Note: This is Part 2 of a post I wrote about must-know realities of parenting abroad. Click here to read Part 1 of the 10 Need-To-Know Realities About Parenting Abroad.
What You Need to Know as a Family Abroad
In Part 1, five challenges facing many families living outside of their home or passport country were discussed. This post continues with five more realities that commonly feature in family lives abroad. Yes, the world may be your oyster, but be sure to do a reality check now and again. Children and parents will encounter both inhospitable realities and positive potentials abroad.
6. Developing a stable social network can be hard.
Beyond settling in the with family, the first personal desire for your school-aged child is to have friends. Entering a new school as a child, tween or teen is a significant transition for every child. When a move to a new school happens alongside a move to a new country, the desire for friendship can be even more pronounced.
One common feature in schools abroad that focus on serving expatriate communities is high-turnover. Children move away frequently. Teachers move on to other schools frequently. In addition, if you have chosen to hire a nanny or domestic help in the family home, these individuals may leave employment with you for a variety of reasons.
It’s important to be aware that many expatriates and global executives have the intention to live temporarily in any given location. This means that the significant close relationships that you make abroad may be shorter in duration than you expected. As parents pack up their children and move on to the next global posting or career opportunity, both children and parents may face a sense of grief over the physical separation from treasured relationships.
The repeated social losses of real-time, in-person relationships over many years of international living can be very challenging for some parents and kids. For families that choose to move abroad permanently to a particular location, establishing a stable social network is much easier as they have time on their side and more opportunities to create relationships with local parents and children.
7. Media influences may affect children in new ways.
You have likely made deliberate choices in your parenting regarding the amount of screen time that you and your children enjoy as well as the nature of the kinds of screen engagements that they have via television, laptops, iPads, smartphones and other portable screen devices. However, when you live abroad, a few things may happen that can go unnoticed. Your child or teen may find that television is less interesting if the material on offer isn’t in a language they can understand.
The internet may become a more appealing way for your children to seek out entertainment in the language they prefer. Once personal portable devices with internet access are introduced to your kids, screen time can become a way for them to seek and find a cultural reference point that helps them feel a sense of belonging and comfort. It can become very relevant to parents to consider how, when and why their globally-mobile children are relating and connecting to media, especially in a new location.
Another important, yet often overlooked media influence, is representation of your family’s values (or absence of it) in the main media of your location of residence abroad. For some families this is not an issue, for others families it can become a major one.
Every country has particular cultural values that are often clearly identified to non-locals via the media. Some advertisements and programming may relay messages that are counter to what you have been teaching your children about how to live, love and be in the world. You may be surprised when you begin paying close attention to local commercials, television shows and other media in your life abroad.
Learning to look more deeply for the “hidden meanings” beneath media abroad can give you a better understanding of what a culture abroad values and promotes. Knowing more about a country’s media ideals can help you decide if you will mediate the media in proactive ways to support your child’s self-esteem and overall development..or not.
8. New patterns of parental presence can have a powerful impact on the entire family.
Many family moves abroad are for career reasons. Often one parent has an opportunity to try a new role abroad and the other parent travels along with the children to the new location. If both parents were working prior to the relocation, but only one is working once overseas, there will be a new pattern of parental presence for the children.
Kids may have more access to a parent whose life abroad is untethered to a career. A non-working parent can spend more time at home and be available for children. This can be a wonderful experience, depending on a parent’s inner and outer resources. However it can also be tremendously stressful for a parent who has never stayed at home before – let alone abroad and in a new culture!
If a nanny and/or a domestic helper is introduced to the household abroad, parental presence is also affected as additional in-home childcare can increase (or decrease) the amount of contact time between parent and child. For a parent taking on a global position, there are often many changes to the daily lifestyle with frequent trips away, a massive workload and virtual meetings across time zones.
Parent absences at home due to career duties and frequent travel can have a big impact on children of all ages. For some spouses of global executives, family life can feel like single-parenting because of the intense travel schedule of a partner with an international career. What’s important to note is that a career abroad can have a major impact on the day-to-day experience of family life for your children and your partner.
It’s not uncommon for parents abroad to feel over-stressed by the lack of work-life balance which sometimes ends with a parent quitting their job abroad and heading back to their home country. Staying attuned to how parental presence in a context abroad affects your children is a useful way to gauge whether a global lifestyle is working to help (or hinder) your parenting goals and your child’s optimal development.
9. Thoughts and feelings about core values can be especially intense.
Single and childless people who live and work abroad quite often have intense thoughts and feelings about their core values, whether they realize it or not. This usually comes up as inner self-talk: “Should I stay or should I go?”. A life abroad requires more frequent thinking about future plans as documents for employment visas, passport renewals and committing to fixed contracts are part of the regular cycle of being a globally-mobile careerist.
However, those who courageously bring kids into a global lifestyle have another layer of complexity thrown into the mix. Many parents would like to teach their children their own core values through example – by living them. In Margaret Wheatley’s book So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World (2012), she writes “It is a world growing more meaningless as lives are taken over by values of consumption, greed and self-interest.” She goes on to describe how many people are now feeling “powerless and exhausted”.
With the lifestyle privileges that many children of globally mobile families enjoy, a parent may wonder: “Is this lifestyle the right foundation for setting my child up for a successful future? What does “success” mean to me when it comes to my children? What are the short- and long-term consequences and possibilities of raising my child in this location, culture and language?”
Reflecting on the impact that living in a particular country has on a family means a parent’s hopes and wishes for their children’s future have to be considered. It can be a very intense and often deep inner journey as parents try to figure out their next steps in living across cultures while effectively meeting their children’s developmental needs.
10. The physical environment will affect your sense of wellbeing.
Many experiences in our lives are processed through the senses rather than through words and theory. We sense so many things each day without even realizing it and the cumulative effect on our sense of wellbeing (or lack thereof) can be profound.
Some people thrive in urban environments and others in rural ones. Others feel best in something in between rural and urban. Whatever camp you find yourself in, you’re probably aware that your family members also have their own preferences. Wherever you and your family has found yourselves living abroad, the environment is teaching you something. Your learning may be conscious or unconscious but it’s a reality that your sense of wellbeing is related to the physical environment.
There are families who fall in love with the vibrancy and culture of particular mega-cities but who leave due to air and noise pollution. Still other families find themselves feeling like they’re living in a bubble because they reside in compounds because of crime and violence in their chosen location. In the world of hiring global executives, there is a term borrowed from the diplomatic service to describe jobs in these kinds of situations: a “hardship post”.
These are precisely the kinds of locations you might find your health, safety and access to health care and comfort from climactic extremes to be at risk. This is often a leverage point for additional pay to compensate for the lower “quality of life”. Wise parents would sooner, rather than later, determine what kind of physical environment would allow them to feel good and use that inner knowledge to make the right choices for themselves and for their families
The world IS your oyster!
If you choose to look attentively at where you are right now, you may discover that many “treasures” are indeed right in front of you and your family. For now, wherever you have chosen to live and grow, is your precious oyster.
As a parent abroad, you’re in a unique position to lead your children to the value “inside the oyster”. In other words, helping the family pay attention to the beauty, the opportunities and the possibilities in their day-to-day life can really transform challenging transitions into more moments of gratitude.
It takes intentional thought, patience, effort and time to realize that, despite the unique challenges of a family life abroad, a flexible mindset and an ability to “play” with your perspective will go a long way. Your willingness to courageously parent abroad can lead you to enjoy the precious pleasures of experiencing human relationships in countries and cultures outside of the place you may typically think of as “home”.
What are some joys you’ve discovered along the path of parenthood abroad? Please share your nuggets of happiness in the comments below!