MOVING IN, SETTING UP, SETTLING DOWN: PART THREE
by Dr. Jeff Devens

This article was written by high school personal academic counselor Dr. Jeff Devens.

9. What if my child refuses to connect?
This does happen, and when it does its incredibly difficult for the entire family. I remember working with a family who had a senior in high school. The last place he wanted to be was here, even though he willingly agreed to the move several months prior. Upon arrival, he refused to come to school. When he did finally show up, he refused to work. He insisted on returning “home,” even though there was no one there to look after him. As the year progressed he bargained, threatened, and harassed his parents. They eventually decided that mom would go back and allow him to finish his senior year in the United States while dad remained overseas. 


In cases when this potential exists, it is important for parents to answer one very important question; Is there any chance whatsoever that your child may be able to return to the previous post or home? If the answer is maybe or we will see, and your child does not want to move, you can guarantee you will have conflict. It is far better to say no from the onset and deal with the conflict, rather than throwing out the proverbial lifeline as a bribe, when all the while you know this can’t happen. It’s important for kids to understand that as a family sometimes decisions have to be made that not all parties agree with. Sadly, in the above case, the message this kid was allowed to convey was that his needs were more important than the families. 

In fairness to the kids, there may be extenuating circumstances when it’s better to remain in your current post to allow your children to finish out the school year, or to allow them to graduate before moving on. If you have a child that is in their last two years of school, as far as it depends on you, I would strongly encourage you to remain at your current post/job. If, however, this can’t happen and your child wishes to remain on at their current school this is sometimes a possibility. A number of families make this difficult decision each year. Sometimes their child lives with another family, are boarded, or one parent remains back while the working spouse moves on for the year. This decision, however, is further complicated when parents have two, three, or more kids. Not an easy situation, but one that many parents will encounter.

10. Should we allow our son/daughter to continue communicating with their old friends even when they don’t seem to be connecting with new kids at the school?
With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Whatsapp, and other social media platforms it’s difficult not keeping kids in contact with old friends. In fact, it’s quite common and healthy for kids to form lifelines with former classmates, using them as a base of support and security as they transition from country to country. The difficulty arises when they refuse to connect with the host culture, school, and new peers. Having said this, I would not remove or restrict access to old friends. As they engage with the new school and peers, and they will in most cases, the routine will develop and they will see that forming new friends does not mean betraying old ones. 


A side note: It's important for kids to have a routine in their sleep patterns. Sometimes teens will want to remain in contact with old peers even though there is a 12-hour time zone difference. They may need parents to help regulate the amount of time they spend online.

11. Our first year abroad was great. The kids adjusted, we adjusted, and overall had a great experience. Sadly, when we returned “home” for our school holiday/furlough/break no one seemed to care about our experiences. Worse still, people thought we were bragging. This wasn’t our intention at all. What’s going on here?
In order for others to make sense of your international experiences, they need a reference point. It’s not so much that people aren’t interested as it is they don’t have a context. A treetop walk in the Amazon rainforest, viewing the pyramids of Egypt, or taking in the grandeur of the Great Wall of China are commonplace occurrences for many international families. Just as witnessing abject poverty, pollution, and lack of resources in many developing countries. To those without international experiences, it can appear as if expats are bragging (some folks may be) as they speak of their travels. After a few years of international living, many expats simply stop talking about these experiences, choosing instead to compartmentalize this portion of their lives. It’s not until they have visitors from home that they are able to share these parts of their lives more freely. If you’re a recent family to the international community I strongly encourage you to provide opportunities for extended family to visit. Having visitors will go a long way in helping you stay connected with those back home. If this is not feasible, writing a blog, posting photos and videos on Facebook or Youtube, Skyping, and other forms of interactive media are helpful ways to share your experiences. Having said this, nothing compares to smelling durian up close and personally!


12. It seems like every year my child has to make new friends, and they aren’t the ones moving on. How can I help?  
This is often an overlooked aspect of international education. Among international communities, there is a segment of the student population that does not move to other posts. These kids too will have several losses of friendships over the years. Forming new relationships each year can be frustrating just as it may be for the child who is moving on.  Saying “goodbye” to best friends on a yearly basis can take its toll. They too will be dealing with stages of grief and loss and may experience a dip in academic performance, motivation, and overall mood. 


