Parenting Teenagers Abroad – Two Extra Challenges You’d Happily Do Without

Alison is bewildered.

Josh, her 15 year-old son, has changed dramatically.

While he used to be such a social kid, always a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, he now spends hours alone in his room on his computer.

He hardly talks. There’s no grin on his face anymore. He looks down and avoids eye contact.

It’s been 6 months since the family moved abroad.

At first, Alison didn’t worry too much. She was busy herself with the transition and all the practicalities: finding a new house, getting groceries and securing a place at school for her son. But now that the dust has settled, Alison is concerned.

Why this change in her teenage son?

Is it because Josh is entering the heart of his teenage years that he’s withdrawing? Is it because of the international move and the new school system? Is it the loss of his friends? Or because he’s so angry at his parents for this move against his will?

So many questions and few answers. If only she knew what was to expect! She could at least figure out whether she needed to be more pro-active or just take a step back.

The situation is all the more difficult to tackle because everyone’s role in the family is changing.

Alison left her job and overnight became de facto a stay-at-home mum. Matt, her husband, found himself the only bread-winner with increased responsibility and pressure in a country he didn’t know.

Alison knew it would be hard on Josh.
She hadn’t anticipated it would be so hard on her too.


While each situation is unique, there are common threads playing a key role during adolescence. They impact both children and parents. Let’s have a look at two of them based on the insights coming from psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto who condensed 50 years of experience in a book called ‘Paroles pour adolescents’.

Becoming a parent to a teenager is a little death in itself.

Alison used to have such a good bond with her son. They’d laugh and play together. Often, it was only the two of them because Matt was caught up in meetings or on business trips. When Josh was sick, Alison stayed at his bedside. She would feel so good when he would take her hand to cross the street and confide in her with all his secrets.

Not anymore.

Alison can see how Josh is embarrassed to be seen with her in public.

Compared to the relationship of the parent to a young child, the change is real and confronting.

From an idealized position in your child’s eyes, you fall from a pedestal when they become adolescent. Gradually, you stop being the only point of reference, their privileged focus of attention.

Dolto mentions that adolescence is a difficult period for both parents and children.
She compares it to a ‘second birth happening gradually’.

It means that parents go through a new phase. They’re not dealing with children any more but with young soon-to-be adults. It’s a loss and as such, it needs to be acknowledged and grieved.

Now, what extra challenge does an international move add to this reality?

Challenge #1 – This loss comes on top of all the other losses you go through when you change country.

Take the case of the accompanying spouse: Alison who resigned from her job, gave up her financial independence – at least in the immediate future. Since she arrived in the new country, she dreads the question ‘What brought you here? What do you do?’ She’s only known as Josh’s mother or Matt’s wife. On the house lease contract, she had to provide a credit check – because she has no income – to avoid being labelled as ‘approved occupant’ in her home.  She was even denied online access to change the details of her son’s health insurance because she was not the primary contact!

Those major losses affecting identity are extremely destabilizing.

Matt, on the other hand, is under high pressure at work. You never get a second chance to make a first impression as they say. He misses the familiarity with colleagues he knew for years. He struggles to hold his meetings in a foreign language and to understand the new rules in this work environment. He worries for his mum battling cancer back home. He can’t even call her any more each Friday when driving back home from the office: the time difference makes it impossible.

Those losses have a compounding effect and Matt needs to muster all his energy to keep focused.

Josh becoming a young adult, Alison and Matt need to adapt their parenting but in the middle of all those changes, it’s a challenge to keep the balance.

A teenager wakes up in each adult, the teenager they once were.

Josh retreats in his room as soon as he gets home.

This reminds Alison of her own childhood when she used to lock herself up in her bedroom to have some privacy.

Her mother had a part-time job on Mondays and Tuesdays. At least those days, she didn’t have to justify herself if she came home 15 minutes later than usual. Her mum was paranoid about smelling her breath to make sure she didn’t smoke or drink any alcohol. On top of that, she suspected her mum of snooping through her belongings in her absence. She hated it.

