Helping your children stay in touch with family and friends when living abroad

by Lisa McKay on July 24, 2013

Welcome back to Part III in our series on long distance relationships. If you missed them, here are links to Part I (Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas) and Part II (Long distance relationships: Part and parcel of international living

If you are raising children in a country other than the one you grew up in, you’ve probably wrestled with this question of how to best help your children stay in touch with your family and friends back in your home country.

I know my own parents grappled with this as they country-hopped around the world for 21 years while my siblings and I were growing up. And now that I’m the parent of (soon to be two) “third culture kids” myself, it’s something my husband and I are increasingly puzzling over. In our case the picture gets even more complicated than it was for my own parents. Mike and I currently live in Laos, but because he is American and I am Australian our children are dual citizens and we have two sets of grandparents located on opposite sides of the world. Our children are still very young, but I’m already worried that they’ll struggle even more than I did to define where home is and what it means to them.

Much more so than adults who were raised in one place and then choose to move abroad later in life, children raised outside their passport culture tend to feel split between two worlds, or more. During adolescence and early adulthood (and sometimes later) these third culture kids can struggle mightily to figure out who they really are and where they belong.

If children raised abroad are going to struggle with identity issues at some point (and in my experience, most do) you will not be able to forestall that completely no matter what actions you take to help them stay connected with family and friends “back home”. However, helping children build these important relationships and stay connected to their home culture in other ways can help make such identity struggles less acute and prolonged. If you’re parenting children raised abroad, helping them stay connected to a passport country “home base” is an important thing to spend time and money doing.

I’m going to leave aside the broader issue of connecting with a home culture for now and just focus on some tips for helping children stay connected with important people back home. I’ll be talking mostly about grandparents and immediate family here, but this also applies to key friendship figures in your life and in the life of your children.

Again, I don’t present these tips as a “how to” manual. I also recognize that some of them could prove financially prohibitive for some families. Instead, I’m sharing a list of ideas that I hope will prove to be food for thought and will spark discussion in your own family. As you read through them, be thinking about which of these you’re already doing, what else might work for you, and what you could add to this list.

2b1.     Visit when you can: This goes both ways. It’s nearly as important for grandparents etc to visit the field as it is for grandchildren to visit relatives “at home”. This helps grandkids feel that their grandparents have seen and understand “their” world. It also allows you to spend time together while the children are relaxed and at home, rather than when they are out of their element and busy meeting the myriad demands that come with holidays or home leave. Of course, it’s important for children to visit their “home” country and everyone there as well. We visited Australia either annually or every two years while I was growing up, and that did a lot to help us feel connected to places and people there.

 2.     Help contribute to the cost of travel: My parents have a policy that’s still in effect that they’ll pay half of a return air-ticket to Australia for all of us (children, spouses, grandchildren) every year.  This has helped us travel to spend time in Australia at times when we would have decided against it for financial reasons. This could go the other way, too. If you have parents or relatives that would love to visit but can’t afford to, consider whether you could contribute to the cost of their travel. Encourage other friends and family members to help subsidize travel instead of buying other birthday or Christmas presents.

 2h3.     Blog: If you live far away from friends and family, think about keeping a family blog on which you post pictures of yourself and the children and share little stories about your lives. If you’re worried about privacy you can easily set it up so that only approved people can log in and view it. This allows grandparents and extended family to easily keep up with photos and the like.

 4.     Send paper copies of photographs in both directions: If you have grandchildren overseas, send their parents photographs of yourself (especially photos of you with your grandchild). Ask the parents to show these photos to the children, or even display them where children can see them. When your grandchildren visit (or you visit them) think about making a scrapbook or photo-book full of pictures of things you’ve done together during the visit. This will help the children remember all the fun you’ve had. If you’re the one raising children overseas send photos and videos home as you can, especially if you don’t blog. There are few things that mean more to grandparents and siblings than photos of their grandchildren or nieces/nephews.

 5.     Send letter, postcards, cards, or packages: Children love to get mail of their own – send your grandkids letters, cards, photos, or packages addressed to them by post occasionally. Packages are especially exciting, and several small items usually go over better than packages containing one big item. Also consider sending some of your favorite children’s books. If you have a copy of the same book on your end, you might even be able to read it to them via Skype at some point. You can also take a photo (of yourself or something they love) and have it made into a puzzle. Send them the puzzle to put together. Finally, if they’re old enough to have their own email account, you can email them as well. From the other side, if you’re the parent of children living overseas, help your kids draw pictures or write short letters or post-cards to send to their grandparents.

 6.     Involve children in some Skype calls: Make sure you involve your children in some (but not all) of your Skype or phone calls home. Schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry. Resist any temptation to make the calls extra long to make up for preceding weeks of no contact (you don’t want to turn these calls into infrequent extended chores that children learn to dread). Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth allows. Even if your computer doesn’t have one build in, external webcams are cheap, easy to set up, and add enormously to the quality of the contact (if grandparents don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit). Consider making these calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning).

