Last month I wrote about the 5 things my children have gained from living peripatetic lives in multiple countries and cultures. I realise that in writing the article, I ran the risk of sounding a little smug about our parenting decisions. But as any expat parent will confirm, we are constantly second-guessing whether or our less conventional lifestyle choices will benefit our children in the long run. That self-doubt is fuelled by some of the less appealing aspects of their lives:
1. Their experience doesn’t reflect reality
Here in our cosy little international school bubble, few of their friends’ parents are divorced and most of their friends’ families fit within a relatively narrow socio-economic band. The vast majority of families have one parent who is not working and whose primary focus is the children. It’s hard to paint a picture for them of how the real world is when THEIR reality is so different.Our strategy: Encourage them to develop a broader group of relationships within their host community (not always possible, but we try). Expose them to the way people live around them and try to make them aware of their privilege.
2. They are constantly saying goodbye
Its one of the harsh realities of expat life for children and adults – eventually everyone leaves. Of course it’s wonderful that they have friends all over the world and with a multitude of accessible and inexpensive ways of keeping in touch they have many more options to maintain friendships across borders and oceans. But it means that they have very little continuity in their friendship groups that sustain them on a day to day basis. We worry that the miss out on some crucial support as they grow up because their friendships are always changing. We also wonder if sometimes they hold back in their relationships, limiting the depth of their friendships so that they minimise the heartache when those friendships are altered by distance.
Our strategy: We encourage them to keep up with friends who have moved and often take crazy detours on trips to catch up with friends in other countries. I don’t think we’ve cracked the holding back issue yet but we talk about friendships in the hope that we’ll be able to guide them in how they manage their relationships.
3. Their conflict resolution skills are not fully developed.
Sometimes my children back away from conflict with friends or with children who are definitely not their friends. They choose not to confront some issues because they know that they will resolve themselves eventually when one or other party to the conflict leaves the country. As parents we worry that they won’t learn to stand up for their own needs and that they will never properly develop the conflict resolution skills they will need to function effectively as adults. They are putting our minds if not our nerves at ease on this issue however as they certainly don’t shy away from conflict with each other!
Our strategy: We guide them to stand up for themselves and for their own needs. We use their sibling conflicts to try to teach them the skills they need.
4. Their relationships with their extended families are different
We would encounter this issue even if we lived in my husband’s or my home country as our home countries and our families are on opposite sides of the planet. However living away from both families changes the nature of the children’s relationships with our families. They have close bonds with both sets of grandparents but their interactions are infrequent and very intense and very different than they would be if we lived in the same country. Their relationships with Aunts, Uncles and cousins are more varied – some are close because we see each other relatively often, others are very distant. We worry that our children are losing out by not having the involvement in their lives of other adults who love them unconditionally and by having fewer quasi-sibling relationships with cousins.
Our strategy: we encourage as much interaction as possible between visits via Skype, e-mail etc. When family visits or we visit family, we try to make sure that the children get one-on-one time with other family members and we encourage shared interests that can be carried over to the communication between visits.
5. They lack a sense of belonging
Our children have Australian and British passports but have never lived in either country. Their connection to either place is somewhat abstract as neither of them really knows what it means to be British or Australian and I think that if they went to live in either place they would realise that they are different from Brits or Australians who have lived their lives there. Besides having a large variety of sport teams that they can potentially support, they know that they don’t really belong in any of the 5/4 host countries they have lived in to date. We are on the cusp of the teenage years where a sense of belonging and fitting in becomes ever more important,
Our strategy: We are lucky to have our children in a school that is packed with children just like them and where they do have a strong sense of belonging. We’ve made them aware that they are TCKs and we talk to them about what that might mean for them and we hope that that knowledge will help them to find belonging in that community as they move on to university and beyond
At the end of the day, we’re no different from most parents around the world; expats or not. We are trying to make the best decisions for our children with the resources that are available to us. Our children experience is what it is and nothing will ever change that, so we are focused on helping them to understand what it means for them so that they can take advantage of their unique strengths and so that they have strategies for coping with the disadvantages. We hope that when our children are adults, they will view their experience as massive overall positive that we perceive it to be.
What are your challenges as an expat parent and what are your strategies for overcoming them?
Evelyn Simpson is a personal development coach who works with the accompanying partners of expats helping them to transition to expat life and to find happiness and fulfilment in their lives overseas. Evelyn has spent almost all of her adult life living as an expat on 3 continents and in 5 countries. She’s been a working expat, an accompanying partner and has founded her own portable business, The Smart Expat, while overseas. Evelyn and her Australian husband have two children who have yet to live in either of their passport countries.
You can learn more about Evelyn and her work at www.thesmartexpat.com where she blogs regularly about expat life.