Thursday, February 3, 2011

Expat Kids, not just cost of living

Is being an expat all about attitude, and if so, does this have an immense influence on expat children and how they perceive their situation in this new environment?

If as adults we have doubts about settling in a new country, how do you think our children are feeling?

The inevitable question is “Do we leave our comfort zone?”

Do we disrupt our lives, move away from everything we know and love, our home comforts, family and friends. And finally do we tear our children away from all the above? Inevitably they have the same concerns as we do….

In their minds they are asking questions like, can I adapt, will I be happy, will I make new friends, will I be accepted, will I be good enough and to top it all off they are leaving all their friends behind, just like you are.

With these questions in mind and after much research on the topic there were a few points that stood out for me on the expat child these are discussed below:

1. Attitude

Your attitude as the adult and parent is going to greatly influence how your children settle in the country and accept the move.

We can decide whether to be positive or negative about becoming expats. The more positive parent results in a well adjusted child who looks at the glass half full, finds the positive in every situation and tries to adjust as much as you do.

The positives of living in a new and different environment, so outweigh the negatives. We can start with that fantastical dream of living abroad (the “Out of Africa” experience or exotic India thoughts), this is an adventure for you and them and it needs to be embraced as such.

Perhaps it is the benefit of a better environment, climate, economic situation, better job opportunities and prospects, a better political situation, safer country, etc etc, the reason you have left your country of origin is “your” positive and this positive must be lived every day by the family.

What you and your family are achieving can be what your peers back home can only dream of ever achieving one day. Your attitude back when you were deciding to take this adventure, was one of hope and opportunity, of adventure, of new beginnings and this is how this dream needs to be lived.

Trudie remembers: We saw this move as a wonderful opportunity to expose our children to the world and maybe broaden their horizons.

I was 36 weeks pregnant when we arrived and I was stressed beyond mention. Adjusting to this part of the world was the hardest for me. I gave up a whole support system at home to have a baby in a strange country and had to cope on my own- with just my husband by my side. For Matthew (8) coming to this part of the world is associated with so many wonderful things-he got to be with Dad again (as Dad was always away when we lived at home). He finally got a sibling that we had been praying so hard for. And he got to go to a new school, make new friends and take up a combat sport-For Matthew life was grand.

Shirley says she hated where we moved to with a passion. It was cold, wet, and windy, the people were not as friendly as I thought they would be and it was a really hard and lonely time for at least a year. My first six months I told my husband that I could not handle this place and wanted to go home, but the thought of the crime back home and the safety of my children was more important for me and that was an absolute put off. I really wanted my children to be able to come and go as they wanted and not always worry about whether they would be safe. It took me a long time to stop hugging my handbag to my chest, to stop looking over my shoulder to see if I was been followed or whether someone was going to snatch my bag, to stop locking all my car doors and putting my handbag under my seat. That became a plus in my book and I had to really work hard to change my attitude and that is what I did. I still miss my family and my friends, but I have made new friends here and it helps a lot. I don’t worry about locking my car door anymore or worrying about whether my bag is going to be snatched etc, it makes life simpler and therefore I just carry on with life and hope and pray for the best. With my attitude change, my children have become so much happier and that is what counts.

Each of these parents has had a positive attitude towards their circumstances, even if it did not start off as positive eventually expat parents realize that only their positive experiences can result in their children having a positive attitude too.

2. Being Open minded:

In every case of becoming an expat, the circumstances you are going to experience are going to be different, even if you move within the USA, if you have not been brought up in the culture it is going to be an adjustment. Parents need to be open minded about a culture, to allow their children to be open minded about it too.

Denise remembers first moving to the Middle East: We found the people drove like maniacs and we would raise our arms like the Lemurs – King Julien and Maurice in the movie Madagascar and say “Look at me, look at me, I am a crazy driver” and all roll around laughing. Eventually our kids were mimicking us and believed that all Middle Eastern people drove like crazy people, as they associated crazy driving being due to where we were. We had to correct them on that and say, eventually everyone that lives here drives badly, it is just how it is here and somehow you adjust.

Monique feels that being an expat parent really depends on a lot of things, like where you are being posted - Most of my postings have been to central African countries where food and medical care can be scarce, this can be stressful with younger kids and as a parent you need to be open minded and be prepared to adjust and change your way of thinking and learn many new skills, like administering medical aid, sometimes going as far as doing your own stitches on a screaming kid without pain killers.

3. The right Schooling

We can so easily make the wrong school choice for our children (even in our own countries), but when moving to a culturally different country this could be what either develops your child into having a positive attitude or not.

Let your child go to a school that will suite his/her personality. Will they develop better in a smaller or bigger school, a social / sporty or academic school, what is the vision of the school for the students, check, check and double check if your child will suite the style of the school. Perhaps home schooling is another option to look into. Children need to thrive and will do so if the school appropriately develops their strengths. Send them to a school where they teach in your child’s home language and have children around them with similar cultural backgrounds e.g. sending a Christian child to a Muslim school or vice versa, may create boundaries for that child. Sometimes you do not have an option e.g. there is only 1 school available, but then get involved with the school and teach your child about cultural diversity. It is not “bad” to let your child go to a different school to learn about the new culture or language, but make sure that the child has the type of personality that can cope with this diverse education, else in the long term it may be damaging to their growth. Look at all the options and if your child is old enough, discuss the options with them and let them help make the decision. Educating your child is not an option, they need to be educated but they can help decide where they will be happiest. Remember your child is not you! Where you may cope, he or she may not, his / her strengths are different to yours and respect that they are their own individuals.

