Helping your child through reverse culture shockWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
The silence down the hall was Heather’s* first clue that something was wrong. With her daughter recently returned from short-term studies in Africa, Heather had looked forward to hearing praise music from Jessica’s room once again. But Jessica’s much-loved guitar remained locked in its travel case.
"Days went by, but she never picked up her guitar. That was really unusual, and I worried about what it might mean. Before going to Africa, Jessica played her guitar almost every day."
Over time, Heather grew increasingly concerned. Normally vivacious and outgoing, Jessica was noticeably more subdued and withdrawn, and seldom laughed aloud. The conditions Jessica had witnessed first-hand in rural Africa – the poverty, malnutrition and sparse medical services – were exacting a heavy toll on her emotionally.
"I knew Jessica would come face to face with hard things in Africa – things that would be difficult to work through – but I was surprised by the depth of her distress. I hadn’t expected her to remain so troubled for months after her return."
Heather wanted to be sympathetic and supportive, but at the same time there was new tension between Heather and her daughter.
"Jessica had only been away for three weeks, so I didn’t think her return home would be a big adjustment. But things were tricky right from the start. She brought home new perspectives and values and seemed impatient for us to incorporate them into our family’s lifestyle, even though some of them were quite unrealistic.
"As part of that, she was hypercritical about things that had never bothered her before. We were too busy. Too wasteful. Too lazy to walk to the store. What really got under my skin were her thinly disguised suggestions that I had spent money wastefully. It was hard not to take some of it personally."
Seen from a parent’s perspective, welcoming a child home after travel to a developing country can be a confusing experience. Not every returning teen or young adult will have difficulty readjusting to their home culture, but many do. And although there may be outward signs of inner turmoil, it’s often difficult for parents to appreciate the intensity of their returnee’s distress.
Part of the difficulty is that the returnee may not be able to express how profoundly their experience has impacted them. At least, not right away – and possibly not ever. Some become guarded in how much they are willing to share, since they find themselves easily wounded by innocent questions or comments from others.
If you’re perplexed by the changes in your recently returned traveller, the following comments from three young adults offer some helpful insights. All three have lived through the pain of a turbulent re-entry. Beth and Mitch discuss what it was like to return from a four-month study abroad program in Uganda, and Jessica joins the discussion to share her perspective on her return from three weeks in an African hospital.
Alone amidst family and friends – and struggling
Mitch: People always ask you, How was your experience? But you can’t answer that question. Not simply. Not immediately. You need space and time to think. At first I was really anti-social because I didn’t want to go out and act all normal, like nothing had happened, and feel all phoney. I didn’t really leave the house or socialize with anyone for several weeks. I had this fear of losing the lessons I’d learned, of not being faithful to what I’d seen, not dealing with it right.
Beth: For those who return from a study abroad program, our struggle is like a grieving process. We’ve lost something really precious to us – our other life – and now we have to live in a world without it. You grow so attached to so many people and suddenly it’s all ripped away. When you are grieving you don’t always want to talk about it.
Jessica: I was really struggling with the pain of all the suffering I’d seen and trying to make sense of it. I wasn’t sure how to give it meaning, because it seemed so meaningless. I was always asking God why. Why heal this person but not that one? Why couldn’t I do more? I detached myself from my old friends because I didn’t feel like my friends were letting me grieve. They kept telling me that God is good, so I should be joyful, but it was important for me to walk through a time of questioning and pain.
Another huge struggle was not knowing what to do with the things I was learning. I felt a lot of anger, and often I wasn’t even sure who it was aimed at, but I was most angry at myself. Having seen so much suffering, I felt that I should be living my life differently – being a good steward of my life and my resources – but I didn’t know how.
Students often return home with a new set of values that can create tension for them in their home culture. To the returnee, much that is familiar now seems frivolous, and much that was once merely convenient is now confronting.
Jessica: Coming back home was hard because there are things about your culture that stand out to you more than before. I already knew we had a lot, but when you see what people don’t have and then come back home, it hits you full in the face. I can’t forget that my friend saved a woman’s life with just $15, for an emergency C-section – that makes it really hard to go out and buy a coffee.
When I first walked into my bedroom, I almost cried because it hit me that I had just so much. Africa taught me to value my health, basics like food and shelter, and especially family and community. You don’t know what to do with all your belongings, because they are no longer important to you.
Beth: The second day I was home I cleared out half my closet – clothes I didn’t need or that I hadn’t worn in a long time. I couldn’t handle grocery shopping for a long time. It was too overwhelming. I don’t know if I could go shopping for other things yet. I’m not buying more clothes; I’m just going to live on hand-me-downs.
Mitch: It’s hard not to be judgemental about how everyone spends their money when you see such gaping need. I think I became overly disdainful. I remember having this argument with my mom in the store, that we didn’t need another TV.
Jessica: There’s a lingering feeling of disgust with yourself because you have so much by comparison. My 21st birthday party was really hard, especially when I saw my mom spending money on something as frivolous as decorations. I knew people in Africa were dying because they lacked even the relatively small amount of money we spent on those decorations. And Christmas was really difficult too. I felt awful about receiving gifts.
How can parents help?
It’s important to understand that most returnees who are struggling do not want to simply "get over it." In fact, many fear losing touch with all they have learned and experienced. Here’s how you can support your student as he or she works through their re-entry and strives to formulate their uniquely personal "responsible response" to all they have witnessed.
Mitch: Returning students need time and space to be alone for a while and think things through. When I got back it was summer and I was doing a lot of manual labour, which was good. It gave me time to process what I had experienced. For me, writing and journaling was big. It’s important to have some sort of medium to think about things.
One thing I really appreciated from my mom was her willingness to sit down and listen – to not ask too many questions or questions that are too pointed, but to just be there with you and be aware that there might be different things bothering you under the surface that you might not acknowledge. She recognized that something kind of mysterious had happened and the need to be patient. It’s not easy stuff.
Beth: My parents, I knew their intentions were good, but they asked a lot of questions [about how Ugandans live] and sometimes the questions seemed a bit offensive – a bit ignorant or stereotypical. By the time they had learned how to be more sensitive, I had decided to keep everything to myself.
My advice to parents would be to be really patient and listen, and if your child doesn’t say much, to give them time. One of my friends just came back from a two-year mission in China. Her dad wisely asked her, ‘What would you like me not to talk about? We’ll just talk about what you want to talk about, whenever you want to share something.’
Jessica: Parents can help their son or daughter find tangible ways to make a difference. I distinctly remember the night I packed up some medical supplies to send to Africa, to the hospital I had visited. I felt joyful for the first time in a long time, because I was finally doing something with what I had learned; I knew what the hospital needed. My parents noticed right away that my mood had lifted.
Also, encourage them to spend time with friends who went with them overseas, even if they have to travel a long way to do that. When I was finally able to reconnect with the friend who had been my roommate in Africa, I found it really healing.
I’ve already mentioned that Christmas was hard. But after we unwrapped our gifts, Dad surprised me with a voucher I could put toward any World Vision project I chose. That helped a lot. I think if parents can make family celebrations about helping people in need, rather than gift-giving amongst themselves, their son or daughter will feel much better about being part of that.
It will certainly be difficult for you to watch your son or daughter struggle through their return home. But their struggle is an important process. Through prayer and sympathetic support, you can play a significant role in helping them realize some invaluable outcomes. For many, these will include a more mature faith, a determination to make a difference, and an earnest search for God’s calling on their life.
* Names have been changed by request.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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