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  • Writer's picturefrederique STREF

Adaptation mechanisms in childhood and expatriation

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Living abroad requires a real capacity to adapt. The parallel between the adaptation mechanisms of children and those of expatriates is interesting to look at, based on psychoanalytical theories of development.

Culture shock is defined as "the frustration and confusion that results from being bombarded by uninterpretable cues. "

Here we have a considerable advantage because the visa process is so difficult that the value of our presence on the ground has been validated and required, so the host country's opinion is favorable to us.

Cultural adaptation is closely linked to personality traits such as openness, self-confidence, ability to relate to people and curiosity.

Expatriation requires both flexibility and a strong sense of self, to interact with host country nationals, establishing a relationship of mutual respect and interdependence without losing one's identity. This means maintaining personal boundaries that are neither too fluid nor too rigid to avoid cultural isolation (expatriate ghettos), or total immersion (going native) and finding a good balance between these two extremes.

How children resolve certain developmental issues may be reflected in how expatriates manage to adapt to their new life.

Let's briefly raise the issues of dependency, identity formation, autonomy and control, which are considered key concerns at different stages of development according to the work of Freud, Erikson, Klein and Dolto.

The first problem a child must solve is dependence. Indeed, the infant must negotiate his or her dependency needs, expressed through oral urges. A certain amount of frustration is considered necessary to develop frustration tolerance and impulse control. These experiences of dependence will help the child develop a sense of reality and fantasy and lead to the development of an identity.

For children, the first mechanisms (satisfaction and frustration of dependency needs) for perceiving reality involve the division of the world into good and bad, which, over time, will allow the construction of a more coherent and stable identity to be integrated.

The problem of the expatriate's identity, of not understanding the customs or ways of functioning of the new culture, can generate frustration.

Denial appears at the beginning of expatriation, difficulties are minimized and then a period of disillusionment appears, suddenly it is no longer fun to take a bus without knowing where the stop is. Culture shock sets in with significant levels of frustration. The joy of exploring the city and discovering the host culture can turn into a nightmare.

Another task that children must master is establishing a sense of self, creating an identity, the phase where the infant has no sense of others and followed by the phase where there is no sense of differentiation to others followed by separation-individuation.

Frustration with unmet dependency needs and frustration with unmet individuation needs create stress and lead to feelings of dependency and helplessness, resulting in the reactivation of another early defense mechanism: splitting.

Some expatriates use the same splitting mechanism, and divide the world into "all good" or "all bad"; the home culture and functioning are all good while the host culture and mechanisms are all bad, ineffective and meaningless. This leads to "us versus them" feelings, which are further exacerbated if the expatriate community appears to be the refuge of "us" through group membership.

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