Pros and Cons of Raising Children in Expat Environment

Education - Vietnam: April 26, 2018

Anita North, a child psychologist with Ethos Asia in Ho Chi Minh City, has experience raising children internationally firsthand. Originally from Australia, she worked as a psychologist in Thailand for five years while raising her two boys. “As they grew up, they used to say they were Thai,” she said. “We’ve sent them to school in Australia now that they’re in high school, partly to give them a sense of their culture as Australians.”

Azrael Jeffrey, Psychotherapist and Educational Specialist at the International Center for Cognitive Development (ICCD) said the movement of not only parents but entire families is creating “third-culture expats”. “We see kids who have French parents, were raised in Africa, and who spent years in the Philippines,” he said, also noting that a British or Australian international school might add more cultural variation. So how does this affect the development of children?

No Cookie Cutter Answer

For North and her colleague Nessa Maguire at Ethos, it’s a difficult topic to discuss particularly because every child, and every situation, is different and demands an entirely individualised approach. While some children become more tolerant, accepting and worldly thanks to their experiences overseas, other children might lash out, or become introverted, anxious or depressed.

While the majority of their clients come from Vietnamese families, North said around 30 percent of the children they see moved here when their parents accepted a HCMC-based job. “Most of these children come from families who move quite frequently, to a new country every two or three years,” Maguire said.

“This brings difficulties, because the children aren’t able to establish a close friendship group. Then you have the parents who perhaps see this as a more long-term move. Then you have the difficulty of, ‘Okay, where’s home?’”

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“It’s a catch-22,” North agreed. “You don’t want them to be so rooted in home that they can’t fit in with the current culture. But you need them to have enough of an understanding with their home base that they can connect with their family and friends there.”

The professionals at Ethos Asian aver that most of their clients are special needs children who need support for issues like behavioral problems, attention deficit disorder and autism. For parents used to a high level of support for conditions like these in countries like the UK, the US and Australia, the change to Vietnam, which has less of a developed understanding of special needs support, can be challenging.

Jeffrey, on the other hand, does come across cases in which children need help processing a shift between cultures, especially at school. “Academics is law here,” he said simply. “Even with the international schools, a high precedence is set first and foremost on the test scores.” He said that while the most popular kid in a US high school might be the football star, popularity and social acceptance in an Asia-based school can be centred much more around intelligence and book smarts.

“I’ve had cases where an athlete who doesn’t get the best test scores will feel isolated here,” he said. In those cases, Jeffrey will encourage the student and the parents to branch out and develop social networks outside the school. “There’s not as much of an emphasis on the ‘whole student’ here,” he said.

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The School’s the Thing

All the child psychologists we talked to agreed: when it comes to making sure a child has a smooth and healthy transition to another culture, the school is the most important factor. Schools are important for any child, and doubly so for one with special needs.

“In Australia, the UK, the US, a lot of [school-provided] support is mandated by law,” North said.

“Here, because they go into a private school system, the level of support is dependent on what school they choose, and what that school allows.”

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This support might be allowing the parents to make their child a peanut butter sandwich for lunch rather than opting for the school-provided option, providing extra tutoring or even the presence of full-time care. Even basic logistics can be a deciding factor: if the child has a physical disability, does the international school have ramps and elevators? If the child has a tendency to wander off, is there security present outside the school?

If the special needs are severe enough, Jeffrey says that some international schools will consider it bad business to bring these cases on board—they would require costly resources, and other parents might choose another school if they think one is focused too much on special needs. He declined to say which schools.

“It’s all about the school’s and the family’s expectations,” he said. “There are no bad schools, just different personalities.”

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Your Transition Checklist

If your family is headed to a new country soon, the child psychologists at Ethos Asia and ICCD have provided some tips.

Prepare well in advance. Children need to feel like part of the decision-making process, or else they might feel powerless and act out. Let them take control of small things, like choosing the colour of their new room, or picking what furniture they want to bring with them overseas.

Make sure there’s closure. When you’re leaving your home base, make sure you do it the right way. Give the child time to say goodbye to their friends, and provide ways for them to keep in touch in the future.

Prepare a scrapbook. Get your child ready and excited about the new country by creating a country scrapbook. You can include pictures of the currency, information about the climate, easy phrases in the national language -- anything that will help them understand their new home before the get there.

Pay attention to the details. If your child is attached to any food item or product, it’d be a good idea to make sure it’s sold in the new country. If it’s not, try changing the product before the move. It’ll help the child get used to the change and not associate it negatively with their new home.

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Get excited! As parents, you’re the leaders here, and kids will pick up on any stress or unhappiness you might be experiencing with the move. Put on a brave face and show your kid that they should see the next country as both an adventure and a challenge.

Create a social network. Relationships with both the community and other children are important. For the first three months, sign up your kid for anything they might be interested in: pottery class, baseball, yoga, you name it. Preventing isolation is key in a new country.

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