From the Fish Bowl Into the Ocean

Hello ISR, My 15-year-old stepson, who has never traveled a day in his life, is flying to Bangkok this week to live with my husband and me. Indefinitely!

Without airing family laundry, the gist of the story is that some months ago it was decided Clive (not his real name) would be best served if he came to live with his dad and me. His mother has adult issues to work through and we’ve all agreed there’s no reason to drag Clive through it.

Clive is your stereotypical, insular, home-grown teenager from small-town Alabama. I would venture to guess his only experience with anything international is ordering a “taco” from the “gringo” at the local “Mexican” food place. Just the thought of him landing in Bangkok in two weeks  is….well…..overwhelming. For starters, our school in Bangkok hosts 30+ nationalities.

I’m hoping when Clive gets here he’ll love it just as much as we do, and the many other students having a first-time overseas experience. He won’t be alone. Our students are warm and welcoming. I know they will accept him and help smooth his transition.

Immersing in this exotic, vibrant culture and making friends from around the world will be a pivotal experience in Clive’s life. Still, I can’t help worrying about taking him out of the fish bowl and throwing him into the ocean, so to speak. Our director is working with us and helping to pave the way for a successful transition. I’m sincerely glad for that!

Have any ISR readers been through a similar experience? Any suggestions, strategies, plans? I could use some input about now.

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21 thoughts on “From the Fish Bowl Into the Ocean

  1. Honestly, it’s so loving that you’re worried about him – but it’s a normal life experience, and one he’ll be grateful for one day. I was a similar kid to him. At 13 I moved from small town USA to Europe – and I never looked back, as in, I’ve never actually moved back to the USA. I’ve continued to travel and live in over 7 countries since then. He may not love it and choose to continue an international life after he graduates HS, but he will be fine, and he will be a better person for having faced the challenges of a completely new experience that will expand his comfort zone times one million.

    He will experience culture shock, for sure, but that’s also normal. Adults experience it too. Just let him know that ahead of time: Everything will be weird and seem crazy and everything you think you know about how the world works will be different. You will be frustrated and homesick – but you’ll get used to it eventually and learn how to function in it.

    Good luck! And I’m so happy he is going to have this experience with you!


  2. None here again…..I’m ‘pro’ student support services. But please beware of ‘over’ counseling in some of these schools. It can quickly become a spiral even though they are trying to help. He will need to get his hands on the ball early in the game if that makes sense. Do a sport. Get friends keep busy. Expat kids are generally very inclusive. Get him amongst it early and you may never need to see a counselor. Not even for settling in. Likeminded parents and families are the target here. Lots of socializing. Especially Bangkok. That’s the ticket.


  3. I agree with Tigersmom. Leave the profiling alone. Don’t complicate matters. Rip off the plaster and take him. Transition will be tough. No doubt about it. There’s no sugar coating that part. But he’ll come around. Bangkok will soon take care of that.


  4. No doubt you will get lots of advice from well meaning international families and travellers with families. We have all had a mixed experiences of living overseas with children (and young adults). The reality is every situation in unique (and your stepson’s will be also). This can be an adventure for a young person, but just like us it is not easy – it takes work. Take it as it comes and keep communication open with your son. Be open minded and prepared to make changes when needed.


  5. Hi Clive’s mom, I would read an article on Culture Shock and share it with him. Make sure he has a few keepsakes, pictures, perhaps appropriate access to his friends. When the time is right, invite his classmates to the house or an outing. Be aware that even seasoned travelers like us go through these stages: Honeymoon, Dissonance, Adjustment and then reverse culture shock. If it’s hard at first, it’s OK. Best of luck.


  6. My daughter came to China with me when she was around 12, even though she is an Asian, she did not get used to the way people were in Beijing China. But Thailand is not like China, people there are very friendly and if he is to be in an International school, he will have no problems adjusting to life in Thailand, he may miss the food that he is used to in the U.S., otherwise, it will be good for him to experience different cultures and traditions. My daughter started flying on her own and transferring from flights to flights since 13. United charges kids under 15 and extra $150USD per trip to show him where to go and transfer to other flights but all the other airlines consider children above 12 as an adult and if you ask for extra services to help your son, it’s usually free of less than what United charges. He will be happy in Thailand, in an International school. Best of luck.


  7. I read a lot of stereotypes and assumptions in this piece. Yes, it will be a big transition. Massive in fact. And it will be filled with challenges, that are all normal to anyone who transitions to a new place as a 15 year old boy who has to move.

    But you know what? He will likely do okay. Unless he is adamantly opposed to the move, and actively resists it, he will have a honeymoon period, transition period, and likely settle in okay. But he is a 15 year old boy who is moving at a tough time in life. If you keep him in the same school for several years, he will do better.

    However, talk to the psychs and counselors at your school. Give the teachers a heads up about the transition. Know that every kid in your school has transitioned like he has.

    He may even be a novelty of sorts with an accent from Alabama. He might do just fine.

    Prep him as much as you can for where he is going to. Connect him to other students his age. Perhaps connect him with sports teams in the school. Anything to get him to interact with other students.