Alison doesn’t want to be like her mother but she can’t stand to see Josh withdrawing from her.

What is he hiding? Her heart twinges.

Living with an adolescent is a constant reminder of your own adolescence. You can’t help but compare what you were allowed to do and what they have access to. But time and place have changed and the struggles you had back then are different from the ones experienced by your child right now.

Even if this seems self-explanatory, we sometimes can’t refrain from burdening our adolescents with our own fears, anxiety and guilt.

Yet this is counter-productive.

To ease the situation, Dolto suggests you to speak of your own adolescence to people you trust, without speaking about it to your own teenager.

This will enable you to vent the feelings that you experienced at the time and not – consciously or unconsciously – ‘load’ your teenager with those emotional affects.

In the middle of an international move, this is easier said than done.

Challenge #2 – How can you confide in someone when you left friends and relatives behind, the very people you trusted!

Who can you turn to? Maybe a local meet-up for expats, a FB community like Expats Parents or an online peer support group like the one we offer at Expatriate Connection.

Each of those options has pros and cons.

Building relationships takes time and commitment and when you move often, you find it tiring to start everything from scratch for each relocation. When you’ve met people online and it works well, you know that you won’t lose them when you change country.

Alison is determined to embrace the expat experience. She realizes that her son is not a little child anymore and that she needs to address her distress. She doesn’t want to be alone in that journey. She’s eager to share and hear from others.

But she’s also concerned about her privacy. The last thing she wants is for her family to become a gossip topic. She needs to find a group where she feels safe.

What about you? What kind of support are you looking for?

 

Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

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Comments

  1. This was a huge challenge for my husband and I when we moved to France, and that is putting it mildly. Our then 14 year old daughter made the trip with us. She was a social butterfly, had tons of friends in school, and played volleyball when we had lived in The States. She didn’t want to make the move. Once here, she withdrew, wouldn’t go outside, wouldn’t go to school, wouldn’t meet people. Refused everything. Little by little she began to not even go outside and would never come out of her room. We though she would get over it, but she didn’t and over the course of two years she became literally psychotic. She started hearing voices, talking to herself in public like you would see a “crazy” person on the street would do, having outburst and throwing things. We couldn’t take her anywhere because we couldn’t control her outburst and disassociation with the world. She was going to a psychiatrist and he finally decided she should be put in a mental facility for adolescents. So began our 2 year decent into hell with her being in and out of mental hospitals. Thankfully, the last one she was in put her on correct medicine, got her into a program to learn French and to socialize with others. She found something she wanted to do in life. Now after many years, she has successfully re-entered normal life, still taking a little medication. She now goes to school and has friends. She speaks French and can get around. Our life is somewhat back to normal, but I worry that she will always be on medication. The doctors have said that her mental breakdown was not chemical or genetic. She simply shut down after the move and isolated herself so much that she made a world of her own. My warning to parents is, do not start your new job right away in your new country. Negotiate with your employer to take a good amount of time to get your children well integrated into schools, programs, sports, whatever so they are not left alone. My mistake is that I had an employer that didn’t care and refused to allow me time to take care of my family when we first arrived and for me, not knowing how detrimental is would be to her. Also, I had no idea that my social butterfly kid wouldn’t eventually go after socializing herself because it was her nature to do so since she was little girl. Watch for signs of social isolation and work on fixing it immediately. It will save you from the absolute hell we went through and a price that my child my pay for forever.

    • Thanks a lot for this very personal sharing, Ashley. It’s deeply moving and underlines the far-reaching impact changing country may have. It also highlights to me the importance of finding well-informed mental health professionals aware of the challenges of moving internationally. Of course, the language barrier doesn’t help!

  2. Dear Ashley, thank you for your honesty! Your story is gold form our next move! Love to you all Elena

  3. Heather says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your daughter’s experience. I worry too about my elder daughter – you are always told ‘children are so resilient’ – and although that is sometimes true, everyone including children has a breaking point.

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