How to support your expat child(ren)!
“Where do you come from?” A perfectly normal question to ask first time you meet someone. As you get to know them and realise their difficulty in answering this question, others might seem more fitting: “Where do you belong?” or “Where is your home?”
These are all questions many expat children struggle to answer. And when they answer, they rarely have a short reply ready, but often feel at a loss regardless of how they explain their situation.
They might share nationality with one or both of their parents, they might have been born in a country foreign to their parents’ and they might have grown up in one or more place(s) different to their passport county. For many, this is confusing.
On my blog, I have posted short posts on some common aspects of Danish child life. Though this blogpost has references to child-life in Denmark, it's also relevant for expat parents in other countries. The mentioned aspects of Danish child life might be foreign to you, they might be familiar - some you may have integrated in your own family, some you may dislike and can’t see yourself accepting for your family. And that’s the gist of being an expat parent: Your children are brought up in an environment foreign to you and your culture; and as such, they might be exposed to norms and values far from yours.
Some psychologists talk about an expat child syndrome describing children who are suffering emotional stress as a result of one or more move(s) abroad. This is a theme in itself, and the aim of this blogpost is to help expat parents support their child(ren) make sense of being stuck between two or more cultures and the stress this can cause them.
Often, adults perceive young children’s stories or issues as minor, perhaps even insignificant, but to the child, they are important. If you show your child(ren) that you are interested in whatever they have to tell, you show them that they matter and that their opinion, worries and issues matter. By building a trusting relationship from an early age, your child(ren) are more likely to turn to you if they are struggling when they become older.
And communication is key in supporting your expat child so you would want to build a good, trusting relationship from an early age for them to safely communicate with you. Below are some ideas to questions worth asking and exploring with your child(ren):
How are you finding your new school?
What kind of traditions are important at your new school?
What are your classmates like?
How do you find they and what they do are different to how we normally do things?
And how is that affecting you?
What would you like to do more of at home?
By inviting your child to talk about things in an open and accepting manner and by being open to their suggestions to incorporate into your family life, you help them make sense of their experience, you validate them and show them they are important to you.
Try to really listen to them. Try to focus on what they are telling you rather than on what you want to reply or the boundaries you might want to set. Try to accept that they will view the world through a different set of spectacles than you do.
With more sensitive topics like curfews, sex, alcohol etc., it can be less confrontational to start talking about things in general terms: For instance, ask your teen if they have seen the survey published on teenage drinking in Denmark. Ask how they feel about the subject. You may find that your worries are needless, or you are able to work together to formulate boundaries for your child(ren).
For your child(ren) to develop a sense of belonging, it is important they engage in activities outside of school. Not only does it allow them to explore their interests, it also allows them to feel part of a community outside of school - and it’s a fab way to make new friends and learn the local language.
It’s perfectly normal to experience homesickness and to miss friends and family at home. Support your child(ren) in keeping in touch with these, eg. via Skype and make time for your child(ren) to visit their friends when you go on holiday to your home or previous countries.
By learning the local language and by mixing with the local people, you show your child(ren) that it is possible to be engaged in the local community, and that you are able and willing to integrate some of the Danish culture into your adult life making it easier for your children to follow suit and mix their cultures.
Try to adapt some of the local traditions. Not only might they enrich your own life; it will also enhance your child(ren)'s sense of belonging and acceptance of the culture you are in. Some say, we are the places we have lived - remember that part of choosing to live abroad was to broaden your horisont: Be mindful not to limit yourself because if feels safer to not open up to other ways of doing things.
Be aware that the stronger bonds you develop with the children your child spends time with as well as their parents, the easier it becomes when issues arise. Some say: Little children, little problems - big children, big problems; and issues will arise! At some stage, letting your child cycle to school will be the least of your concerns.
As long as your children are under your supervision, it’s easy to guide them and raise them with your own cultural values. When they become older, they start to look to their peers for validation: In fact, from around school age, children begin to look for affirmation from teachers and peers, and they begin to take pride in demonstrating skills valued by society. Around the time they enter their teens, an adolescent search for self and personal identity begins.
Teenagers will experiment with the values and believes they have been brought up with, and they will explore others. This can be immensely difficult when bringing up children in a culture which is different to your own. Try to stay as open and accepting as possible of the culture you have chosen to bring your child(ren) up in and of your child(ren)'s experiementing:
"Give the ones you Love,
Wings to Fly,
Roots to come back to,
and Reasons to Stay"
For parents bringing up their children in their home culture, this is difficult enough; for expat parents, this represents an extra challenge.
First posted in May 2020; revised March 2023