncertain” or “Angry.” The range of typical reactions often exists within a single family or even a single day. Giving teens the freedom to experience this pain, uncertainty, or excitement, as well as the tools to move forward in connecting to their new environment is critical. Of the support that survey participants identified receiving, Family led the category with 85%. The second and third most common sources of support were friends (59%) and school (49%). Only 12% of teens indicated that they received pre-departure support, but 100% moved with their family. Therefore, it is the family that is the best investment and first priority for teens to transition well. If transition-related professionals can equip parents and siblings to assist each other in this process, families will benefit not only in the current transition, but through their ongoing relationships, in future transitions.

All of the top three forms of support that teens identified were relationship-based rather than tangible assistance. 30% did receive language training and 83% of those that received it, found it helpful. 20% received orientation or training upon arrival and 88% found it helpful. However, the relational support far outweighed the skills-based and logistical support. Herein lies the challenge for professionals supporting these families: to help them build the relational support they need as quickly as possible, despite the human element being completely beyond the professional’s control. It is impossible to guarantee that four other teens will want to be friends with a new student their first week of school and that their parents will be understanding and be their anchor through these storms. Nonetheless, here are a few ways to help teens build the relational support system they need:

  • Share this information with parents and help them understand their teen’s possible: internal conflict over appreciating the international experience, but struggling with transition; need for freedom to express pain, excitement, uncertainty, joy and other emotions at their own pace, and validation of those emotions followed by a path forward; and greater dependency on family structure and consistency
  • Investigate whether the youth’s potential new school has a social media site for pre-arrival introductions, transition workshops at the start or end of the school year, a “buddy system” for new students or other resources for aiding students in transitioning well. It is also helpful to be able to tell students what percentage of the student body will be new, just as they are.
  • Stay informed about community groups for expat teens such as YouthCompass, Boys or Girls Scouts, or other youth groups that may help teens find community faster.
  • Advocate for involvement of teens in language training, orientation, and other transition/relocation support being offered by the sponsoring organization or help families find it themselves to allow teens to be involved in the process and embrace it more readily.
  • Especially in cases of family repatriation (which in most cases is not “going home” for teens), encourage teens to maintain at least a few relationships with friends from the international community who will have a much greater capacity for understanding what they are going through than their new peers that have not experienced international mobility. It is also helpful in general to have continuity through transition and keeping a few friendships from a previous location will allow them to stay connected to that season of life.

By Caitlin Morse

This research was conducted by Caitlin Morse and Amy Casteel, primarily through a 50 question survey that collected quantitative and qualitative responses from 135 participants with 24 different passport nationalities. All six continents were among the locations that these respondents had lived in, but to set a control for the consistency of the data, all teen transition data is looking at those people who moved to/within Europe between the ages of 11 and 19 and are under 30 in 2011. By this time next year, YouthCompass will have conducted a similar research study looking at teens and young adults that moved to/within Asia between the ages of 11 and 19 and hopes to have some comparative analysis to share.

This article was also published in the ACS quarterly newsletter