Every expat knows the pain of saying goodbye, bidding farewell to their nearest and dearest before jetting off into the wide blue yonder, possibly not to return for months or years.
The tug of hearth and home can give a mighty pull on the heartstrings, causing even the most intrepid of globetrotters to turn a teary eye toward home. The wonders of a new destination can be tarnished by the continual yearning for friends, family, and the familiar.So imagine how disorientating this process must be for teenagers who fly the nest to far-flung shores. Overwhelmed by the unusual, it’s easy to imagine a young person putting misguided trust in tricksters and bad influences. For those at home the horror story scenarios of kidnap, bankruptcy, and falling foul of the law combine for sleepless nights of worry.
Parents of expat teens frequently report that their fears and worries cause more stress than any troubles their offspring actually get themselves into.
It’s not just the worry of trouble and tribulations that cause stress for the parents left at home. Suddenly they go from being Mama or Papa bird, to having to cope with an empty nest. Having spent years dedicated to raising their intrepid offspring, parents now find themselves facing an identity crisis, having to fill hours of the day that used to be devoted to youngsters.
Of course, when a teen sets off on their own path, it’s an exciting time for them and should be a proud moment for the parents waving them off into the world. The young adult may be setting off to explore, to study, or to take up work, but whatever the scenario, parents will always worry.
To lessen the stress and concern of being a left-behind parent, we’ve looked at a range of coping mechanisms that will help even the cluckiest of Mama birds cope with their empty nest.
Help Them Prepare
Be a part of planning their big adventure. Use the last few months before they depart to put them on the best footing possible for taking on the challenges that will arise as they go.
Help them arrange flights, accommodation, and insurance. Wherever possible make arrangements in advance; not only will they have one less thing to worry about but you’ll be able relax knowing that someone is going to meet them from the airport, take them to a reputable hotel, and then on to their next destination.
You can’t hold their hand throughout their trip, but you can help ease them into life on the road. Remember that eventually your young adventurer will need to start doing things for themselves, so make sure they know how much has been arranged beforehand and how much is for them to sort out. Work together to make plans – this is their trip after all and you can’t take control of it away from them.
Make sure that when the time does come for them to fly solo they are ready. Talk to them about skills they have and what they need to learn.
Knowledge is power for a life on the road and the most valuable gift you can give your child is the ability to fend for themselves when things go wrong. Teach them everyday skills like cooking, budgeting money, and manners – but also talk through more serious topics.
Make sure they are aware of dangers they may face, whether they are specific to one country or in general. Warn them about the risks of alcohol, drugs, and sex so they are informed enough to make sensible decisions. Find a way to teach them about nutrition, health, and first aid so they can look after themselves rather than relying on mum and dad.
Not only will this help your teen better cope with their time overseas, it will help you feel confident that they are properly equipped to deal with whatever may be thrown their way. It also serves as a way of bonding you together – working as a team rather than parent in charge and youngster following orders.
Countdown to Departure, Milestones and Return
There need not be any surprises when your child is heading off overseas. Plan out the dates on which things happen and make sure you have a handle on how quickly they will come about.
It helps you confront the day of separation to count down to it and pack the remaining days with pleasant experiences and fun. Then, after they’ve gone, divide the time into short chunks.
Rather than facing a full year without your child, think of the weeks until they start their new school, the months until their birthday, a local festival, or you flying out for a visit. Then, when there are only a few months left, you can start looking forward to their return.
Make sure your whole family can see this calendar, sharing in the excitement of the next big event.
Set up Contingency Plans
Much like helping them get prepared, you’ll be able to rest easier if you know that there are measures in place to help your child if things do go wrong.
Make sure they have physical and digital backups of all travel documents, insurance, and visa documents. Print off scans of these documents and keep one set with you and make sure another travels with your teen along with files saved on a USB stick. Another great asset is a cloud storage account that you can both access. This will allow you to keep further digital copies saved, but also to send copies of documents across the world safely and securely.
Make sure everyone knows the details of insurance companies and contacts for employers, schools, or friends in the country. If setting out on a trek or other adventurous task, make sure they tell you and someone in the country when they expect to be back and what route they are taking. That way, if they if they are late arriving back there are two people to raise the alarm.
Having a Plan B is always a good idea, but remember that it’s the most unexpected events that cause the most disruption and you might not have been able to plan for them. Research their destination and highlight events that may occur and encourage your teen to think of contingency plans for other scenarios too.
The vast majority of youngsters overseas encounter only the mildest inconveniences or illnesses, so don’t start panicking as you plot these emergency plans. This process is intended to give you and your youngster confidence that they can overcome even the most unlikely of circumstances.
