Who am I and Where do I Belong – Expat Teens’ Identity Formation

By Annaleena Holopainen, M.A., MSc., Psychologist at The Expat Kids Club

Struggling with questions like ‘who am I’ and ‘where do I belong’ is an inevitable part of adolescence. By asking these questions, teens explore different ways to live their life and finally commit to something that they feel fitting them. This is how adolescents form their identity – some without any noticeable struggle, while for others it becomes a real identity crisis, as psychologist Erik Erikson described it. Oftentimes, expat teens seem to belong to the latter group and have a bigger battle to win when it comes to identity formation. Why is this? And how can we support expat teens in this process?


Be yourself; everyone else is already taken (Oscar Wilde)

As with almost any psychological term, there are many ways to define the word identity. In this text, identity refers to a sense-of-self, which has an individual aspect (How am I different from others?) and a social aspect (How am I similar with others?). To develop a cohesive sense-of-self, we need social interaction. More precisely, when interacting with others, we explore different options and finally commit to some of those, making them part of our identity (e.g. values, interests, culture). So, how does all this relate to expat adolescents, whose lives are characterized by several relocations? 

Expat Teens

Taking into consideration that social interactions have such an important role in identity formation, one can only imagine the challenge that expat teens may face when their social circles change as a result of relocation. When exploring different interests, attitudes, looks and values, having a repeatedly changing environment doesn’t only increase the amount of options one is able to explore, but it may also result in e
ver-changing reflection of self. For example, a specific appearance or behavior may result in a very different response in social situations, depending on the cultural context one is in. Cultural differences may, of course, cause challenges, not only for teens, but also for adults. The difference is, however, that in most cases, adults already have a rather stable sense-of-self in comparison to teens, who are just trying figure it all out.

Supporting Teens’ Identity Formation

Having a strong sense-of-self is important for self-esteem and mental well-being, and therefore supporting expat teens in forming their identity may have long-lasting positive effects. So, let’s take a look at a few possible ways how to support expat teens in this process:
  • Ignorance is not bliss – First of all, it is important to understand the process of identity formation, and why it may be difficult for expat teens. By sharing this information with the teens themselves, and by verbalizing any possible challenges they are encountering, we may help them to understand the process and the reasons for their struggles. More importantly, this way we may help teens to realize that there is nothing wrong with them, even if they are scrambling to find their direction and place in life.

  • Non-judgmental exploration – Having open-minded discussions, for instance, about life experiences, religions, or cultures, can help teens to see how someone else (e.g. parent) has found his own place and direction in life.

  • Commitments – In addition to the non-judgmental exploration, it is important to support teens in committing to some values and goals that they have identified important to them. Being able to set goals and make commitments enables one to have a direction and feel less confused.

  • Social relationships – Relocations can be challenging for teens’ friendships, and may this can impact their identity formation. Therefore, supporting teens in finding ways to maintain their relationships with family and friends even when moving away, and in finding new social groups and form new friendships in the new location, can help teens in their identity formation.

Reaching Out for Support

If you are looking for support in helping your teen develop a strong sense-of-self, or you're concerned about the affect relocation(s) has had on your child's identity, please get in touch. We have a multidisciplinary team ready to support your family through the all the challenges of relocation and life!