Expat Parenting: 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 widely 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 loveable.

When parenting as an expat in a foreign country, and particularly in a third world 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 I can’t breathe, how can I help my child or anyone else?

One of the primary 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 are a non-working spouse, we may also lack the emotional support of our partner, who is frequently up to his eyeballs in new challenges and responsibilities, and just doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day. (More about this later.)

So finding ways to get the support we need as parents is a primary concern for expats, especially for non-working parents. Fortunately, in most major cities around the world there are organizations in place that help expats, particularly expat woman find support. We may also find, upon settling in that we have more time on our hands due to (hopefully) capable domestic staff, which I will also discuss later.

I would urge stay-at-home expat parents to find something to do that you feel passionate about. It may be something that you’ve done before or something totally new that you’d like to explore. If you think back and remember a time when you were doing something that felt like a few minutes, and when you looked at the clock an hour had passed, that was doing something you felt passionate about. It may 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 others as this is a wonderful way to bond and begin to build a new support network.

As suggested earlier, it may be a loose/loose proposition for the non-working spouse to look to her partner to meet all of her emotional needs. In fact, I have heard women say that being an expat wife is like being a single parent without dating privileges!

While this may be an exaggeration, it is important to keep in mind that you simply can’t squeeze blood from a stone. If your spouse is feeling depleted, stressed and overworked, he’s not going to have much to give. Even more reason to start to build up a support system outside your home. And the same is true for the working parent. If he or she comes home at the end of the day and expects his partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, this may be met with some unexpected results. Particularly if the stay-at-home parent has been giving support all day and not getting her own needs for support 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 is 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.

So allow your children to have their feelings and teach them how to 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 and backward depending on her age. Any repetitive activity that increases heart rate, while at the same time giving the mind something to occupy itself with other than anger, will work. Slowing down activity consists of slow breathing, with your child repeatedly counting 4 complete breaths, an inhale and an exhale to the count of one, 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, and exhale slowly. The next time your child is angry, give these tools a try, they work!

At the same time, it is 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.

An 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 to domestic staff and poverty are two of the most obvious ones.

Most westerners have never dealt with the issues that having domestic staff brings up, except for a weekly cleaning person. This is a far cry from having someone who is not a member of your family in your home day in and day out. Concepts of privacy and boundaries that we take for granted are truly culture-bound, and most people in third world countries do not understand them. This is an area in which we can learn from fellow expats about what has and hasn’t worked for them. A word of caution: I suggest you refrain from sharing your “problems” with domestic staff with friends at home. I have 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 who you can really trust. There is honestly no need to settle for anything less. This may take going through several rounds of hiring and firing, but in the end is worth every minute of it. How you speak with and relate to your staff of course sets the tone for how your children will behave. I have heard adolescents ordering staff around in condescending ways. This is a good opportunity to impress upon your children how important it is to treat all people with dignity and respect.

You may find that a younger child bonds quickly to a nanny or caregiver. This can bring up concern, even envy and jealousy that your kids seem to relate better to their nanny than to you. There can be a number of reasons for this: Your child may be angry with you for bringing about this change in her life, or it may be an indication that she is not getting the kind of love from you that she needs. Be open to exploring this honestly with a new friend, spouse, or therapist should this occur.

Let me say a word about poverty in third world countries: This is an entire topic in itself and one that expat kids have many questions about, particularly when it involves begging children. Children have a variety of responses to this, depending upon their age and ability to cognize information. Most importantly, they need to know that everyone is to be treated with the same kind of respect, regardless of who they are. If they want to help, and are old enough, you might want to suggest ways they you can volunteer together to help children, or they can become involved with 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 curtailed for some of the year due to heat. If you have young children who are used to playing outside, this can become a problem for children and parents alike. Arranging play dates whenever possible is a partial solution. If you decide to hire a nanny, make sure she is someone who likes getting down on the floor and playing with children. If she’s not comfortable with this, she probably won’t be the person who is best for your child. Fortunately, most international schools have a wide variety of after school 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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