How is parenting as an expat different from parenting at home? Just as the three rules of real estate are location, location, and location, most would agree that the three rules of parenting are love, love, and love. We can differ greatly in how we express that love, depending on 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 a lot of snuggling time. But all children need to feel loved and I believe that one of the main tasks of parents is to let them know that they are worthy of love.
When raising an expat in a foreign country, and particularly in a third world country, I would add three other parenting rules; support, support and more support; first for us as parents, and second for our families. I often think of the flight attendant’s monotonous speech about putting on the oxygen mask before helping their child or someone else. To me, this is a clear parenting metaphor: If I can’t breathe, how can I help my child or anyone else?
One of the main differences between parenting as an expat and parenting at home, at least initially, is the lack of our usual support network of family and close friends. And if we’re a non-working spouse, we may also lack the emotional support of our partner, who is often up to his neck in new challenges and responsibilities, and just doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day. (More on this later).
Therefore, finding ways to get the support we need as parents is a top concern for expats, especially non-working parents. Fortunately, in most major cities around the world there are organizations that help expats, particularly female expats, find support. We may also find, when settling in, that we have more free time due to (hopefully) capable domestic staff, which I’ll also discuss later.
I urge expat parents staying at home to find something to do that they are passionate about. It may be something you have done before or something totally new that you would like to explore. If you think back to a time when you were doing something that felt like a few minutes, and when you looked at the clock an hour had passed, you were doing something that you were passionate about. It could be learning something new, like the local language, yoga, volunteering at an NGO or at 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 above, it can be a loose proposition for the non-working spouse to seek out 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 mom without dating privileges.
While this may be an exaggeration, it’s important to note that you simply can’t get blood out of a stone. If your spouse is feeling burned out, stressed, and overworked, you won’t have much to give. All the more reason to start building a support system outside of 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 her partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, this can have some unexpected results. Particularly if the stay-at-home parent has been providing support all day and hasn’t met her own support needs.
Children may also miss the hard-working parent with whom they have enjoyed a close relationship in the past. They may be confused and angry that they have so little time with their mom or dad. It’s important to really listen to your child’s feelings without trying to talk him out of it. Parents need to function as a “container” for their children’s strong emotions. I often use the milk carton analogy: If a quarter of the milk is spilled on the kitchen floor, it’s a big mess, but if that same amount of milk is in a carton in the fridge, it’s not a big deal. .
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 activity or slowing it down are effective tools. For example, you can suggest that your child run up and down the stairs counting to 100 forwards and backwards depending on her age. Any repetitive activity that gets your heart rate up, while at the same time giving your mind something to deal with besides anger, will work. The slowdown activity involves breathing slowly, with your child repeatedly counting 4 full breaths, one inhalation and one exhalation counting to one, etc. You can also have him lie down holding a pillow. As you inhale, have her squeeze the pillow as hard as she can, count to three, and exhale slowly. The next time your child is angry, she will try these tools, they work!
At the same time, it’s important to reassure your children that both parents love them deeply. If possible, try to plan a family event each week, like a Sunday dinner or brunch together. Ideally, children should also be able to spend some time alone with each parent whenever practical.
One aspect of parenting that tends to emerge 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 and your children’s relationship with domestic staff and poverty are two of the most obvious.
Most Westerners have never dealt with the problems of having domestic staff, 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. The concepts of privacy and boundaries that we take for granted are actually tied to culture, and are not understood by most people in third world countries. This is an area where we can learn from other expats about what has and hasn’t worked for them. A word of warning: I suggest you refrain from sharing your domestic staff “problems” with friends at home. I have discovered that they have no sympathy for us in this regard!
It is important to you and your family that you find people who work for you that you can really trust. Honestly, there’s no need to settle for less. This may require several rounds of hiring and firing, but in the end it’s worth every minute. The way you speak and relate to your staff, of course, sets the tone for how your children will behave. I have heard teenagers bossing staff around in a condescending manner. This is a good opportunity to instill in your children how important it is to treat all people with dignity and respect.
A younger child may quickly bond with a babysitter or caregiver. This can lead to concern, even envy and jealousy that your children seem to relate better to your babysitter than to you. There may be several reasons for this: your son 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 honestly exploring this with a new friend, spouse, or therapist should this occur.
Let me say a few words about poverty in third world countries – this is a whole topic in itself and one that expat kids have a lot of questions about, particularly when it comes to children begging. Children have a variety of responses to this, depending on their age and ability to know the information. Most importantly, they need to know that everyone should 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 can volunteer together to help the kids, or they can get involved in a volunteer project at school. Treating this topic as a learning moment about basic human dignity will do your child a lifetime of service.
A challenge that arises in some Asian cities is that outdoor activities are reduced for part of the year due to the heat. If you have young children who are used to playing outdoors, this can become a problem for both children and parents. Organizing playdates whenever possible is a partial solution. If you decide to hire a babysitter, make sure it’s someone who likes to get down on the floor and play with the kids. If she is not comfortable with this, she is probably not the best person for her child. Fortunately, most international schools have a wide variety of extracurricular 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, chat with family and friends on Skype!