    I suspect he might do far better than you think.


  8. I would caution you not stereotype your stepson. He will probably sense that and be quite dubious, possibly resentful about you.

    I don’t think the problems that may arise will be because he comes from “small town, Alabama.” (I came from small town, LA, and though my daughter was born abroad, she lived all of her memory in smaller town, tiny town, dot, LA, until we moved abroad. Yet, we were both more cosmopolitan than many people I’ve met abroad.) The potential problems will stem from the fact that he is moving from the home of his primary custodial parent to the home of his non-custodial parent and his new wife. He may feel like an interloper in that new home. The potential problems will stem from the fact that he is moving from everything he has known to the unknown, and it’s not like he can pop home for a visit. His new home is around the world, far from the only home he has known. The potential problems will stem from the fact that he is 15. Kids that age are often full of angst already. Pile onto that his mother is having issues. He may think she is abandoning him. He may feel that his father abandoned him to move across the world and now he has to go live with him. He may think his new step mom is going to resent him. And he is going to put up the walls just in case.

    I can tell you that if we remained in tiny town, LA, and I had to send my daughter to live with her father across the road, there would be problems. Especially if that also meant a new school and she somehow wouldn’t be able to play on the same teams, see her old friends, go to the same park, eat her grandmother’s Sunday dinners, etc. My daughter adjusted well, thankfully, to our move abroad. But she was only 10 at the time.

    Another potential problem is that the school isn’t really international. I don’t know where you teach, but many schools allow a large percentage of national students, and then there might be another large percentage of another nationality. Sometimes the faculty kids are the rare native English speakers and they find themselves isolated by language. It can be challenging.

    I would say be very tolerant of any resentment he seems to show and meet them with patience and unconditional acceptance. Watch him closely for signs of depression. His stress levels will be very high. His situation many of the highest stressors in the PSS tool.

    Good luck.


  9. Here are a few points to ruminate on before he arrives:

    1) Did Clive have any say in the matter….he is 15 after-all and not in diapers!

    2) Is it your obligation or parental duty to ensure he is happy? What is your plan B & C if Clive doesn’t fit in or want to remain?

    3) Do you get along with him as a stepmom and if not, what will you tolerate if the s**t hits the Bangkok fan?

    4) Is Clive’s personality and interests inside and outside of school compatible with Bangkok life? Is he leaving a grilfriend behind?

    5) How is he as a student?

    6) How is he with diverse and disparate fellow students and Asian values?

    My experience as a school psychologist and counselor in 5 overseas schools is that, after a period of adjustment and compromise, most kids settle in pretty well and do enjoy the experience but there is no guarantee that a decision to bring him to Bangkok will be seen by him as a rewarding and desirable option as compared to small-town Alabama! Good luck!


  10. He may like his new place more than you expect. This is what happened to our son. After graduation, he refused to go back to America. He is still in Hong Kong, running his own business.


  11. As a psychologist who has worked in several international schools, I suggest contacting the counselors at the school to give them the heads-up that your stepson is changing schools and homes. They will be invaluable in supporting him and you.


  12. Be sure to explain to Clive that not all countries enjoy the freedom in the USA. Make sure he knows the rules about the king and other laws that might be different.
    If he has a drug or alcohol problem or behavioural problem changing countries will not cure this and may make it much worse as Thai jails are not pleasant and their laws not lenient.

    Also caution him (if he looks like an adult) about what to do when unknown women approach. My friend’s 14 year old, very tall son was approached numerous times by “ladies” and other such people. He learned how to say “No money. I’m 14 years old” in a hurry in Thai.

    He can learn to adapt and enjoy a new culture if he is an average person without the problems mentioned above. Key is to help him find a good friend group and to keep coversations open.
    Sounds like he has experienced significant trauma from his mother’s difficulties. I would recomend ongoing counseling in Thailand. There are many good English speaking providers.


    1. This is the most useless and misanthropic comment on a genuine thread. Keep this kind of bike to yourself.


    2. Any chance we could block Yger from posting (or generally communicating with other people) – a ridiculous comment


    3. I sincerely hope people are NOT blocked for making comment, no matter how flippant you might consider their response. Yger has been neither rude nor threatening.


    4. You’re right Kate, advocating that a young person has the freedom to kill, be killed, or participate in substance abuses within the US is not inappropriate at all. This is a thread for educators. If you tolerate this kind on nonsense in your classroom and deem it appropriate please let me know your school so I never apply to be a faculty there. Clearly your admin is very “hands off”


    5. In so many ways Thailand, and many other countries are a lot ‘freer’ than the United States. I would however tell people about the required reverence for the Royal family in Thailand. My perspective would be ‘differences’ rather than through an optic of freedom which children could interpret as superiority.


  13. Unfortunately, I don’t have children of my own. However, I have seen lots of students who have been in a similar situation, and I have to say that the key is to help him create the community by having ‘playdates’ as soon as he starts mentioning names of students in his class. The faster he starts making friends, the easier it will be for him… I hope that he has a smooth transition.


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