1. Take the Opportunity to Learn About Your Son or Daughter’s Destination
* Read a book or two about the country where your son or daughter will be living. Research the region – the eastern part of the country may be very different from the west, or the north or south. Try to find out something about differences between rural and urban areas. (See this blog post for a little bit about what I learned about Ghana when our son left for his one semester exchange.)
* Ask your son or daughter’s host parents for some advice on how to learn more. Do they have a particular book they recommend? What about a magazine or newspaper you could read online?
* Are there specific laws that are different from those in your country that your child needs to know about? The exchange program will give you some information on this, but don’t hesitate to ask. For students coming to the U.S., for example, it’s important to understand that they cannot legally drink alcohol – anywhere, with anyone, at any time whatsoever – until they reach the age of 21.
* Look online for student blogs about living in the country where your son or daughter will be, both past and present. Find out if your exchange program has previous students who might be ‘on call’ for information. Ask your student’s local coordinator/liaison if there are previous students from the region or even perhaps the same school who your son or daughter could get in touch with.
* Research the issue of safety. Don’t just rely on the mass media – television and cable news stories may not give you thorough or balanced information about a particular political situation, natural disaster, or other safety issue at your child’s destination. Remind your child that he is responsible for following his host family’s and the program’s rules, and that these rules are for his safety.
2. What to Take?
* With current international baggage restrictions, most exchange programs advise students to stick to one suitcase and one carry-on. Your child will, no doubt, add to his belongings during the year! It may well make sense for your child to buy winter clothing after he/she arrives. In some cases, your child might be able to borrow a coat from his or her host family.
* Be prepared for the need to ship items back home at the end of the exchange year, or else have your child buy an inexpensive suitcase and pay the baggage fee for an extra piece of luggage.
* Specific suggestions to think about include:
- English dictionary or electronic translator – small pocket version that the student can carry in purse or pocket.
- Camera! I’ve never met an exchange student who doesn’t love to take photos.
- Laptop computer – more and more students bring this with them. Please remind your student that their host family may have family rules on computer use.
- Prescription medicines — If your child has prescription medicines that he or she takes on a regular basis (such as asthma or acne medicine), it is best to bring enough for the whole year. Ask your child’s host parents or the program representative about non-prescription medicines; in many places, it is probably simpler and easier for your child or his host parents to buy such items when needed, rather than having your child bring things like aspirin or first-aid cream, with her.
Tell your child’s host family about any medications your son or daughter is taking; remember that teens may forget, and such information is critical for the host family to help keep your child safe. In an emergency, they will need to know if their student is already taking any medication before new ones can be added safely.
- If your student wears glasses, send along an extra pair.
- Mobile phones – Generally speaking, do not buy your child a phone before they travel. In most locations, the simplest option is for your child to buy an inexpensive phone upon arrival, and buy a pay-as-you-go plan with a local phone number. Most such plans include texting options. Students generally cannot sign contracts or sign up for long-term plans. Your son or daugher’s host parents may also have a low-cost phone option they are planning to take advantage of for your child.
- Clothing – Will your child be required to wear a uniform, or a particular style of clothing? In the U.S., for example, most public schools allow students to wear ordinary street clothes such as blue jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts to school; however, there are limits on the kind of clothing that may be worn. Make sure your child has at least one nice outfit for special occasions. Note that the clothing your daughter may be accustomed to wearing may not be considered appropriate in an American school.
3. Financial Issues
* Try to get your son or daughter started on a budget even before he or she leaves. Give your child a set amount of money, tell him or her it’s for the entire month, and give some guidelines. Teach your child how to take money out of the ATM a bit at a time, so that he doesn’t have too much cash. Suggest a schedule (perhaps taking cash out once/week, and trying to live on that for the entire week). Try not to interfere while she is learning how to manage a budget (at least, don’t get mad!). It’s a learning experience for you, too.
* Talk to your child about budgets and finances before he or she leaves. What kind of expenses can you foresee now? Does your exchange program have recommendations on an average amount of expenses to expect per month?
* Get a pre-paid card that can be used much like a credit card as long as you have put money in the account; best is to have it be through Visa or Mastercard. Make sure the card can be used at an ATM. Test it out before your child leaves to make sure it works.
* Ask your child’s host parents if there are particular expenses they expect your child to have. Does the school charge fees if your son or daughter chooses to play a sport? When would that need to be paid? Are there fees for any textbooks, or are they loaned for free?