2jFor those on the home front, recognize that children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer. Help them by asking a couple (not dozens) of open-ended questions that require the children to give more than a simple yes or no answer. Give children time to come up with those answers after you ask a question – don’t rush in too fast to fill pauses or silence, children may just be struggling to find some words. And try not to take it personally if your grandchild doesn’t seem interested in talking to you on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly call with you or not.

Again, I know we’re just scratching the surface of this topic. But, again, this post is already plenty long enough.

Help us out by leaving a comment and adding to this list.
We’d love to hear more ideas about what works for you and your family!

That’s the end of our series on long distance relationships (for now, anyway). Thanks for reading along! If you’re in a dating or marriage long distance relationship, don’t forget to hop on over to Modern Love Long Distance and check us out.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • We got matching stuffed animals. One is with the grandparents and one is with us (our kids are young) and we take pictures of our elephant on his adventure and they do the same. Then we share pictures back and forth. When the child is feeling lonely for grandparents we let him/her sleep with the animal and it helps those that aren’t as connected due to age of seperation feel more connected because that animal they see pictures of doing things in the home country. Both parties feel more a part of life and less forgotten. Great ideas here!

    • That’s so gorgeous! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Jo-Anne

    Great post, thanks for the tips and ideas. We are preparing for a move to Haiti and we are trying to gain as much as we can before we leave.

    • Hope all the prep goes smoothly and the transition is an easy (or should I say “less bumpy”) one.

  • Sharon

    Thanks for the great post. Being far from the people we love has always been the hardest part for me. Sometimes our seven year old son has found Skype with family and friends a little difficult so we have tried a few different ideas which he enjoys: we play Uno via Skype (both sets of family have the cards), we arrange before hand something to be “passed through” the screen to him (bananas, cookies and coins have been the funniest!), before we call we encourage him to choose something he would like to show them or talk about (toy, book, something from school, insect, bug, stones – whatever!), sometimes we email in advance and prime our family with a few relevant questions which might help get him talking, and other times we Skype in the garden and they just watch him on the swing or riding his bike. The encouragement that I can share is that our son loves both sets of grandparents and his godparents dearly. Perhaps because of the distance we have all paid a little more attention to trying to nurture our relationships because we can no longer take them for granted.

    • Thanks for this. Wonderful new ideas. Also, very encouraging for those of us raising kiddos far far far from grandparents.

  • Dave Lewis

    On or near grandma’s birthday we would prepare a special meal on the field. It would be things grandma would fix for us when we were home. My father planted a tree in his back yard, then took a picture of himself and my young son standing next to it. The idea was to compare the growth of the tree to that of my son each time we returned to visit.

    • Oooooh, we did that too for our kiddo. When he was born we planted a tree at my parent’s place in Australia and now we’ll see how they grow together. The tree’s winning so far!

  • Richelle Wright

    with our older children, family who are on facebook or other social media are much more likely to hear from them. as a parent, i’ve appreciated those “older” family members who’ve taken that sort of initiative to get to know our children.

    dinner table conversations are also important. we make sure to talk about our families back home on a regular basis (or our friends/colleagues still on the field when we’re on home assignment) – what they are doing, the latest news, sometimes piddly details – and that seems to make family feel nearer.

    we’ve also let grandma take the kids “shopping” for a special dress or something via skype (chatting) – we’d exchange links of dresses/clothes the kids liked. grandma would take a look and offer her opinion or send a corresponding link back. we had a ton of fun with that and the internet cooperated. but for older girls, that was so much fun.

    we’ve also learned not to push communication styles that step too far outside another’s comfort zone. one grandmother is partially deaf – she doesn’t like video/verbal skyping – she likes to type because she catches everything that way and she misses so much if she has to hear it over the computer. their grandfather on the other side can’t be bothered with typing, so it is only, ever a voice chat.

    blogging has been a huge tool and now that my kids are older, they sometimes volunteer to write a post themselves – or help me come up with ideas. that is also a lot of fun. and frankly – i’ve found that when we, as parents make specific and concerted effort – even if we don’t get a whole lot of help from the other direction – our kids feel like they know folks back home and warm up to them quickly once we are all together again.

    • Thanks, Richelle. Especially like your last point about parents making a specific and concerted effort. THat’s so true in so many things, isn’t it? Love the reminder to tailor your efforts to people’s wants and needs on the other end, too. Hope you’re all well!

  • Pingback: 8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas()

  • Guest

    I’d like to share our experience: to stay on touch with dearest people we are using Travelsim cards. We save on international calls, so we can call everyday… And stay connected to parents and grandparents.

  • Guest

    I’d like to share our
    experience: to stay in touch with dearest people we are using Travelsim
    cards. We save on international calls, so we can call everyday… And
    stay connected to parents and grandparents.

  • Sarah Steinnberg

    I’d like to share our
    experience:

    Me and my sister live and work in U.S. our family live in Europe, we can’t visit them very often. So, to stay in touch with dearest people we are using Travelsim
    cards. We save on international calls, so we can call everyday… And
    stay connected to parents and grandparents.

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