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'Some kids have heaven and earth here in Shanghai and they don't appreciate it'

WHILE many foreigners come to Shanghai looking for new opportunities and experiences, there is one group who may have had little choice about coming to their new home.

Reactions from teenagers and young people to the news that their parents have decided to move to China can range from supportive excitement to outright hostility.

Uprooted from familiar surrounds, schools and friends they may have known their entire lives, the teen expats may find it one of the toughest adjustments they have to make.

Someone who works closely with teens having difficulties adjusting is counselor Laura Cowan.

As both a middle school counselor at the Shanghai American School and a counselor working with private clients through Community Center Shanghai, Cowan sees youth from as young as four to teenagers and adults.

Many of the young people she sees are dealing with issues around adjusting to a radically different environment from their home country.

"Loss of identity is a common issue because for many of them it is their first time overseas and they have come from their comfort zone of everything they know," she says.

"Many have come from a Western society and they are plonked into Shanghai, which is totally different from anything they could have ever imagined. So they have to think how they fit into school and how they fit into a multicultural society.

"You see a lot of anxiety about change, passive aggressiveness and outright anger towards parents."

Another professional who sees first-hand the difficulties some young expats face is ParkwayHealth's psychiatrist Dr Peter Calafiura.

He says young people arriving in Shanghai often feel as if they have lost something, whether that be a lifestyle they enjoyed, friends, pets or even everyday things like familiar television and movies. It is important to focus on the positives of the move, he says.

In his practice, Dr Calafiura commonly sees both adults and young people from varied cultural backgrounds, suffering depression or anxiety related to adjustment.

For young people, making new friends while knowing that they will move on again can be a source of distress. The academic demands of international schools, usually tougher than those at home, are another difficult adjustment.

"If students have piles of homework, particularly if they are learning Chinese, it means that they may not have that carefree childhood enjoyed by children in other cultures," he says.

"That means they may not have that contact with peers ... and the only contact they do have is through that very structured environment of school. So, they don't have that after-school contact or that support system that might benefit them."

Constantin, an 18-year-old high school senior from the United States, has been in Shanghai for two and a half years. When his parents broke the news that the family was moving to Shanghai, it didn't go down well.

"At first I didn't really want to move here and I didn't want to leave my friends. I sort of protested it along with my brother and sister," he says. "But when we got here, it turned out for the better."

Exposure to a totally different culture and the fast-paced life of the city means there is plenty to do.

"What I like about Shanghai is that you meet cool people from all around the world and there is always something to do. Even if you don't know what you want to do for the day, you can just walk down the street and find something," he says.

A major adjustment for both foreign parents and children is the increased access to adult social environments like nightclubs and bars compared with their home countries.

China's legal drinking age is 18.

Coming from the US where the legal drinking age is 21, Constantin says he enjoys more freedom and can move around the city easily in taxis.

While some young people may enjoy the extra freedom compared with their home country, it is often a concern of parents.

American Susan Allen is a mother of four children aged from 10 to 16, and it is the Michigan family's first overseas posting. The Allens arrived 18 months ago and she says she tries to talk openly with her children about how to handle some of the different social aspects of the city.

"My daughter does have friends who decide to get in a taxi and go to clubs, some without their parents' knowledge but we talk very openly about that," she says.

"We have set some expectations for our kids' behavior and that is something we don't agree with. In the United States, it is still illegal for them to drink and we don't think they are mature enough to handle alcohol, so we try to provide other social outlets."

Having a home environment that is a welcoming place for her children's friends to hang out is an important part of providing safe social alternatives.

The Community Center Shanghai provides a range of alcohol-free, safe social activities for youth and teens through its Interkom program.

Ron Mona, a former church youth worker in San Diego, organizes Interkom events that include a formal or ball and activities like paintballing.

"With every city there are opportunities for kids to find stuff and get into trouble and especially here with the access and money that they have," he says.

That's how Interkom came about ?? it provides an alternative for kids to still be kids without getting into trouble intentionally or unintentionally.

Events usually attract between 50 or 100 kids and Mona says they are a unique way for students from international schools to socialize.

"Other than through sports or music, there are really no other avenues for kids to get together with kids from other schools, and each school can be its own little bubble," Mona says.

Like many parents, Allen looks to extracurricular activities such as sports and charity work to keep her children busy and involved in the culture and community.

Chinese-American Marten, 17, is also a high school senior. He and Constantin are both deeply involved in the charity Habitat for Humanity.

The organization aims to improve the living conditions of disadvantaged people.

At first his mom pushed him to get involved in charity work but after his first visit to a project he was hooked.

"After my first experience, it was so great that I went on to work on four more projects across Asia," he says. "While I am in Asia and I have these amazing opportunities I should take advantage of them."

He has traveled to other parts of China, dug trenches in China, built houses in the Philippines, laid bricks in Thailand. "It has been awesome."

Marten's mother, Pilar Tan, is an etiquette coach and runs teen-specific training courses. She says the first lesson she teaches deals with character building, and giving youth the chance to help disadvantaged people in the community is vital to their development as fully rounded adults.

"Some kids have so many advantages, they have heaven and earth here in Shanghai but they don't appreciate it," she says.

"What I like to do is to take them to see a migrant village. Every possible chance I have I take them there so they can see a kid just like them and their lives."

Tips to parents for helping kids adjust

Get them involved in the process before moving and focus on the positives of the move.

Siblings are important allies in adapting to changes. If one child is positive about the move, he or she can often change the mindset of those who resist.

Don't use children as counselors. If a parent is having difficulties adjusting, sharing this in detail with a child may cause them to worry more.

Be patient. Many parents report it takes from six months to a year for their children to adapt to a new environment.

Discuss social activities and life openly. If a child expresses concerns about adapting to changes, do not dismiss or belittle those concerns.

Provide social outlets and activities to keep children active. Look for ways to get them involved in the community. Make local Chinese friends.

Be prepared for a different school environment with more rigorous academic demands. Young people may need more support in adapting.


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