Liz seriously recommends sending your kids to a similar type size of school as your kids are leaving - We went from a gorgeous little school to a private huge, pressure pressure school, the main focus was on the academics but not a holistic school.  WORSE mistake, Nick went from a happy outgoing little boy to vomiting every day and getting nauseous when we drove past the school. NIGHTMARE the school offered no support only interested in bums in seats and $ in the bank.
Well it was sooo bad we contemplated going back to the country we had just come from (not home by the way), but gave a smaller school a go.  Nick had counseling from the trauma, and is back to his old happy self ..... so my friends don’t get caught up in the hype but go with your gut feel.

4. Immerse your family in the new language, culture, religion and country.

Locals in any country love it when you speak to them in their own language (try it out sometime). And it can be quite fun, especially if you get it wrong and they help you to correct your words, you develop a relationship with the people from the country and they will become so helpful towards you and you will enjoy getting to know them too. While learning the new language immerse this in the culture, religion and history of the country, go to museums, take tours and do a bit of what the locals would do, be it coffee in cafes in Greece or Paris, to Dhow or camel rides in the desert, or participate in some of the festivals they celebrate.   Make it fun, tell your kids stories about the culture and history, make it educational at the same time. Imagine the stories your children will be able to tell their friends back at home of their adventures and travels around the globe. They will always thank you for these experiences, as long as you are being positive and allowing your children to have fun.

Denise emphasizes that they take the children to museums, on safaris, to cultural villages, and encourage them to try the local food (even if it looks distasteful) as it may just surprise the taste buds. Mostly we want them to learn the local language so that they can know what is being said and communicate with their peers. Who knows they may well live here when they are older.

5. Be Encouraging

Encourage your child to take part in different activities, such as those mentioned above. Let them learn that they can overcome any challenge thrown their way, encourage and support them with whatever decisions they make. They are likely to develop a belief that they can achieve anything that life may throw at them as long as they are positive and set their minds to it. They will learn to embrace challenges head on, rather than being too afraid and shying away from these situations. They have been placed in a foreign environment and what better way to start learning to deal with challenges in life? And if you can encourage them to make decisions for themselves, whether good or bad, it is better than not being able to make any decisions as they get older.

Trudie agrees: I love the freedom that we have here, that we don’t have to worry that something will happen to my child if he goes to the bookshop by himself or to the bathroom. I got that chip off my shoulder and let my child become independent with confidence. We encourage him to be more independent now.

Denise remembers growing up very protected from the outside world. As an 18 year old, when I left home I had no worldly experience and could not make any decisions in life. It has been hard to unlearn that and start making decisions you feel are right for you. I want my children to be unafraid of making decisions in life, whether they are good or not, they must be courageous enough to try.

6. Flexibility and stability

Be flexible in your daily life and know that life is not to be taken too seriously, focus on opportunities to have fun and learn in the process. Your children will take a page from your book and learn to be flexible in their own lives. There is always somewhere new to go and people to meet. It is good to have surprises and not know what is coming next or which country you may move or travel to and experience. It is an adventure, so take advantage of the opportunity.

Maintaining stable relationships and a stable environment for your children is essential because one of the most difficult things for the expat child is building long-lasting friendships and not seeing the home they are living in as home. So create this environment for them, a stable yet flexible home.

Denise says, The feeling of not knowing what's coming next is can be quite stressful at times, and I often have that sick feeling in my stomach about where life is going to take us next, I want my children to have flexibility and be ok with wherever they land up. So I try and show that I am excited so that my kids will grow up not being apprehensive like I am. Life is for the living, so we must live.

Trudie: This is definitely not home and never will be, but I’m not really sure that matters, as long as they know home is somewhere.

7. Communicating with others

Remember as the parent the way you interact with people as an expat will determine how your child will interact and accept people from different backgrounds. As an expat you are going to encounter, not only the new local culture and people, but people from all walks of life, from countries they may never have heard of. Your children need to be encouraged to embrace people from all walks of life, and not to be prejudiced of any.

Shirley: The people in the country we moved to were not very friendly, so I battled to settle and make friends, it took me at least a year. The kids felt the same, but it was easier for Natalie she has a more casual personality. She made friends really quickly but I think it was more of the case that she was a foreigner and the young kids in school really take to outside people. With Marco it was more difficult, he is shy and much quieter and they played none of the sports he used to play at home. It definitely took him longer, but he now has a handful of really good friends, it did make it more difficult for him to settle though.

8. Communicating with your children

It is so important to constantly communicate with your children. Did you involve them in the decision to move?