* Think ahead of time about the possibility of your child traveling during his/her exchange year. There may be opportunities to travel with her host family, on a school trip, or on a trip organized by the exchange program. You may not be able to find out about all these possibilities ahead of time, but you can ask the program what might be likely. You should think about what your family’s financial limits are so that you will be more prepared when the question of travel comes up. How much are you prepared to spend over and beyond the exchange program fees? Ask the program where your child will stay if he/she cannot travel with the host family.
4. Communicating During the Exchange
* Keeping in touch with your child is important; it’s also important to remember that your child will need to be focusing on his or her new life, and immersing himself into his host family’s activities, his new school, and making new friends. The hardest part of being the parents back home is figuring out the right communications balance. (See my January blog post for a bit about our nervousness when our son left home for his one semester exchange program to Ghana.)
* A good plan might be to suggest talking to your child no more than once/week, generally on weekends, for no more than 30 minutes to an hour – and force yourself to stick to this. For some families, even every other week will be enough to know what is going on in your child’s life. Remember that in between these times, you can email your child – and she can email you, too, sometimes. Try not to text or call your son or daughter more than this – the less often, the better. We know it’s hard – and as a parent who has sent her own son abroad, I can speak to this! But it’s important to let your child find his or her own life, and it’s critical to their success that you step back.
* Blogs are an inexpensive way to keep in touch – suggest to your child that she write a blog about her exchange adventures. You – and friends and other family members – can easily follow along.
5. Visiting Your Child During the Exchange
Many families look forward to a child’s exchange year almost as much as the student. We know we did! We looked forward to the idea of visiting Ghana ourselves, regardless of whether our son would be able to join on our travels around the country or not (he joined us for 4 days out of the two weeks we were in the country). You, too, may want to visit your child during the exchange semester or year.
* Take a deep breath, and remember it’s your child’s experience. If you do visit – and it certainly is an opportunity for your own family to travel to a place you might never otherwise have thought about visiting – do it within the exchange program’s rules; most programs ask that family and friends wait until the end of the exchange period, when your visit is not likely to interfere with your child’s adjustment or host family life.
* Do not visit during any key holidays in the host country. In the U.S., this would include Thanksgiving, the last two weeks of December, and Easter. Find out what the key holidays are in your child’s host country, and avoid those dates; remember that these are times for your child to spend with her host family and local friends.
* Do not visit at any times your child’s host family has major family activities or travel plans.
* Try not to visit when school is in session. Your child is expected to attend school and to pass all classes. It can complicate his or her experience if you want to take your student out of school. It could also affect your child’s relationship with her host family, and could negatively affect the exchange program’s relationship with the school.
* Show thanks to your child’s host family by bringing a small gift, or perhaps taking them out to dinner. Stay in a hotel rather than asking if you can stay with them.
6. Letting Go
One of the hardest lessons for parents of exchange students, in my experience, is that you are no longer in control of your child’s life. You often do not know what your child is doing on a daily basis anymore, and you do not know your son or daughter’s friends. You cannot change this; indeed, it can be harmful to your child’s experience if you try. The exchange students who have the most adjustment problems tend to be the ones whose parents insist on calling or texting every day, the ones whose parents try to convince the host parents to do things the way their child is using to doing things, and the ones whose parents tell their child, when the teen complains about a particular host family habit or rules, that “you don’t have to put up with that, I’ll take care of that today!” Help your student have a good exchange year; don’t do these things!
* If your teen tells you “I don’t like my host family because XXXX” or “My host family won’t let me go out with my friends,” or any other complaint – don’t offer to solve the problem. Encourage your child to figure out ways to solve the problem themselves. Have they talked to their host parents about why a particular rule exists? Have they asked their local coordinator/liaison if this particular rule is normal for teens in the host country? If it is considered normal in the host country, guide your child towards acceptance.
* Don’t expect to hear from your student every day while he or she is abroad, and don’t make your student feel bad for not being in daily touch. Don’t call or text more than once/week, or even less.
* Talk with parents whose children have studied abroad, as well as parents whose children are currently in your child’s program. How have they dealt with various situations that have come up?
In closing – As you prepare to send your child to a far-away place for 5 or 10 months, don’t downplay your own feelings. It’s hard to send your child off to places they’ve never been before. It’s hard to watch your teen stride through the airport security, give you a final wave, and trot off to the gate (and of course, they don’t look back at their worried parents!). Remember – good things and positive experiences don’t always come easy. Your teen will come through this experience a better and more mature person; perhaps you, too, can learn something new.