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The invisible expatriates: support for trailing spouses and children

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The most common reason expatriate postings are unsuccessful is an unhappy spouse. Next on the list are the children, who have difficulty adjusting to their new environment.

A trailing spouse may have made career sacrifices to enable the move, and may not be able to find work in the new country of residence. Not only can it be frustrating to have put one’s career on hold, but no longer being able to contribute to the household income can also sap confidence.

In almost every case, the expatriate is the focus of his or her organisation and abundant resources are expended to ensure that he or she has a soft landing. This is to ensure productivity can be achieved as quickly as possible. Spouses and children get far less help adjusting to their new environment.

Understandably, organisations offer practical support to staff and their families who are relocating. They may provide property services in both the country of departure and the country of arrival, language classes, as well as visa and tax consultancy.

Yet, fewer provide professional support to trailing spouses. Ideally, spouses should be offered career counselling prior to the move and support with a job search—including the obtaining of a work permit—once they arrive.

Social support is offered by even fewer organisations. Fortunate expatriate families find themselves welcomed into their expatriate and local colleagues’ social circles. However this does not always occur, and it is unfair to expect that it will happen organically.

Organisations that really want to make overseas postings succeed make efforts to arrange social activities for new arrivals, including their families, and provide information about networking groups for expatriates and spouses.

It is easy to make a list of what organisations should do to help expatriates and their families adjust, but regrettably, many organisations don’t do all of those things. Frequently, an overseas assignment is looked at in economic terms. If the expatriate is being well compensated financially, the organisation may think it has done enough. After all, money makes the world go round, and it is only a couple of years they will be spending in their new location, right?

The expatriate certainly can survive a couple of highly compensated years of long working hours and frequent international travel, but the trailing spouse and children don’t have the distraction and stimulation of assignments, travel experiences and new colleagues with whom to interact.

Instead, they may experience long periods of separation from the working family member. This may be exacerbated by having few friends and adapting to household management and schooling in a country in which communication in the local language is difficult and cultural mores are unfamiliar.

As a result, trailing spouses can find themselves struggling psychologically. Depression is a common problem for people battling cultural adjustment issues, and the difficulty of adapting to life in a new country can put relationships under stress, compounding any stresses that existed within the family prior to the move.

In addition, children with development, behaviour or learning issues—and their parents, especially the trailing spouse, who may provide much of the day-to-day care—may need extra support, which might be difficult to find in English.

There are many ways of coping with the stress of an overseas move, starting with basic self-care measures such as maintaining exercise routines and healthy eating habits.

Learning the local language is a big step, as is finding friends who share interests. Sport, for example, is a shared language understood around the world; I have run in 50 countries, and made running friends in many of them, even with little shared vocabulary.

Finally, if professional support or counselling is needed, don’t hesitate to seek it out. TELL was founded as an English-language lifeline for Japan’s international residents, many of whom found it difficult to access mental health services in Japanese.

Some 42 years later, the lifeline has served many tens of thousands, and we have expanded to offer a wide range of clinical counselling services. Call us any time.

This post was written by TELL Executive Director Roberto De Vido for the BCCJ’s Acumen magazine, and was originally published in August 2015.