hinking about hosting a foreign exchange student but not sure if you have what it takes? Hosting a foreign exchange student brings blessings to the student and the host family. Hosting a foreign exchange brings challenges as well. Host families, for example, must adjust to having a teenage stranger from a different country in their home.
Top Host Family Adjustment Challenges
Not all host family adjustment challenges are the same because not all foreign exchange students are the same. There are, however, common challenges many host families fear, but really shouldn’t.
Age Difference between Your Kids and Exchange Student
A common fear for host families involves integrating a teenager into the family when the host family’s children are younger. Anytime you invite an individual into your home, there are going to be adjustment challenges. Although having your own teenage kids to ease the transition helps, there’s no reason to think younger kids can’t bond with and become a younger brother or sister to an exchange student.
When our family hosted a teenage student from China, it was our younger children who bonded with her immediately. Young children don’t care about awkwardness. They saw someone cool to play with and our exchange student—who I’m sure, at times, was annoyed by her new “brother and sister”--had someone to help her transition into our home and to love her.
Language and Cultural Barriers
Our student spoke English and we understood most of what she said. She, however, had difficulty understanding us, initially. This, perhaps the top host family adjustment challenge, can be overcome with common sense communication: Speak slowly. Repeat things, if necessary. Check for understanding. Although you may get frustrated, don’t show it. Chances are, your exchange student is frustrated, too, and scared, and in complete culture shock.
Speaking of culture shock, host families must be aware and sympathetic to the cultural change your student must go through. If your student seems depressed or isolates herself, don’t take it personal. She’s suffering through culture shock. The love you show your exchange student as she progresses through the stages of culture shock—euphoria, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance—provides support and leads to a stronger relationship.
What to Cook
Part of culture shock involves food. You may have no idea what people eat in the country your exchange student comes from and there’s a good chance your exchange student will not like what’s for dinner, especially at first. This can be frustrating for a host family. Cooking two meals is not the solution. Not only is it unrealistic, it sets your exchange student apart from the rest of the family instead of integrating her into the family.
We had this challenge with our exchange student from China. She hated our food. It was too bland. We did our best to accommodate her needs by letting her take part in meal planning and trying to find Chinese restaurants (none of which she liked), but she still didn’t like common meals at our house. So how did we overcome this host family adjustment challenge? We bought hot sauce and she put it on everything, literally. There was not one meal that did not include Sriracha sauce. Not the perfect solution, but it worked.
Some host families worry they’ll get an exchange student who behaves badly. This does happen. A lot of problems can be eliminated by establishing and clearly communicating rules and expectations as soon as possible. Even then, behavior and rule-breaking can become an issue. If consistent behavior problems arise, even after you’ve addressed them with the student, it’s imperative you ask the exchange student coordinators to step in.
Host families also worry about how to discipline a teenager who’s technically not theirs. As long as it falls within the rules of the exchange coordinator—make sure you read these rules carefully—you should address issues as you would with your own children. Again, if problems continue, you have resources to help you and the student.
A common host family adjustment challenge involves compatibility. You are, after all, inviting a complete stranger from another country to stay with you for several months. Chances are you won’t click right away. And chances are your children won’t “click” right away. This person you don’t know is coming from a different culture, might barely speak your language, and knows nobody you know. That doesn’t mean, however, that your family and your exchange student won’t be compatible. It just means it takes time.
When you request an exchange student, you may want to make a short list of what’s most important to your family. If you’re an outdoor family, try to get matched with an outdoor student—or at least one who prefers the outdoors over playing video games in a closet all day. If you have divergent interests with the student, discover something you can do as a family. Introduce the student to your interests. You can take interest in something you normally wouldn’t. Eventually, compatibility will come.
Before requesting a foreign exchange student, educate yourself on top host family adjustment challenges and other issues host families experience.