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Expat Parenting: Adjusting to Family Life Abroad
How does parenting as an expat differ from parenting at home? Just like the three rules of real estate are location, location and location, the three rules of parenting, most would agree are love, love, love. We can vary greatly in how we express that love, depending on our personalities and how we were shown love as children. Even within the same family, some children seem to need “tough love” while others need lots of cuddle time. But all children need to feel loved, and I believe that the primary task of parenting is to let children know that they are loved.
When parenting as an expat in a foreign country, and especially in a third world country, I would add three more parenting rules; support, support and more support; first for us as parents and second for our families. I often think about the airline attendant’s monotone 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 expat parenting differs 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 spouse who is not employed, we may also lack the emotional support of our partner, who is often overwhelmed by new challenges and responsibilities, and simply doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day. (More on this 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. Also, after settling in, we may find that we have more time on our hands due to (hopefully) capable domestic staff, which I’ll also talk about later.
I would urge expat stay-at-home parents to find something to be passionate about. It could be something you’ve already done or something completely new you’d like to explore. If you think back and remember a time when you were doing something for what seemed like a few minutes, and when you looked at the clock when the hour had passed, it was something you were passionate about. It could be learning something new, such as 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 start building a new support network.
As suggested earlier, it can be a loose/loose proposition for the non-working spouse to ask their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. In fact, I’ve heard women say that being an expat wife is like being a single parent with no dating privileges!
While this may be an exaggeration, it’s important to remember 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 your home. And the same goes for the working parent. If he or she comes home at the end of the day and expects their partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, it can have unexpected results. Especially if the stay-at-home parent is providing support all day and not meeting their support needs.
Children may also miss working parents with whom they had close relationships 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 respond to them. Parents must function as a “container” for their children’s strong emotions. I often use the milk carton analogy: if a liter of milk is spilled on the kitchen floor, it’s a big mess, but if the same amount of milk is in a carton in the fridge, it’s no problem.
So let your children 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 activities or slowing them down are effective tools. For example, you can suggest that your child runs up and down the stairs counting to 100 forwards and backwards depending on his age. Any repetitive activity that gets the heart rate up while giving the mind something to occupy itself with other than anger will work. The deceleration activity consists of slow breathing, with your child counting 4 full breaths in succession, inhaling and exhaling to one count, etc. You can also place him to lie down holding a pillow. While inhaling, let him squeeze the pillow as hard as he can, count to three and slowly exhale. Next time your child is angry, try these tools, they work!
At the same time, it is important to offer reassurance to your children that both parents love them deeply. If possible, try to plan one family event each week, such as having dinner together or Sunday brunch. Ideally, children should also be able to spend some time alone with each parent whenever practical.
A common aspect of parenting in third world countries is the need to explain a wide range of topics and customs that are new to you and your children. Issues such as your and your children’s attitudes towards domestic staff and poverty are two of the most obvious issues.
Most Westerners have never dealt with the problems posed by house staff, other than the 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 cultural and not understood by most people in third world countries. This is an area where we can learn from fellow expats about what worked and what didn’t work for them. Warning: I suggest you refrain from sharing your house staff “problems” with your friends back home. I found they had no sympathy for us in that respect!
It is important for you and your family that you find people to work for you that you can really trust. Honestly, there’s no need to settle for anything less. This may take several rounds of hiring and firing, but in the end it’s worth every minute. How you talk to and treat your staff naturally sets the tone for how your children will behave. I heard teenagers ordering staff around in a condescending manner. This is a good opportunity to show your children how important it is to treat all people with dignity and respect.
You may notice that a younger child quickly becomes attached to a babysitter or caregiver. This can cause concern, even envy and jealousy because your children seem to have a better relationship with the nanny than with you. There could be a number of reasons for this: Your child may be angry with you for bringing this change into her life, or it may be an indication that she is not getting the love she needs from you. Be open to exploring this honestly with a new friend, spouse, or therapist if this happens.
Let me say a few words about poverty in third world countries: this is a whole topic in itself and one that children of expats have a lot of questions about, especially when it comes to child begging. Children have different responses to this, depending on their age and ability to recognize the information. Most importantly, they need to know that everyone should be treated with the same kind of respect, no matter who they are. If they want to help and are old enough, you can suggest ways you 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 do your child a lifelong favor.
A challenge that emerges in some Asian cities is that outdoor activities are limited 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. Arranging play dates whenever possible is a partial solution. If you decide to hire a babysitter, make sure she’s someone who likes to get down on the floor and play with the kids. If she’s not comfortable with this, she probably won’t be the best person for your child. Fortunately, most international schools have a wide variety of after-school activities to keep your children occupied.
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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