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Expat Parenting: Adjusting to Family Life Abroad
How is parenting as an expat different from parenting at home? Just as the three rules of real estate are location, location, location, the three rules of parenting, most would agree are love, love, love. We can differ widely in how we express this love, depending on 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 a long time to repent. But all children need to feel loved, and I believe that a primary task of parenting is to let children know that they are lovable.
When raising as an expat in a foreign country, and particularly in a third world country, I would add three other parenting rules; support, support and more support; first for ourselves as parents and secondly for our families. I often think of the monotone speech from the airline attendant about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping your child or someone else. To me, this is a clear metaphor for parenting: If I can’t breathe, how can I help my child or anyone else?
One of the main ways that parenting as an expat is different from parenting at home, at least initially, is the lack of our usual support network of family and close friends. And if we’re a non-working spouse, we may also lack the emotional support of our partner, who is often busy with new challenges and responsibilities and doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day. (More on that later.)
So finding ways to get the support we need as parents is a primary concern for expats, especially non-working parents. Fortunately, in most major cities around the world there are organizations that help expats, especially expat women, find support. We may also find, upon settling down, that we have more time on our hands due to (hopefully) capable domestic staff, which I will also discuss later.
I urge expat stay-at-home parents to find something to do that you are passionate about. It could be something you’ve done before or something brand new you’d like to explore. If you think back and remember a time when you were doing something for what seemed like minutes, and when you looked at the clock an hour had passed, that was doing something you were passionate about. It could be learning something new, like the local language, yoga, volunteering at an NGO, or your child’s school. Just make sure it’s an activity that involves other people, as it’s a wonderful way to bond and start building a new support network.
As suggested above, it can be a loose/flowing proposition for the non-working spouse to look to their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. In fact, I’ve heard women say that being an expat woman is like being a single parent with no dating privileges!
While this may be an exaggeration, it is important to note that you simply cannot squeeze blood out of a stone. If your spouse is feeling exhausted, stressed, and overworked, they won’t have much to give. All the more reason to start building a support system outside of the home. And the same goes for working parents. If he or she comes home at the end of the day and expects their partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, this can have some unexpected results. Especially if the stay-at-home parent has been providing support around the clock and not meeting their own support needs.
Children may also miss the working parent with whom they had a close relationship in the past. They may be confused and angry because they have so little time with their father or mother. It’s important to really listen to your child’s feelings without trying to dissuade them. Parents must function as a “container” for their children’s strong emotions. I often use the milk carton 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’s no big deal problem
So allow your children to have their feelings and teach them to express their feelings in a safe way. If a child is angry, for example, research has shown that speeding up the activity or slowing it down are effective tools. For example, you can suggest that your child run and run up and down the stairs counting up to 100 forwards and backwards, depending on their age. Any repetitive activity that gets the heart rate up, while giving the mind something to occupy itself with other than anger, will work. Slowing down the activity consists of slow breathing, with your child repeatedly counting 4 full breaths, inhaling and exhaling to the count of one, and so on. You can also make him lie down by holding a pillow. While inhaling, have him squeeze the pillow as hard as he can, count to three and exhale slowly. The next time your child has a tantrum, try these tools, they work!
At the same time, it is important to provide reassurance to your children that they are deeply loved by both parents. If possible, try to plan a family event each week, such as a Sunday dinner or lunch together. Ideally, children should also be able to spend time alone with each parent as long as it is practical.
One aspect of parenting that tends to arise in third world countries is the need to explain a wide variety of topics and customs that are new to you and your children. Issues such as your own and your children’s relationship with domestic staff and poverty are two of the most obvious.
Most Westerners have never dealt with the problems that come with having domestic staff, other than a weekly cleaner. This is a far cry from having someone who is not a member of your family in your home day in and day out. The concepts of privacy and boundaries that we take for granted are really culturally bound, and most people in third world countries don’t understand them. This is one area where we can learn from fellow expats about what has and hasn’t worked for them. A word of caution: I suggest you don’t share your “problems” with the house staff with friends back home. I found they have no sympathy for us in this regard!
It is important for you and your family that you find people to work for you that you can truly trust. Honestly, you don’t have to settle for anything less. This may lead to several rounds of hiring and firing, but in the end it’s worth every minute. Of course, how you talk and relate to your staff sets the tone for how your children will behave. I have heard teenagers ordering staff around condescendingly. This is a good opportunity to impress upon your children how important it is to treat all people with dignity and respect.
A younger child may bond quickly with a nanny or caregiver. This can lead to worry, even envy and jealousy that your children seem to relate better to their nanny than to you. There could be several reasons for this: your child may be angry with you for bringing about this change in his life, or it may be an indication that he is not getting the kind of love he needs from you. Be open to exploring this honestly with a new friend, spouse, or therapist if this happens.
Let me say a word about poverty in third world countries – this is a whole topic in itself and one that expat kids have a lot of questions about, especially when it comes to begging kids. Children have a variety of responses to this, depending on their age and ability to learn the information. Most importantly, they need to know that everyone should be treated with the same respect, regardless of who they are. If they want to help and are old enough, you might want to suggest ways they can volunteer together to help the kids, or they can get involved in a volunteer project at school. Treating this issue as a learning moment about basic human dignity will be doing your child a lifelong service.
A challenge that arises in some Asian cities is that outdoor activities are reduced for part of the year due to the heat. If you have young children who are used to playing outside, this can become a problem for both children and parents. Organizing play dates whenever possible is a partial solution. If you decide to hire a nanny, make sure it’s someone who likes to get down on the floor and play with the kids. If he’s not comfortable with that, he’s probably not the best person for your child. Fortunately, most international schools have a wide variety of extracurricular activities to keep your children busy.
If you keep in mind the 3 rules of expat parenting, support, support and more support, you will find that adjusting to family life abroad will be rewarding for you and your children. And when all else fails, talk to family and friends on Skype!
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