Understand What ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ Is
It might not have the most formal of medical diagnoses, but for those who experience it Empty Nest Syndrome is a very real problem. By recognising the symptoms in you and your partner, you can understand the process you are each going through and work together to conquer them.
When a youngster leaves home it marks a massive change – not only in their life, but the lives of those they leave behind. It also alters the makeup of the home with their personality and habits being suddenly absent.
Bad habits or slobbish behaviour that used to drive parents mad suddenly become something that is missed. There may not be as much laughter in the house or home may suddenly be quieter without their choice of music playing.
With their sudden departure, it may feel as though you’re coping with grief, as though they are gone for good. This can send left-behind parents into depression and anxiety. Watch yourself and your partner in order to head these problems off before they take hold.
Whenever kids leave home, especially in cases when they may not be returning regularly, parents report a loss of purpose. When they have spent years devoting their efforts to the care of offspring, suddenly mums and dads have to reinvent themselves. This can cause an identity crisis which puts stress on marriages and partnerships. Talk through in advance how you will each adjust to take care of each other and to enjoy a new found freedom.
Know That Your Relationship Will Change
Right up to the day they leave, your youngster may be relying on you to do their washing, cook for them, and drive them from place to place. Then, less than 24 hours later, they can find themselves responsible for all their own housekeeping, finding a job, and making their way around a strange country without a word of the local language.
Your beloved baby will be forced to grow up fast and become self-sufficient. As they mature, your youngster’s relationship with you as a parent will change.
Being thousands of miles and a few time zones away, you can’t be the boss any more. The ground rules that applied when they lived under your roof no longer apply, and nor can you protect them from making their own mistakes.
Let go of your role as the parent of a dependent child and start embracing your place as a mentor to a young adult. Support them, give them confidence, and offer advice, but also encourage them to trust their own instincts and to consider their options. If you manage this process well, your teen will come to respect you even more and seek you out as a source of wisdom.
It’s easy in the first few weeks without your youngster in the house to hang around in the house reflecting on how quiet it is. Thinking on this point over and over again will not help you cope with separation any more easily.
Instead, line up several projects to keep your body active and your mind busy in between video calls. Rather than worrying about the ‘what if’ scenarios that buzz through your mind, put your energies toward something constructive like redecorating, fixing the garden, or hitting the gym.
Much of the self-induced stress and worry parents inflict on themselves comes not from real problems, but imagined ones thought up during long hours of childless inactivity.
Help Them Get Settled
In the early days especially your teen may feel lonely and isolated, struggling to adapt to new surroundings or their new lifestyle.
Be available on email, video call, and text message to help them conquer the early challenges that are sent their way. Set aside time each week for a longer catch up when you can both discuss how you feel and celebrate their progress in adapting.
Depending on the distance you may also be able to send a few care packages – parcels packed with a taste of home. Favourite foods, magazines, and hand written messages from home can stave off homesickness and also remind travelling teens that there is someone back home thinking about them. It’s also a chance for you to put into words how proud you are of them and how much you look forward to them coming home.
One of the toughest parts of being the parent of an expat youngster is finding yourself without a job title. No longer are you ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, you are just you and you need to work out who that is.
Look for ways to express yourself by dusting off old hobbies or taking up new ones. Treat yourself to something you’ve coveted for years and spend time enjoying it or take up a sport you’ve always wanted to try. Now, without needing to care for a youngster, you should have the time to devote to yourself.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also spend time with your partner, rekindling the romance by taking holidays together and getting to know each other once again. You are no longer just two halves of one caregiving team – you can rediscover the attraction that brought you together in the first place.
All the video calls and late night emails in the world will never be as satisfying or heart-warming as a real-life hug. Wait until your youngster is settled and then decide with them on a date when you can fly out to visit them.
It’ll be a great opportunity for them to show off the life they have built for themselves and for you to see that they are thriving in a safe, secure environment.
By pencilling in ‘mum and dad visit’ onto their calendar, they can look forward to a definite date when someone else can come and look after them, making them feel all the more secure in the meantime.
A visit is also a chance for you to share an experience of the country and to understand what it was that attracted your offspring to jet off there in the first place. You’ll be exploring something that is dear to them and this shared experience will bring you closer together.
Be Happy For Them
Let them know how much their achievements mean to you and celebrate them from afar. This will be as important for the faraway teen as for you, knowing they have the support of a warm and loving family back home.
Don’t be tempted to wallow in self-pity or to resent being abandoned. This time overseas is a fantastic opportunity for your youngster and you should be proud of their courage in grasping it.
It’s a reflection of how good a job you did raising such an intrepid soul.
Did your teenager move abroad? How did you cope? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer