Culture Shock: How Can You Help?

In the 1960’s psychologists “discovered” culture shock. They were surprised that new immigrants needed so much medical care. A closer look uncovered the role of culture shock, or “transition stress”.

Adapting to a new culture is stressful. Very stressful. If you are receiving an exchange student from abroad, it’s easy to underestimate just what a struggle it can be to leave everyone and everything behind you - and then start from scratch: new home, new family, new school, new friends, new routines - and even a new language!

The bad news: your student can really hit bottom. 

teenage boy with hands covering face dealing with culture shock and transition stress and cultural adaptation

The good news: it doesn’t have to be that way.

teenage girls smiling in sunflower field showing cultural adaptation and overcoming culture shock and transition stress

How can you help?

In this Culture Shock Guide, you will learn:
  • How to talk about culture with a teenager
  • How to explain culture shock 
  • How to see symptoms of culture shock
  • How to deal with the worst case scenario
  • How to describe culture shock as a stage
  • How to nurture cultural adaptation

What is Culture?

Kids can get really confused about culture, but you can make it simple. Teach your student that culture is like an iceberg. Like this:

Iceberg shows that culture is like an iceberg with visible culture and invisible culture

Make sure your teenager understands these key points:

  • There is visible culture we can see and experience.
  • There is invisible culture, way down deep, beneath the surface. 

We can only understand the visible culture if we explore the invisible culture. For example, if we observe that people in the USA get very upset when someone is 5 minutes late, we need to dig deeper. 

  • What are the rules - the "do's and don'ts" for punctuality?
  • What are the values - what's important to Americans?
  • What are the beliefs - about time, in this case?

Too often, a foreigner - even a teenager - will jump to conclusions: "How rude. I was only 5 minutes late. What's wrong with this person?" These conclusions would make sense in their country where the rules, values and beliefs about time are different.

The culture iceberg is a tool for talking about cultural differences. What does your student see? What does it mean? How can you - the native guide - explain everyday American culture?

Prepare to see through your student's eyes!

teenage boy is smiling to illustrate talking about culture shock

What is Culture Shock?

Imagine that every country in the world is an iceberg, a "culture iceberg". Culture shock is two (or more) icebergs crashing together:

Two icebergs crash together just like culture shock

This picture can help teenagers understand that feeling of shock when Americans do things so, um...wrong (differently):

  • Getting upset when people are only 5 minutes late...
  • Inventing "unusual", "illogical" house rules...
  • Eating the right (or wrong) foods at the wrong times...

What's really happening? 

  • Normal is one thing back home.
  • Normal is another thing in the USA.

It's as simple as that. And the sooner your teen understands this, the faster he or she can adapt to life in the USA. And that leads us to the next issue.

What Are the Symptoms of Culture Shock?

The real problem with culture shock are the symptoms. They can be scary - especially if a teenager doesn't understand them.

boy sitting against a wall with head in hands to illustrate culture shock symptoms and emotions

Everything revolves around the emotions your student feels each time those two culture icebergs collide:

  • Confusion - what's happening? What should I do?
  • Shock - seriously? Is this for real?
  • Indignation - how could this happen?
  • Fear - is this dangerous?
  • Anxiety - what if...what if...what if?
  • Anger - this is so unfair!

There's a simple solution:

This free kit will help you get started with these fascinating, helpful conversations!

Download a FREE Culture Shock Conversation Kit


woman talking with teenager to illustrate talking about culture shock

These are the conversations that make the difference between hitting bottom - or not. Now everything can finally make sense: culture shock is the problem; adaptation is the solution. You've turned your teen in the right direction - and avoided some unnecessary problems.

Keep reading...

Culture Shock: Worst Case Scenario?

Just like we saw at the beginning. Culture shock was discovered by experts who noticed that "transition stress" can take a toll on health. It can manifest as headaches, exhaustion, digestive problems, anxiety, depression and more.

teenage boy in bed to illustrate culture shock symptoms

This is when exchange students start to disappear. Where are they? Hibernating in their rooms. They may be sleeping, studying furiously or simply zoning out with phones and computers - or calling home for hours on end. 

teenager in bedroom to illustrate culture shock isolation

This is your cue to keep talking about culture shock. What's bugging your student? What doesn't make sense? What needs to happen?

What goals would your student like to achieve this semester?

How about by the end of this month?

And this week?

And today?

Is Culture Shock Just a Stage?

In the beginning, experts saw culture shock as one of four stages your student could go through:

  • Honeymoon - life in the USA is exciting, amazing, fantastic.
  • Culture Shock - day to day reality in the USA is really tough.
  • Adaptation - it's getting easier to live in the USA.
  • Mastery - life in the USA feels totally normal and natural.

Today, we focus less on culture shock as a stage, and more on culture shock as a situation or incident: something that surprises, confuses or irritates us. This breaks culture shock down into concrete issues or "problems" that we can solve one by one.

two hands working on rubics cube to illustrate understanding culture shock

Nevertheless, it is useful to recognize that many people do start out high and then drop down very low for awhile before finally bouncing back and adapting to a new culture.

Cultural Adaptation: Nurture It!

What happens when you pull a plant out of its pot to repot it? At first it wilts, but gradually it will adapt to the new soil - just like humans adapt to a new culture...

plants by a window to describe cultural adaptation like repotting a plant

Your student is like a plant that has moved to a new pot in the USA.

Your kid may wilt under the load of so many changes. Culture shock will hit hard at times. But, you can nurture that struggling person with key conversations about cultural differences that act like sunlight and water.

And then comes the best part. Sit back and watch your new teenager blossom and bloom!

happy girl raising both arms to the sky in a sunflower field to illustrate cultural adaptation and overcoming culture shock


Tags: Culture Shock

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