Ask any expatriate parent about the impact of expatriation on their children and you will realise that they are often second- guessing whether or not their less conventional lifestyle choices will benefit their children in the long run. This “concern” is often fuelled by some of the less appealing aspects of their lives. Here we discuss the challenges and make some suggestions about how to deal with them.
1. Their relationships with their extended families are different
Living away from your families changes the nature of the children’s relationships with them. In person interactions are less frequent and more intense and very different from how they would be if you lived in the same country. You may worry that your children lose out by not being involved in the lives of relatives who love them unconditionally, and by having fewer quasi-sibling relationships with cousins.
Suggestions: Encourage as much interaction as possible between visits via Skype, e-mail etc. When family visits ensure that your children get one-on-one time with other family members and encourage shared interests that can be continued between visits.
2. They are constantly saying goodbye
It’s one of the harsh realities of expat life for children and adults – eventually people leave. It can mean that they have little continuity in the friendship support groups that sustain them on a day-to-day basis. Over time your children may choose to hold back in their relationships as a strategy for minimising the heartache when those friends leave. They may also come to believe that friendships are transitory and never long lasting. This can have an impact on the commitment that they devote to relationships as adults.
Suggestions: Emphasise that not all friendships come to an end and that it is worth investing time and effort in building and then sustaining the important ones, even from a distance. Encourage your children to keep up with friends who have moved (so much easier with modern day technology).
3. Their life can be one of privilege
For many “typical” kids of international assignees they live in somewhat cosy international school bubbles where few parents are divorced and most of 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 their children. It can be hard to paint a picture for them of how the real world is when THEIR reality is so different.
Suggestions: Encourage them to develop a broader group of relationships within their host community (not always possible, but good to try). Expose them to the way people live around them and try to make them aware of their privilege.
4. They lack a sense of belonging
Living abroad away from their country of birth can mean children do not have a strong sense of identity or attachment to any one national group or entity, particularly if you are serial assignees and move regularly. Children who have spent a portion of their formative years (0 – 18) in cultures different from their parents are often referred to as “third culture kids (TCK)”. A TCK builds relationships to the cultures they have experienced while not having a full ownership in any. This can lead them to feel that they do not “belong” anywhere and impact on their sense of personal identity.
Suggestions: Make your children aware that they are TCKs and talk to them about what that might mean for them. Often TCK’s find their sense of belonging with other TCK’s, an advantage of international schools. Repatriation back to your home country can have implications in this respect, although you may view your passport country as “home”, they may not.
A helpful resource is: Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. David C Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken.
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