Part 4 in a series of 4
So they’ve finally headed off into the big wide world. Whether you’ve taken them yourself or because of circumstances that responsibility has been passed to another family member, the time comes you find yourself sitting in a neat, empty bedroom, staring at the walls wondering how it all happened so quickly.
The previous weeks of frenetic activity with you making sure everything needed was bought and packed, all paperwork in place, last minute phone calls and arrangements made, the final things said that needed to be said and those long dreaded goodbyes endured.
And here you are, in the quiet after the whirlwind wondering where the time has gone, wishing you’d had a few more days. The sense of anti-climax and sadness can be overwhelming. A deep searing in your gut that life has changed and you have no sense of when it will feel normal again. Knowing you have to create a new normal when part of the family is longer living under the same roof, and the house will not hear their laughter or be filled with their energy for several months. It can be a daunting prospect.
Remaining siblings will feel strange too; not sure whether to celebrate being the eldest, maybe only child in the house, or feel sad because everyone else seems to be. They want life to go on the same as it always has and may feel unsettled because of the subdued mood of parents.
You’ll be anxiously waiting for the first phone call/ text/ FB message or Skype. How often contact is made in the first week or so will have been discussed before they left, but don’t expect them to stick rigidly to any schedules you came up with.
Orientation weeks as we know are hectic, full-on meeting new people, sharing experiences so phone calls can be tough to fit in. That’s when the wonder that is Facebook comes into it’s own. You can leave a short message, let them know you’re there when they’re ready to get in touch. If you’re friends on FB you’ll be able to see posts they’ve made to their friends and get a feel for how they’re doing.
When they do finally get in contact always be upbeat and positive, if they know the conversation’s going to be an inquisition it will put them off calling. “How lovely to hear from you, how’s it going?” will put your child far more at ease than, “Why haven’t you called? Tell me every detail.”
If you have boys it can be tough to get information out of them at the best of times and calls from them may be short. Don’t worry, this is normal. A wise man once told me that you have only seven words to connect or get an idea across to a boy, after that they switch off. Use those seven words wisely. Boys seem more comfortable writing than talking so FB and email may be a better option than phone or Skype.
They’re much better at communicating feelings through something else rather than directly. My eldest son would always phone and ask about a recipe or the best way to tackle a domestic issue before being comfortable to talk about how things were really going. We figured it was his way of feeling the renewed family connection and intimacy, a kind of neutral place between his new life and his family.
Girls can be the same but generally they are far more communicative and willing to share information about new friends, how life is going, how they are feeling. There will be continual drama and ups and downs until new routines are established and settled into.
However self-assured your child is they will need support during the early weeks. Wouldn’t you if you found yourself in their position? Relatively few of us who are parents now spent our college years overseas from our families. Don’t over do the contact, a quick email/message, just a few lines is all they need to feel the security and safety of family.
There may even be times when your child tells you it isn’t working and he/ she wants to come home. How do you differentiate between first semester nerves and a real issue of wrong course, wrong college, the slide into depression?
Only you know your child.
We had a similar situation when we left our daughter in the USA. She was already established in her sophomore year in college when we moved overseas, and after a great start the reality we were 4000 miles away hit home. When she broke down and told us she could no longer cope it took hours of talking to work through a difficult situation, made more frustrating with a seven hour time difference. We treated her feelings as serious and valid. We asked how tough her life really was and whether she needed a flight home booked in the next 24 hours.
The fact we validated her fears seemed to calm them. Together we planned she would continue for a week or so to see how things went, see if having shared her feelings with us had helped. After a few weeks she decided to continue till the end of the fall semester giving us time to investigate other college options in Europe if she chose to follow us.
Treating her as an adult, offering alternatives, asking her opinion, letting her see we were taking her seriously was the best thing we could have done. By the end of the semester she felt her best option was to stay where she was; she’d settled, made some new friends, got to grips with her course and realised she didn’t want the upheaval of moving somewhere new. Her decision.
It always amazes me when people are surprised some kids don’t settle at college. When you think how many thousands leave their homes, families and move overseas each year, I’m amazed at how many do settle successfully. But many don’t for a variety of reasons, and it’s something not really talked about, as if your child has failed, or you’ve failed as a parent. Everything is hidden under a tight smile and a bright, “Yes, she/ he’s doing fine, loving every minute!”
Not every school is right for every child; going to a small school in the middle of nowhere after living in an international city might cause a problem, courses are sometimes not what student or parent thought they would be. It’s not the end of the world to change school, course or have a complete rethink as to what is best for your child. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Your child will have easy access to alcohol and drugs irrespective of the legal drinking age. A depressed or struggling child is at risk from both if she/ he is having difficulty adjusting to his/ her new life. I won’t bombard you with statistics, the information is out there if you need it but this is a very real danger. Only you will be able to pick up the signs and nuances that all might not be well. Your child may not want to admit they are struggling, may not want to disappoint you, maybe trying to be adult and deal with his/her own problems.
I was once told, by yet another wise man, that if your instinct tells you something is wrong, it usually is. That from a professional. If you have serious concerns fly out and see your child, factor unexpected costs like these into the college budget before you start.
No-one ever said this would be an easy transition for you or them. The first year is tough as both of you forge a new relationship, move forward into unknown waters. Whatever unexpected paths your journey takes keep an open mind and an open heart. If you need help from professionals go find it – it’s out there. There are more resources for expats today than there have ever been.
To all those parents, packing suitcases, saying tearful goodbyes, feeling a deep well of sadness inside, there are moms and dads who’ve taken this journey before you, willing you on, knowing you’ll be fine.
Previous articles in this series
Part 3 College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics
Part 2 College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas
Part 1 College Bound Kids?: You’re Not on Your Own
Just for fun College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?
❉ I’d like to recommend every parent and student checks out these two exceptional and vital resources for expat/ TCK college bound kids. If you read nothing else read these :
The Global Nomad’s Guide to University , Tina Quick, Foreword by Ruth van Reken
- Paperback: 300 pages
- Publisher: Summertime (June 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1904881211
- ISBN-13: 978-1904881216
International Family Transitions Website :
comprehensive service/website that specializes in helping students who have been living outside their passport countries (Third Culture Kids) successfully manage their transition to college/university whether they are returning to their home country or going on to another host country. IFT also provides resources to those who support TCKs and other international students on the receiving end.
Did you know that Third Culture Kids (TCKs)…
- commonly report feeling different from their home-country peers?
- are likely to struggle with issues of identity and belonging?
- most commonly complain about not fitting in with their peers at college?
- often times suffer adjustment issues leading to isolation, loneliness and depression?
This post is a strong way to finish a really effective and helpful series. Your wisdom on supporting without smothering and validating your young adult child’s needs and concerns while posing strategic questions (and not just offering suggestions) – invaluable. Thank you so much for writing this. Just what I needed, when I needed it.