Recently I spoke to several youngsters who had moved to their “home country” –:the Netherlands. I wondered how they experienced this. At first they sounded very enthusiastic. The schools in The Netherlands are great, the typical Dutch foods like stroopwafels, drop and hagelslag are always available, and - of course - the night life and the freedom that comes with entering University……However as the conversation went on they all experienced some difficulties as well...….Although they had been relocating their whole lives and are specialised in adapting to new surroundings, the “homecoming” – or maybe leaving the expat community – appeared to be the most difficult relocation of all.

The ecological theory Getting involved in a new community is not new to these youngsters, it happened several times before during their childhood. Before, however, they were never alone and it was always clear and accepted that they were different from the local community. They were foreigners and this was obvious to everybody. To theoretically explain, what happens when a child grows up abroad and enters University in the “home country” in their late teens, I refer to the ecological theory of Bronfebrenner.


In the above model used in the theory of Bronfenbrenner the child is represented in the centre: the centre of its own system. The layers are built from the inside out. The first layer around the child contains the family, school, after school activities and the interaction between them. Living the global lifestyle, only the parents and siblings are a constant factor in the most inner circle. A school system and the after school activities like sports are usually constant as well.


The second layer of the model represents the external influences on the child and parents. It contains the social network of the parents- who gives support in times of need-, the neighbourhood - is it safe to play or ride a bike? – and so on. The second layer elements change during the expat life, you can say it spins. The outer circle contains the culture in which the child is living. For example: What is the common living standard, the shared values and norms, the religion, the customs. When the child is growing up as an expat child this circle spins as well.

Returning ‘home’, the macrosystem (outer circle) and exosystem (middle circle) spin again. This is to be expected. In reality however, it is often not expected by the youngster or his parents. Maybe this is because the home country has often been visited during childhood. Also the parents may believe that their values and norms are similar to the majority of the people in the home country. In other words, the parents expect their home country to be familiar to their child.


The biggest change is however in the inner circle. The sports that the youngster used to play may stay the same. (Very often this is not the case though). The school and the school system, the school language and the subjects however all change. For the first time it is not only the outer two circles that are spinning, but now the youngster has moved away from the family, the inner circle starts spinning as well. The parents and maybe also the siblings are no longer nearby. This time the youngster is alone. For the youngster everything is spinning and he or she is in the middle of this ‘tornado’. It is not surprising that the youngster needs some extra time and encouragement. When I explained the model of three circles to some of the youngsters, most of them recognised the spinning effect, the changes and the feelings of loneliness. Although it is not something that is very ‘cool’ to admit, especially at that age, they really opened up. One of them replied with a sigh and said “that is exactly what it feels like, I am in the middle and all the rest is spinning”.


So what to do?

In my opinion, it all starts with the acknowledgement that coming home is not going to be as easy as we thought it would be. It is important not to keep up appearances and to be open about the fact that it is a big step for the youngster to leave the safe haven of the family, the expat community to become independent. There is some challenge in going home!! It’s not a failure if the youngster finds it (very) hard to build up a life in the home country of the parents. It is actually completely understandable. They will feel lonely at times and they will also feel that they are an outsider who hasn’t got a clue. They look and talk like a local, but they are not. And although they may not admit it at first, they maybe, just maybe, need a little more help than (they) expected. For those who like a helping hand “returning” to the Netherlands, check


This article was written in English for Outpost Bangalore & Doha and republished at


Pedagogische begeleiding voor expat kinderen. Vertrek, verblijf en terugkeer