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Culture Shock & Au Pairs
Culture Shock is a phenomenon that occurs when a foreigner enters a new culture and experiences unpleasant adjustment symptoms that can range from problems sleeping, mental fatigue, a delay or refusal to speak the new culture’s language, a desire to return home and feelings of hopelessness. Au pairs experience culture shock in varying degrees when they arrive. Most of them adjust quickly and are excited to meet the challenges of her new culture and all that is has to offer. A significant number of au pairs never adjust and they usually return home soon after their arrival due to a number of reasons.
Recognizing cultural shock and the symptoms will help reduce the problems that may arise between your au pair and your family. If you understand how difficult it is for these young girls to adjust to a new country and a strange and different culture, you can be proactive in minimizing the disruption it can have on your family and for your au pair.
Give Your Au Pair Time to Adjust
Be patient and give her the time to adjust. Talk to her about culture shock – bring it out in the open for discussion. Ask your counselor what she plans to do for your au pair in getting her connected to other au pairs in the area, thus creating a social network and support group that greatly assists with difficulty assimilating to American culture. In a few weeks, your au pair should be adjusting well within normal parameters.
However, many au pairs have significant difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings and may react with frustration, confusion and intense homesickness.
Signs of Distress
These difficulties may present as minor physical complaints: stomach aches, headaches, minor colds and eating problems (either overeating as a way to comfort themselves or a lack of appetite and refusal to eat new and different foods). Other symptoms include anxiety and feelings of disorientation, uncertainty and intense loneliness, which can often lead to depression. These symptoms can often be combined with an intense dislike with certain aspects of the new culture. Your au pair may complain to others about your family, her room, the food, your the children and about the United States in general. She may call her parents multiple times a day to complain and feel them out about coming home. Culture shock normally occurs several weeks after the au pair arrives, but it may develop in the first week, when the initial excitement wears off and she realizes she will have to deal with a new environment for a long time.
Culture Shock is Hard On the Au Pair and the Host Family
Difficulties in assimilating can be disruptive and troubling for both you and your au pair. You may feel surprised that your bubbly and gregarious au pair is now hostile, silent and refuses to come to the dinner table. You may find she is hoarding food in her room and she is experiencing sudden weight changes or becomes lethargic. If your au pair continues to show signs of extreme cultural shock, you need to call your agency and the local counselor. Many times inexperienced counselors or managers will tell you to wait, that these symptoms are normal and that in a month or two everything should be just fine. Waiting for 2-3 months for your unhappy, and possibly depressed, au pair to recover may be a recipe for disaster.
When Is It Time for An Intervention?
How do you know when the culture shock your au pair is experiencing is serious enough for a professional intervention? First, look for signs of depression accompanied by feelings of hopelessness – when these two elements are presented together your au pair may need professional help. Studies have shown that when feelings of depression are accompanied by feelings of hopelessness the incidence of suicidal thinking increases.
If her biological parents are telling her she has to stay and finish out the program, and you and the counselor are telling her the same thing, and there is no relief of her symptoms, she very well may develop a depressive disorder. Some of the symptoms of depression are: a lack of interest in things that once were pleasurable; sleep problems; unusual eating patterns; sadness, crying, physical and mental fatigue and the inability to concentrate and function normally at work or in social situations. If you recognize these symptoms in your au pair you should call your agency at once for assistance.
Tip Alert: If your au pair agency takes a “wait and see” attitude but you feel your au pair’s ability to function is undermined by the symptoms of culture shock that may have worsened into a depression, do not hesitate to call and discuss your au pair’s adjustment difficulties with your physician. If the agency and/or counselor will not do anything, bring your au pair to the doctor yourself. Au pairs have medical insurance and this visit should be covered. It is important to get your au pair help if you think she is suffering from depression and not just cultural shock but the only person who can make an accurate diagnosis is a medical doctor or a psychiatrist. Don’t try to play therapist, instead, have her evaluated for your peace of mind and for the safety of your children and for the au pair herself. She may be unable to express her feelings and she may need help and not be able to ask for it. She is in your care, so make sure you treat her the way you would your own daughter.