Disrupted friendships, new schools and unfamiliar languages were the kinds of problems the Association of American Foreign Service Women (AAFSW) planned to discuss at their symposium on the needs of internationally mobile children at the State Department.
Yet undertones of the current, far greater strain on families living abroad -- mounting tensions from terrorist attacks in the Islamic world -- permeated the Saturday symposium on "A Child of Many Nations." About 200 diplomats, international business people and their spouses attended.
AAFSW president Lesley Dorman acknowledged the concern by reading a message from the Canadian Foreign Service Community applauding the courage of The American Foreign Service and ending, "Our hearts are with you and particularly with the families of your colleagues in Teheran during their terrible ordeal."
After offering a special greeting to a handful of participants evacuated recently from Pakistan, the group turned -- with diplomatic ease -- to its planned agenda. Discussion centered on the varied problems families face in bringing up children overseas -- from helping an adolescent who has lived in a dozen households cope with an identity crisis to dealing with American peer pressure and television addiction upon the return home.
"The major aspect of growing up overseas is a positive one," said psychiatrist Sidney L. Werkman. "But internationally mobile people often live at a high level of stress.
"Mobile people tend to become adept at making extensive, rather than intensive friendships. Their worst disease is a sense of isolation and loneliness. As a child living in Bangkok put it -- 'You know you're isolated when there are a lot of people around, but no one to talk to.'"
A family can ease the transition of moving to a new country by being aware of the four stages a person goes through in adapting to a foreign culture, said Dr. Bernardo Hirschman.
"No matter how experienced one is at traveling," he stressed, "these stages and the tasks involved must be repeated."
During the first stage, which lasts two or three months, the individual is overwhelmed and excited by the new culture.
"The reaction is astonishment and wonder, and the mood is elation and excitement," he said. "People become wrapped up in an intense desire to comprehend the differences and try to copy what goes on in the host culture."
Adolescents may get involved with social or political groups from the new country during this period. If any family member's involvement becomes too intense, there may be physical repercusions, ranging from heart attacks to arthritis.
Frustration ushers in the second stage, which usually lasts six to eight months. "The mood is confusion and surprise," said Hirschman. "People wonder how they were so taken in not to see the problems that occur in the host country."
Goals and hopes become less clear, adolescents may "act out" their frustrations in antisocial ways, and family members tend to draw in together, isolating the nuclear family as a positive, "we" and the outside culture as a negative "they."
Near the end of the 11th month, the longest phase begins. "Here is the job of real acculturation," said Hirschman. "The task is to be able to give up the old expectations and accept the reality of the situation.
"Commonly observed phenomena include a withdrawal from the community or family. It is important for families to give each member space to work this out."
This phase, which can last a year, may be marked by drug abuse in adolescents and alcoholism or extramarital affairs in adults.
Full integration, the final phase, begins at the end of the second year. "A person is a citizen of their own country," said Hirschman, "Yet becomes a participant in the culture they live in at the moment."
Why do some families succeed and others fail?
"Those families where the process of adaptation was shared thrived," said Dr. Hirschman. "Families where the working member is isolated in a career and delegates the problems to the spouse and children do not do as well.
"If one family member has a crisis getting through a stage, it is a problem for the family as a whole. Also, the knowledge that successful adaptation is a normal step-by-step process fraught with difficulties can diminish anxiety.
"These are stages everyone goes through. Even if you've been to 20 countries, when you move on to the 21st country you have to go through it again."
Internationally mobile families also must deal with the "re-entry shock" of returning home. Fond memories of "McDonald's, baseball and Chevrolet" often differ from realities, said educational counselor Linda Heaney. This can result in a sense of betrayal and depression.
"I know I've been overseas too long when I can't understand cartoons in the New Yorker," noted one member of the "coming-home" workshop. "I keep a box of slides marked 'home' so the children remember what the house, their rooms and their friends look like," said another participant.
Heany advises families to begin "reentry activities" about six months before coming home. Among the reminders:
Subscribe to a hometown newspaper -- paying particular attention to the housing section and grocery ads.
Write old friends and catch up on their lives.
Ask relatives to send recent pictures of themselves, to ease the shock of seeing aging parents.
Update your driver's license.
Write organization such as scouting troups or soccer teams so your children can continue in an activity they've enjoyed.
Heany suggests beginning goodbyes and wrapping up unfinished business about three months before returning home. Have the family do some "closure exercises," she said, such as discussing "what I will miss the most" and writing farewell cards.
To ease the break for children, she suggests fantasizing with them about such things as what it will be like to put on a winter coat for the first time in years.
Gently wean children from pets they'll have to leave behind finding the animals a home where the children can visit.That way they can know that the animal is comfortable, and avoid the anxiety of being separated from their foreign "home" and their pet at the same time.