Signs and Solutions for International Students Experiencing Cultural Loneliness, Isolation and Anxiety
February 29, 2016

The Second Stage of Culture Shock 

When students first arrive in the United States, everything is new and exciting. There are new foods to try, new places to visit and new friendships to be made. This is the first stage, believe it or not, of culture shock – The Honeymoon Phase. The second stage of culture shock, The Crisis/Frustration Phase, happens when the initial excitement or euphoria from the honeymoon stage subsides as the student begins to comprehend and compare the differences between their own culture with their new life at school.

Over the years, we’ve seen many students become paralyzed at the second stage of culture shock and experience cultural loneliness, isolation and anxiety. Some students overcome their crises within a few months and others need about a year to adjust. No matter how long it takes for students to overcome this stage, there are some telltale signs that students are feeling isolated in a new culture and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety.

If you think your student is experiencing culture shock, there are some signs to look out for during this stage:

If your student is showing these signs of the second stage of culture shock, he or she is feeling pretty low. Follow these tips and solutions for helping your student overcome that first major dip in emotions following the honeymoon phase. With your help, your students will peak once again and thrive with you in their new, multicultural American lifestyle at home and in school.

Sign #1: Timing.

It’s 3 to 4 months after your international student has arrived.

When students first arrive in the United States, they’re focused on two major concerns: 1) basic communication and 2) managing their new academic setting. Students have never communicated so frequently in English prior to their arrival in the U.S., and they have never experienced an American-style of learning. However, being the courageous young adults they are (many have traveled more than 5,000 miles to study in America), they’ve overcome any initial obstacles in communicating in English. Now is the time that their thoughts are drifting back to home and comparisons are being made between their home and the U.S.

Solution: Anticipate the Need for New Friends and Family

Be active in helping your student establish relationships with peers and adults in the U.S. More than likely, the student will seek empathy at this stage in a peer similar in age and culture to talk about these feelings. After all, that peer is probably experiencing similar feelings of cultural loneliness and isolation.

However, it’s important that the student also has good relationships with parents or guardians in America, as well as American peers. Adults offer healthy solutions to stress and anxiety, and students will need someone older and wiser to help them navigate social emotional obstacles in the future. However, international students can discuss cultural differences and values with American students or host siblings similar in age to further their understanding of the culture of the U.S. Both types of relationships are key to helping students adjust to an American lifestyle.

Sign #2: Small Events are Setting Off Big Emotions.

Your student tries something new, and reacts with disgust or impatience.

As your international student adjusts to a new school and gets comfortable with a second language, he or she now has more time and energy to explore other shocking cultural differences. Everything that your student encounters (well, okay maybe not absolutely everything) is different from home, from the food your student eats to social situations at school and at home. Every difference needs to be accepted and processed by the student, and sometimes, after several months of acceptance and processing, a student just can’t take it anymore.

Solution: Patience and Understanding

Any person who has spent a prolonged period of time abroad knows that this stage is inevitable. Students will get frustrated with some cultural differences, and most will not be able to articulate or describe (especially in their new, second language) what they are feeling. Empathy and patience is necessary for any host parent or school official helping an international student deal with feelings of frustration and sometimes hostility. There are, of course, limits to this, and if you think your student is possibly at risk to his or her own personal safety, contact your Student

Services Coordinator to escalate the issues to specialists within The Cambridge Network.

Sign(s) #3: Sleepiness, Shyness or a Lack of Emotion.

Yawning throughout the day, indifference to once-exciting things, and shyness are commonplace.

More than likely, your student is keeping up with his or her social and personal networks at home, and that means staying up late to communicate online and through Skype. Due to this lack of sleep, your student’s academics and ability to socialize may suffer. Socializing takes energy, and it takes even more energy to socialize in a second language.

In contrast to those students who react with big emotions to culture shock, some students react to the immense amount of cultural differences by displaying a lack of emotion. This indifference has similar foundations to sign #2 – since everything is different and new, students will become indifferent and withdrawn emotionally as a means of coping with so much change.

Solution: Establish a “Lights Out” time, and Encourage Engagement with After-School Activities

While it’s important to keep communication open between students and their families back home, it’s important to remember that these students are just teenagers – teenagers who need a good night’s sleep. Establish a light’s out time for your student, keeping in mind the time differences required for your student to communicate with home. Physical or social activity can spark emotion again with your international student, and ensure they sleep better after a full day of school and afternoon of activity.

 

Conclusions

Over the years, we’ve seen many students overcome this stage of acculturation, and thrive and succeed beyond our highest expectations for them. It is important for teachers, administrators and  host  families to be as compassionate and patient as possible during this critical juncture. Remember these are adolescents who are, in most cases, away from their family for the first time in their lives. This can be a difficult experience for them. Understanding the signs that students are displaying of being in the second stage of culture shock and responding appropriately is key to an international student’s long-term success.

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