How to manage family relationships from afar

In Expat Life, Keeping in touch by Carole Hallett MobbsLeave a Comment

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How to keep distant family close

If you are close to your family then it is obviously beneficial to all parties involved if you try to maintain these close relationships even when you live overseas. Here are some useful tips on how to do exactly that.

Visits back to your native country

When planning your first visit home after relocating abroad, it’s important, for many reasons, not to go back too soon after your arrival. It’s vital for you to get to grips with your new home first. I’ve written about this in detail in the article first visit home after moving overseas.

It’s important to set expectations both for yourself and for your family around any potential visits back home. Whether you plan to go home once a year or twice a year, whatever you plan to do, I would advise to err on the side of caution. From experience, I find it’s much easier to say I’ll be coming once and then if we go twice, it’s an unexpected and rather pleasant bonus.

Here’s the thing: If you say you go once and you just go once they’ll say, “Why can’t you come again?” If you say you will visit twice then they’ll say can you come three times, and so on…

So if you set expectations and then exceed them it works extremely well for everyone involved because they get to see you and you get to see them more often. But if you set expectations too high and fail to meet them, then you end up disappointing people (and maybe yourself and your kids too) and this is never a nice feeling.

During your visits to them

During your visit back home, I don’t recommend spending all of your time with your family – unless this is your heart’s desire, of course. Planning your visit home is vital to everyone’s well-being!

Spending all your time with your family doesn’t really give you a true break. It won’t give you that 100% rest and recuperation or that magical sense of ‘being away’. On top of that, staying with your family 24/7 doesn’t give you a chance to have a holiday just with your partner or kids, which is equally important. So other than your visits back home, you do need other holidays or time away, budget permitting, when it’s just your nuclear family.

If you’re not that close or it really doesn’t work to stay with family when you’re visiting then don’t stay with them. It is not compulsory! Stay somewhere else. There are always other options and the thing to remember is it’s much more important to have a successful visit than to live under one roof and get all fractious together! So in other words, if you know you’ve got the potential to drive each other nuts – stay elsewhere!

I’ve covered more on visits back home in a previous post: Holidays and visits home as an expat

During their visits to you

I’ve covered your family visits to them but what about they visit you? In a previous post I’ve talked about how to cope with long stay visitors – including your relatives! In this scenario, you need to be very clear on how much time they expect to spend with you versus how much time you were expecting to spend with them!

Phoning home

As you set expectations for visiting home, then the same principle applies for phoning and Skyping etc. Try to live by the following rules:

  • Manage it
  • Set it up
  • Arrange it

I don’t mean to say you need to be locked into some rigid, unbreakable routine but having some level of expectation around when you are expected to call home and how often helps everyone involved, especially if there’s a big time difference between you all. This also helps everyone to get an idea of your routines, so if something goes wrong, you will be more aware that’s something’s amiss. Or not, as the case may be… Read about my panic-situation when my mother was ‘missing’ for our regular phone call!

Some people I know just have Skype on in the background whilst they are cooking dinner, for example, and just chat away as if they are in the same room.  But if there is a big time difference (or other reason) that prevents this, then I do suggest you create some structure around calling home.

Phoning home with children

Where children are involved, I recommend you do commit to a more fixed routine.  Their grandparents will want to regularly connect with the children to see them grow and develop so that they can maintain that closeness – and as a parent you will want to keep that relationship in place even from 10,000 miles away. It’s especially true for those big milestone moments, like birthdays. That’s where Skype and FaceTime are so wonderful because you can actually see what is going on.

If you’ve got very small children when you are living overseas then it’s always good to try to include them when you are on your Skype conversations so they learn who is who – otherwise they might miss out on getting to know their relatives.

If your kids are small enough to be strapped into chairs for mealtimes, consider making some place mats with photos of all the overseas relatives. So where normally you would say: “what colour is that?” or “what’s that?” you would instead say “who’s that?” and “where do they live?” It’s a cute way to have dinner with the family every night!

I think all of the above advice is probably more relevant toward the stay-at-home parent as you are the one taking care of the family whilst your partner is at work, so the nurturing of the family usually falls squarely on your shoulders. It’s actually quite a big role as one of you will be trying to keep in place those family relationships. Be creative, be original and above all, try to keep those ties in place.

So much of living overseas and keeping your family relationships alive is about managing expectations and it probably mainly falls to you – the accompanying partner – to organise, coordinate and manage this. But if you can succeed in all this, the visits home, their visits to you and even phone calls, then you have the foundations for family relationships which don’t just survive the move, but thrive on the move.

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