13. After five years abroad we told our kids we were going back “home.” They broke down in tears protesting, “We are home!” What are we to do now?
For the overwhelming majority of expatriates/military families, at some point, they will return to their country of passport for an extended period of time. For some, this takes place after high school when they attend university. Also, it’s not uncommon for families to work abroad for two to three years, repatriate for two to three years, then move on to another overseas posting. These experiences can be wonderfully enriching, and can also be gut-wrenching for families. What often happens with kids and adults is, over time, home no longer is relegated to a particular country. Rather, home is comprised of a series of relationships, experiences, and encounters with others from around the world. In this sense, kids and adults are being molded into global citizens. Their understanding of the world is forever changed, most often for the positive, as a result of these experiences. For military families, the United States government takes great strides to ensure that their families are connected to America—even while thousands of miles away from home. This said one can’t help being impacted by living abroad. 


If your family has spent considerable time living outside your county of passport you can bet your kids will see the world, and their place in it, through markedly different lenses. For example, if you are 40 years old and have lived overseas the past 10 years, this amounts to 25 percent of your life. If you have a 15-year-old these same 10 years amount to 66 percent of their life. Even though they have a passport that identifies them as a citizen of America, Australia, Canada, India, or Korea, you can bet they are going to view themselves or be viewed by similar age peers—as different. I had one student tell me that he felt like a counterfeit. He has all the outside appearances of someone from America, but little to none of the traditional American experiences. 

Parents, when you return to your country of passport or move on to another posting expect there to be adjustments. You and your children will be going through the cycles of transition. The degree of difficulties may differ somewhat but the sequence of stages is generally consistent. 

14. Our company arranged for us to move overseas and has had little follow through with helping us settle. Being thousands of miles away from home, in a foreign country, makes us feel like the company only cares about the labor or work they can get out of us—at the expense of family. What are we to do?
International companies, as a whole, do a really lousily job of follow-through when it comes to helping families settle into a new posting. To be fair, there are a few that have dedicated the resources to helping family’s transition. Such companies understand that a settled home-life makes for a highly productive employee. To these companies (you know who you are) I say “Bravo!” To those that don’t offer extended settling in adjustment services and may be reading this let me say, your company is throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars in the course of your employee’s tenure. Failing to understand the importance of family dynamics and adjustment issues is a primary factor in low work performance and shortened work-life for international employees. I have had countless discussions with families about the lack of company support they experience and they have cited this as a primary reason for repatriating. 


If you’re thinking of coming overseas make sure you understand the costs, that are associated with the potential move. For example, companies that hire you or your spouse will expect significant amounts of time to be dedicated to this role. Frequent travel, long working hours, and high pressures are but a few of the costs that are commonly associated with expatriate life. Families need to weigh such factors against family needs, prior to accepting offers. 

15. I have been brought overseas to work. While I realized this before I started my job, what I didn’t realize is how much time away from family this would require. What should I do now?
I have met with scores of families that have come overseas for their first posting or deployment, not realizing the demands that would be placed on the working spouse and subsequent family. Often, this work consists of frequent travel, long hours, and weekend obligations. In such cases, it seems that little can be done to find time for family needs. Sometimes there are circumstances that are within parents' control when it comes to working. Sometimes the choices we make are just that—choices. We choose to enlist or climb that corporate ladder, just one more rung—believing we’re doing it for the kids.

The reality is, we will either make sacrifices for our family, or we will sacrifice our family. Coming overseas does not mean we have to work extended hours ALL the time. If you believe that, nothing can be done to change the situation you still have a choice. The job or your family—choose. If you are going to operate with extreme, non-negotiable then, in kind, the other extreme is your family. Choose. This sounds incredibly callous to say, but sometimes this sort of wake up conversation is needed to reset the thinking that went into the all-or-nothing propositions that some parents hold.

For those on active duty, your deployment is for a term. You can choose to reenlist or not. Remember, we are talking about choices here. On this note, the choice to sign on for additional years of service should be a family one. This isn’t a decision to be made solo. Rather, this should be a husband and wife/couple decision. Once a choice has been made to stay on or redeploy, the trailing partner should NOT continue to argue and protest the long hours, months their partner is away from home. The time to argue such points is during the decision phase, not after. When this sort of arguing does occur (after the fact) it erodes the relationship and does much psychological harm to the family.


What’s important to keep in mind is that what they are experiencing is by and large normal and part of the transition process.

Note: I am indebted to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken for their seminal work on understanding the transition process: Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. A must read for international families.


In part one of Moving In, Setting Up, Settling Down, Dr. Jeff Devens shares how parents can help their children settle in as they transition into a new culture, school, and country.

In part two of Moving In, Setting Up, Settling Down, Dr. Jeff Devens shares a set of questions and answers to help parents as they transition into a new culture, school, and country.

 


 

  • counseling
  • counselor
  • high school
  • international
  • transition

 

 

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