How Can Our Family Effectively engage in Supporting Cultural Adjustment Challenges?
Congratulations! You have already taken the first step by reading this article!
It requires more energy and concentration to understand and adapt to unfamiliar cultural norms, behaviors and values. This applies to AFS Participants as well as host families. For participants, this can add a level of stress to everyday encounters in your home, the host school and the host community. Some normal reactions to this added stress are:
- Mental confusion
- Mood swings
- Susceptibility to illness
- Language acquisition and frustration from not being able to articulate emotions or circumstances effectively
Below are some recommended steps that you can take to help your hosted participant successfully navigate the cultural adjustment cycle.
Explain the Patterns of Your Daily Life
Explaining your daily life and some of your most important expectations will lessen your hosted participant’s anxiety and help simplify the adjustment process. Take time with your hosted participant right from the beginning to thoroughly explain life in your home. Be sure to:
- Give a tour of your home/property
- Explain your family’s norms regarding “open” and “closed” doors (i.e., which rooms, when, why etc.)
- Explain which rooms the hosted participant MAY or MAY NOT enter and the reason(s) why/why not
- Inform them of which appliances they MAY, or MAY NOT use
- Demonstrate the correct, safe way to use household fixtures and appliances (i.e., microwave, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, toilet, shower, etc.)
- Be mindful of creating spaces for effective communication,
Note that there is an inherent power-dynamic at play not only with regards to parental roles but also within language ability. Make sure as parents you and your family are mindful of how certain expectations you may have around speaking, can be stressful and/or challenging for your hosted participant. If the environment in your home surrounding conversing assumes immediate comprehension and/or a thoughtful response, e.g., fast paced conversations, then also create the necessary space for the student to talk through, make mistakes and ensure they are clearly understanding what is being asked. Patience is an asset for navigating intercultural encounters.
- Explain family rules and expectations including:
- Norms regarding “appropriate” clothing (i.e., what to wear to school, religious services, family events, etc.)
- Participation in daily family life
- Special family events and holidays
Experienced Host Family Advice: It’s hard not to expect same-age host siblings to include your hosted participant in all of their activities. Try to resist that impulse and encourage your hosted participant to make their own friends. Your hosted participant should join teams, clubs, church activities etc. soon after they arrive to help them acclimate as well as make friends. All family members should make a weekly schedule to ensure that everybody’s activities will be considered, and nobody is left out or forgotten.
Set Expectations Regarding Household Responsibilities and Routines Early On
It is helpful to clearly explain expectations about household responsibilities and routines from the onset of the experience and to apply them to hosted participants as you would with any siblings of a similar age. By this, we mean that the same rules and expectations about chores, curfews, mealtimes, etc., apply to your hosted participant as to other family members.
Applying different standards and expectations to the hosted participant and similarly aged host siblings can cause resentment to build on both sides. If you did not set clear expectations in the beginning of the experience, it can be confusing to hosted participants when suddenly they are asked to pitch in or new rules are applied, seemingly without reason, and misunderstandings can occur.
Keep in mind that in the beginning of their experience, your hosted participant may need extra guidance and explanation in order to know how to use household appliances safely and perform chores to your family’s standards. We touch on this in the Participant and Host Family Questionnaire. This will lessen the likelihood of sibling rivalry and will help ensure that the joys and frustrations of hosting are shared equally among family members. It is much harder to tighten and impose new rules and expectations than to loosen those originally put in place. As trust builds between family members, there will be more room for negotiation.
Review and Discuss the “Participant and Host Family Questionnaire”
To assist you in this important task, we have developed The Participant and Host Family Questionnaire. Please note that it is a REQUIREMENT of the U.S. Department of State that some of the information contained in this questionnaire is relayed to the hosted participant shortly after their arrival. We therefore ask you to review the questionnaire with your hosted participant within a few days of arrival and again a month or so later to ensure that your hosted participant fully understands the topics covered.
Encourage Your AFS Participant to Get Enough Rest
Physical and mental fatigue is normal and can occur as a result of requiring one’s body and mind to cope with an unfamiliar environment for a long period of time. A person becomes mentally and physically exhausted from the intense and unrelenting effort of adaptation. However, the impact of cultural fatigue can be minimized by getting extra sleep and rest. Do not make the mistake of over-scheduling your hosted participant’s time in the first few weeks that they are here.
Keep in mind that the struggle of learning or mastering a language in an unfamiliar environment is exhausting. Tremendous concentration and effort are needed of a person with non-native language ability to grasp even simple conversations. Inability to convey basic needs, feelings, or ideas is frustrating and tiring.
Some helpful strategies include:
- Use simpler English grammar and sentences
- Avoid idioms/slang – these can cause confusion
- Repeat explanations several times – it takes time and repetition to remember new information
- Write important things down and post them in a common area as reminder
- Tell participants about family plans in advance – and remind them again beforehand
- Check for understanding – ask them to re-state your message in their own words
- Be patient and give additional time to listen, process and respond
- Ask one question at a time – and listen to the answer before asking your next question
Many hosted participants may understand less than you think they do, especially upon arrival. At first, your hosted participant may seem tired, disinterested, or unusually quiet. Hosted participants with limited English ability sometimes gravitate to younger people because of the limited vocabulary required in conversations. Even if your hosted participant is proficient in English, slang and the speed of the speaker can make comprehension more difficult.
AFS Participants may come from cultures where it’s common to say they understand – even if they don’t. Explain to your hosted participant that it’s okay to ask if they feel unsure or confused. Sometimes a complete misunderstanding arises from the use of a single word. Contact your local AFS Liaison if your hosted participant seems to be having unusual language difficulties.
Tend to all Minor Illnesses
It is common for AFS Participants to become ill a few days or weeks after entering their host culture. A simple illness, such as a sore throat, can linger on far longer than usual. Insist that your hosted participant get enough rest and have them seen at an urgent care facility or by a primary care physician if things begin to look serious. Refer to My Student is Ill and Needs Medical Attention for more information
Discuss this Information with the AFS Participant and Other Members of Your Family
Throughout the adjustment period, some hosted participants begin to think they are the only one experiencing challenges related to cultural adjustment and homesickness. This may cause them to lose confidence in both their ability to succeed at school and ability to build relationships with you and others in the host community. Let them know that the issues and challenges facing them are normal and within the expected range of cultural adjustment. Reassure your hosted participant that you are aware of the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture and that you will not make harsh judgments about their performance. Make it clear to your hosted participant that you will be there, to the best of your ability, to listen, empathize, sympathize, and explain. We also encourage you to contact your liaison, who can also help your participant navigate any low periods.