Expat Parenting: supporting our children’s bonds with family and friends back home
Contributed by Paula Vexlir, Registered Clinical Psychologist
So you have moved overseas, you have managed to find a new home, a school for your children, to start learning the new culture; and you have supported your children through transition. You have helped them name their feelings, you have allowed them to navigate the paradox of having an amazing life and yet missing some of the things you have left behind. So, in the first place, if you have managed to do all this let me say: Wow! Congratulations, superhero!! And if you haven’t: Congratulate yourself anyway since you are a normal person trying to do your best at a particularly stressful time of your life.
You have arrived. You have adjusted (or are still doing so) and regained a sense of stability in your daily life. So now is a good time to talk about how you can help your children with their relationships with their grandparents, uncles, aunts, other relatives and friends back home. So I will be using the grandparents example but feel free to replace it with any other relative you like.
First of all, let´s start by being realistic. It’s important that we acknowledge our children´s ages and what we would expect them to do in an “onsite” meeting, because sometimes we want them to behave differently “online”. So we can end up trying to get a three year old to sit down and talk to grandparents via Skype or any other video conference call system… and most likely at that age they won’t be interested in chatting (at least, no more than 3 sentences) and everybody ends up frustrated. We might become concerned that they won’t be able to develop strong bonds with our parents. But, let´s face it, for our children to sit down and talk on Skype might take more concentration than they have at their age, or it may take time to develop the relationship.
Another concern can be that some children may enjoy speaking to their loved ones but when the images and faces go away, some children could get upset. This might show as sadness, sensitiveness, irritability, low tolerance to frustration, etc). If you notice this pattern you might want to talk with them about how they feel when they say goodbye, and allow them to express their sadness and receive comfort from you. You could ask if they think that having a picture nearby could help.
Something that can be useful for children while “Skype meeting grandparents” is having a project together. Something shared with their grandparents can make paying attention to the grandparents easier for young children. For example they can grow a plant (or two: one in each house) and check the progress on Skype. In this way they not only have something to talk about that helps short attention spans, but also when the image/voice has gone the plant remains helping the children better process the absence. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a plant; they could start a collection of objects, or they could start writing a book together, or reading through a favorite book or series of books, etc. For young children (and for some others not as young) it is helpful to have a sort of transitional object to help ease the pain from having someone you love far away. In this way they can also create shared memories, shared projects that help them feel that we can be close and connected even though we are not in the same place.
[Note: This piece was originally published in Expatriates Magazine and has been re-posted with permission from the author.]