- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

It's tough enough to be a teen-ager in America. Try being one in a foreign country.

"Teen-agers live and die by fitting in," says J. Stewart Black, author of "So You're Going Overseas" and a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. "In a new country, it's doubly hard. All normal social dynamics are exacerbated because there is so much uncertainty. The biggest thing I've found is that parents really have to stay in touch and in tune with teens" when a family moves abroad.

This, perhaps, is easier said than done, says Mr. Black, who also serves as managing director of the Center for Global Assignments, a consulting and research firm based in San Diego. On average, he says, expatriate children have a looser connection with their parents than their stateside peers enjoy with their parents.

The working parent abroad usually is busier and travels more than he or she did back home, Mr. Black says. The parent who is not working is dealing with all sorts of adjustment issues from groceries to paying bills frequently without the help of the overworked or absentee partner.

"So the kids are left more to themselves, and now they're more vulnerable," he says. "Fitting in and being accepted is harder, so whether it's throwing rocks or drug abuse, the pressures are much higher."

The rock-throwing incident to which Mr. Black refers occurred last February. Three teen-age sons of U.S. servicemen stationed in Darmstadt, Germany, were convicted of murder and attempted murder after they tossed rocks from an overpass, striking and killing two women and injuring several others. Psychologists and commentators worldwide tried to explain the mind-set of the defendants by focusing on the sense of isolation often experienced by overseas personnel.

But not all teens living abroad have adjustment problems.

Jimmy Wackerbarth says he didn't feel so isolated when he lived in Brazil and Poland. Mr. Wackerbarth, 18, is the son of a foreign-service officer. A senior at George Mason High School in Falls Church, the teen lived in Brazil for several years during the mid-1990s. Before that, he lived in Poland.

"It wasn't so difficult," he says. "We were around other foreign-service kids and other international kids."

His mother, Cindy Wackerbarth, says international children "are always out there getting along with everybody; they have the ability to relate, because they've had to."

She says she believes that the cultural environment of Brazil was safe for her son although "sometimes he would be invited to birthday parties that would last until 2, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, but they were always well-supervised."

But parents who have been stationed in other countries often express concern about looser restrictions on drugs, alcohol, pornography and tobacco.

Rosalind Kalb, a clinical psychologist and co-author of "Moving Your Family Overseas," lived with her family in Tokyo during the mid-1980s.

"You could buy liquor from a vending machine, and that was an issue for families with teens," she says.

And in Hong Kong, she remembers, "lots of the families had maids living in the home. The parents in these families were doing a lot of traveling, so teen-agers were being supervised by these people. That's not the job of the person there to manage your household. It's too much responsibility."

But before teen-agers can have any experiences overseas positive or negative their parents first must get them there. And just uprooting teen-agers from their home and friends can be likened to riding a mule away from the barn.

"Families with teen-age children can have a hard time," says Anita Komlos, national director for business development for Berlitz Cross-Cultural, based in Princeton, N.J. Teen-agers, she says, "are already set in their peer structure and hobbies and after-school stuff. They resent the parents because they have to give up everything in their lives for the parents' career. They are very, very, very resistant."

Faye Barnes, director of the State Department's Family Liaison Office, advises relocating parents with teen-agers to check out the school situation at the Office of Overseas Schools, which is open to American business, too, by accessing the Department of State Web site. Contact someone else in that country to find out what the social scene is for teens, she says. Call the embassy of the country to which you are assigned and see if they have any cultural information they might be able to share with young people.

Lastly, says Ms. Barnes, since American things may not be readily available overseas, "I'd let teens have a pretty good shop before they leave here let them get all their music, clothes and things important to them. I'd let them have a pretty good feast on that."

Just as it is for other members of the family, says Ms. Barnes, "it's a lot easier for teen-agers to move overseas than to move back, because the other foreigners are more welcoming, more open. They remember what it's like to move. But in American high schools, we do not have a transient environment like overseas schools have, so the kids are not used to it."

Mr. Wackerbarth and his foreign-service peers have found relief with AWOL. Short for Around the World in a Lifetime, AWOL is a social and support group for foreign-service teen-agers who have returned to the United States.

Members of the group get together several times a month for activities or discussions maybe just to talk about taking that first step onto the campus of a U.S. high school after moving back from an overseas assignment.

"It's hard to come back to the place you think you're from," he says. "I really didn't know what to expect from the kids back here what was cool, what was not. It's kind of intimidating, and AWOL has helped. But besides that, you just have to deal with it."

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