Adjusting to family life abroad
How does parenting as an expat differ from parenting at home? Just as the three rules of real estate are location, location and location, the three rules of parenting, most would agree are love, love and love. We may differ as to how we express that love, depending upon our personalities and how love was expressed to us as children.
And even within the same family, some children seem to need ‘tough love’ while others need lots of ‘snuggle time’. But all children need to feel loved and I believe a primary task of parenting is to let children know they are loved and loveable.
When parenting as an expat in a foreign country I would add another three rules of parenting; support, support and more support; first for ourselves as parents, and secondly for our families. I often think of the airline attendant’s monotonous speech about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping your child or someone else. To me this is a clear metaphor for parenting: If you can’t breathe, how can you help your child or anyone else?
How being an expat parent is different
One of the primary ways that parenting as an expat is different from parenting at home, at least initially, is the lack of your usual support networks of extended family and close friends. And if you are the non-working spouse, you may also lack the emotional support of your partner, who is frequently up to his/her eyeballs in new challenges and responsibilities, and just doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day.
Finding ways to get the support you need is a primary concern, especially for the non-working parent. Most large international cities have organizations set up to help expats connect with each other. You can contact your local embassy or simply Google expat groups in your city. Facebook also has many groups for expats in cities around the world.
Build a support network
I urge stay-at-home expat parents to use their time abroad to find something that they feel passionate about and get involved. It may be something that you’ve done before or something totally new that you’d like to explore. Whatever the activity, just make sure it involves others, as this is a wonderful way to bond and begin to build a new support network.
Parents may find that they don’t enjoy the relaxed camaraderie that they’re used to sharing with each other, particularly in a new posting. If the working parent is feeling depleted, stressed and overworked, they’re not going to have much to give at the end of the day. And the same is true for the non-working parent. If the working parent comes home and expects their partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, this may be met with unexpected results. Particularly if the stay-at-home parent has been giving support all day to children, and not getting her/his own needs met.
Children may also miss the working parent who they have enjoyed a close relationship with in the past. They may be confused and angry that they have so little time with their dad or mom. It’s important to really listen to your child’s feelings without trying to talk him out of them. Parents need to function as a ‘container’ for their children’s strong emotions. I often use the carton of milk analogy: If a quart of milk is spilled all over the kitchen floor it’s a big mess, but if that same amount of milk is in a carton in the fridge it poses no problem.
Help your expat child express their feelings
So allow your children to have and express their feelings in a safe way. If a child is angry, for example, research has shown that speeding up activity or slowing it way down are effective tools. For example, you can suggest that your child run and up and down the stairs counting to 100 forward or backward by 3’s depending on her age.
Slowing down activity consists of slow breathing, with your child repeatedly counting 4 complete breaths. Inhale and exhale to the count of one, two, etc. You can also have him lie down holding a pillow. As he inhales, have him squeeze the pillow as tightly as he can, count to three, release and exhale slowly. The next time your child is angry, give these tools a try, they really work!
At the same time, it’s important to offer reassurance to your children that they are deeply loved by both parents. If possible, try to plan one family event each week, such as a dinner or Sunday brunch together. Ideally, children should also be able to have some alone time with each parent whenever practical.
If parents are enthusiastic and have an attitude of adventure, children quickly pick this up. All the more reason for parents to get their own emotional needs met in order to help their children flourish.
Sponsored article by Dhyan Summers, MA, LMFT, Director,
Expat Counseling and Coaching Services