Denise: When my husband came back from his interview and said he had been offered the position, we told the kids about the country and focused on the positive aspects of moving, eventually our son asked whether we could please move there and of course his sister always agrees with him, so that was easy. We were very excited that he was so excited.

It is very important to consider your child’s opinions and constantly talk to your kids about how they are feeling. Listen to your children, really listen! We have also set each of the kids up on gmail, and they sometimes email us and let us know how they feel (even though we are not talking, they are still communicating with us on their feelings).

Trudie constantly communicated with her son - During our alone time I constantly reassured Matthew that dad will be with us soon, and when Dad did not come back to our home country, but to our expat spot and we had to go there Matthew was the first to jump at the idea.   We also constantly talk about the fact that we will move again- this is not home yet- we will be here for a couple of years - we wanted Matthew to be prepared for that and use it to motivate him-work harder at school etc.

Monique discusses everything with her kids and emphasizes never hiding the truth from them: They have learnt a lot and I would not change what we have done, they have really experienced life to the fullest, doing things most kids their age dream about.

9. Personality, age and attachment types

Your child’s personality, age and how they attach themselves to you is also going to determine how well they settle. If they are still babies, it is going to be a lot easier

Denise finds her daughter who is 6, remembers those people who were closest to her, but often gets peripheral people mixed up. She remembers experiences through our home videos. Our son at 8 remembers a lot more about home and took longer to settle and make friends. If we go down to the pool, Jess will attach herself to any of the children their and start playing, Sean will shy away and take longer to be comfortable to mingle, but once the mingling starts he is just fine.

Teenage years are even tougher. If your child is shy and attaches themselves to you for support, then settling will be harder. The child with an assertive, outgoing personality is going to find it a lot easier to get along in the new environment. You need to take this all into account in helping them to settle. For the shy child, make play dates for them, even if you invite the parent for tea with the child tagging along as company for your child, be sly if you need to. Get your kids out their, join clubs, take them to different socials, help them find their feet and new friends. In the long run, it is going to make your life easier if your children have friends and settle down.

Kids must not focus on the things they are missing out on at home, but rather on what they are experiencing right now (which they would have missed out on had they stayed at home). If they are down and feeling depressed, get busy! Have fun!

Shirley remembers not worrying about Natalie (she was 13) I thought she would adapt easier than Marco (15 ½), which was the case in the end.

Marco could not play the sports he was really good, he found it really hard to settle into the boy school we sent him to as he had been at a private mixed school. I think that this really was a hard period for him and I really worried and felt sorry for him. He also found it really hard to make friends at the beginning, but that changed after a couple of months and he has now made some really strong and trustworthy friends.

He has adapted and I think he is now more at ease with his life and I do not think that he really misses our home country.

Natalie was more adaptable and is more like the locals … she even has a different accent to everyone. She made friends really quickly but I think it was more of the case that she was a foreigner and the young kids in school really take to such a person. Natalie is also easier going than Marco, so I think she found it easier, but she also missed her friends terribly. She still does and always looks forward to going back and meeting up with everyone. She did tell me that it is peer pressure that she is under and to be able to blend into the group, you try really hard to do what they do because if not, then you are not good enough. We were encouraging of everything they did and gave them the space they needed to grow. We let them be independent, which we could not do at home. They have flourished and have very independent, strong and self assured personalities now.

10. Family traditions, original culture and language

It is important to keep your countries traditions going within the family, remember everyone at home is growing up with those traditions and if you are going back to live there, keep those traditions alive within your own family.

Well where we come from we don’t have any dress codes but two things that are close to our hearts, are sport and food, says Trudie. We always watch all and every major sporting event from cricket to rugby with our kids. Where they can see the intensity and passion we have towards sport. The food part is very easy for me, my children get traditional food over and over, on a weekly basis.

It also helps to create new little family traditions while maintaining your own value system and beliefs. As Denise remembers: At home we have full time maids, so in our new country we created traditions of cooking, cleaning and a family dinner every night. One of our traditions is to find out the best thing that happened to each person during the day. To reminisce on the good points. We also have a bell which we ring if you have done something particularly note worthy, such as getting a certificate at school or doing something nice for a stranger, it can be nearly anything special.

Some last thoughts:

Trudie : no matter where you are, make sure your religion is number 1 (even when your friends don’t believe and tease you).   Culture does not define you, you do. (Stand by your values and morals even if it’s hard). Every moment we have together counts –let’s spend it together in a remarkable way. At the end we are all experts and our children are therefore the same as us adults.

Denise: Try and always be yourself around people, don’t try and be someone else or the person you think they want you to be.   Living abroad changes your perspective on life, you meet people that are worse off than you and live in poverty and people who are wealthy beyond belief, people who have few moral beliefs and those who are overly so – this life gives you perspective on so many topics – world politics, thinking globally, it is the different angle and understanding of others that allows you to have more empathy.

You can contribute more to conversations with all the added experience you have gained compared to most people in the world.

Much of the research I encountered showed that – expat kids grow up to be diversity-embracing, intelligent, savvy, articulate, interesting, adults. As their parents we are giving them a chance of a lifetime, a life-altering, enriching experience.

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