How Does Changing Cultures Affect Young People?

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When families move from one country and society to another, they can experience both opportunities and challenges. Growing up abroad can teach young people to be open-minded, flexible, and aware of the world. 

On the other hand, young people may experience stress and mental health symptoms as they try to adjust to cultural and social change. These changes can also disrupt the process of identity exploration that typically characterises adolescence and young adulthood.

This blog explores some of the challenges of moving between cultures and its effects on young people. It also touches on how and why some young people may cope with transitions better than others.

Building Identities Between Cultures

Adolescence is a time when young people develop their identities. Identity development is a lifelong process that has many stages, but adolescence often involves identity achievement (also known as identity synthesis) – finding answers to questions such as “Who am I?”. 

Identity is often described through two concepts – inner identity and outer identity. Outer identity involves aspects of a person that are more easily identified by other people: their culture, ethnicity, or religion. Inner identity refers more to a person’s individual characteristics and their sense of who they are. These two concepts also interact, with external characteristics influencing a person’s inner perceptions.

Identity development is a process of exploration and choice, where a young person questions different parts of their identity and commits to an identity that fits them. When they can’t find a coherent identity, they may experience identity confusion. During identity exploration, young people may consider the values and goals of their families, friends, and cultures.

Developing Identity Abroad

Young people who live abroad may struggle to develop a clear sense of identity. The differences, tensions, and contradictions between elements of their own society. This can make identity development more complex, and some young people may not find a clear answer, resulting in identity confusion.

Other young people may develop a single identity with ‘cultural multiplicity’, connected to the different societies and cultures they experience. For example, they may understand both the culture of their country of birth and of the society they grew up as aspects of who they are. Some young people describe intuitively mixing parts of these identities depending on where they are and with whom they are spending time, adapting to their present surroundings.

Some adolescents and young adults describe developing a clear sense of identity abroad, but experience identity loss and confusion when they return to their home country for university. At this point, they become aware of the differences between their identity and the identity of others. This can cause feelings of grief, loss, and separation from others.

Some adolescents who grow up in other cultures talk about having an ‘anti-identity’, an identity that is defined by what they are not, rather than what they are. They may feel like their identity is made up of the ways they don’t fit into a culture or cultures, and how they are different, without a substantial conception of who they actually are. 

Identity Development and the Disruption of Transition

When young people change cultures during adolescence, it can disrupt the process of identity development. Many adolescents who travel between countries and international schools describe feelings of repeated transition.

When transitioning from one country to another, young people often have to focus on adapting and coping with the changes of the transition. This includes adapting to changes in schools, social norms, and friendships. In the process of understanding how to act and behave, adolescents may lack the energy to explore their identity as they would otherwise do.

At the same time, moving to a different society may cause young people to question and reconsider values that they had already accepted or considered parts of their identity. The identity exploration process becomes disrupted and slowed, making it harder to form a coherent and clear identity.

How Does Identity Confusion Affect Young People’s Mental Health?

Research shows that among adolescents and young adults, identity confusion is associated with symptoms of depression. On the other hand, identity synthesis – an integrated and committed identity with a clear picture of beliefs, values, and plans – is linked to fewer depressive symptoms. 

This means that young people growing up in different cultures or transitioning between cultures may be more likely to experience depression than others. Depressive symptoms may be underpinned by feelings of rootlessness, lostness, or a lack of sense of belonging. 

Young people who move to a new society may also experience feelings of loss or grief for friendships, parts of their identity, memories, and other attachments.

How Do Young People Cope with Adjusting to New Cultures and Societies?

When young people move to a different country, they are faced with new social and cultural norms to understand, learn, and navigate. There may be language barriers that cause challenges for communication and connection with others. Different societies come with alternative norms about how to interact with other people and maintain friendships and relationships. They also have different values, ethics, and moral rules.

As part of a wider environment, school and education may also present new challenges. New schools may have different ways of learning or focus on different subjects and types of knowledge. Exam systems may vary, as well as ideas about what constitutes ‘success’.

When young people arrive in a new environment, they have to adjust both psychologically and socially. Social adjustment involves learning knowledge that helps a young person fit into a new environment, like learning a language or new cultural norms. Psychological adjustment involves coping with perceived stress, such as the unpredictability of the new environment, novelty, a new school, a new language, and the task of fitting in and making friends.

Young people may experience additional stress that results from changes in habits and patterns such as behaviours and interactions. Stress may be rooted in feelings of being discriminated against, changes in cultures and schools, and changes in family dynamics that may come with moving societies. Such stress can lead to mental health symptoms among adolescents, such as feelings of depression, anxiety, or behavioural problems.

Researchers have found that while moving to a new society may create challenges for all young people, some cope and adjust better than others. Young people who find the changes of a new environment more stressful are more likely to experience mental health problems than those for whom it is less stressful.

Moreover, research suggests that family dynamics among young people who grow up abroad also impact their mental health and may affect their ability to cope with change. When families experience stress or disruption from the move, it may lead to additional stress for young people. On the other hand, when families communicate well about the move and create a safe space for young people, it may help to protect them against mental health concerns.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Residential Mental Health Support for Adolescents and Young Adults

The Wave Clinic is a dedicated residential treatment space for young people, making a difference in the lives of young people worldwide. Our programs combine exceptional clinical care with education, global citizenship, and social responsibility, supporting young people to plan and build fulfilling futures.

While many international and local schools offer excellent pastoral and counselling support, sometimes young people require an extra level of care. The Wave offers specialist residential and outpatient support to help young people manage and recover from eating disorders, borderline personality disorders, trauma, and other mental health concerns.

We work with young people from international schools in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and all around the world.If you’re interested in our programs, contact us today to find out more.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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