How To Be A Parent When Your Child Is On An International Student Exchange Program

wooden bridge on path in woods

by Jana Grobbelaar, Moomie, South Africa

Regardless of whether your child is in secondary school or university, an international exchange program will be an enriching experience. There are many benefits for parents: your child will return with added maturity, a more serious approach to their studies, improved language fluency, and a greater comprehension of human nature and the experience of making new friends.  Parents will discover that allowing their child to be an exchange student will be among the best experiences of the child’s entire life.

Of course, you will dearly miss your son or daughter. But the homecoming and the awareness that your child has grown up so much that they can become your friend, as well as be your child, is enough reward to consider this route, even with the challenges that your child will face and the difficulties it poses for parents. As parents, we strive to do anything and everything to enhance our children’s future, but this long distance arrangement doesn’t come without its share of parenting challenges.

Let’s face the facts: it’s not easy being a parent. We often battle with ourselves, questioning if we’re doing the best we can for our children. It’s a lot of pressure realizing that you only get a limited window of time to prepare them to develop into dependable, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults. When your child is away for six or ten months in a different country, there is the extra challenge of being geographically distant from them. But it’s not impossible to parent from halfway around the world. The key is laying the groundwork correctly, both with yourself and with your child.

Here are some suggestions on how to be a parent when your child is in an international student exchange program:

Communication is key

Probably the most valuable approach to ensure you have a secure connection with your kids is to do everything possible to keep communication lines open. This isn’t always easy, but it’s among the best strategies to keep up with what’s happening in your child’s life.  Find out when a good time is to get in touch with them on weekends and set a particular time to contact them. Try not to bother them much during the week, as they will be at school and in a completely different time zone. You can connect with the host parents, as they might be aware of any challenges that your child could be having in school or at home. Your child might not want to burden you with their struggles or may not be keen to share any information that might lead to conflict. Speaking to the host parents might just put your mind at ease for a few days at least.

Technology is your friend

Nowadays it’s easier to stay connected over a distance. Besides telephones, there are many ways to connect that aren’t that expensive. If you have internet access at home, make use of text messages, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to mention a few — but not too often! Reserve time weekly to ‘visit’ for ten to fifteen minutes. Video calls make it possible to not only verbally correspond, but also to see each other occasionally. You may also want to follow your child’s social media posts as they will probably be sharing a lot of pictures on these platforms.

Send a care package

Children of all ages would love to receive some homemade cookies or other treats. A note or a card to tell them that you’re thinking of them and that you love them, carries much weight. But nothing says I love you like a thoughtful package from back home. Never follow up your packages with phone calls. These calls might make it look like you are fishing for a thank-you. Gifts are most efficient as relationship builders when there aren’t any strings attached.

yellow DHL package unopened

Don’t forget to discipline

Parenting your child from a distance can make you feel as though you’re losing control over your everyday responsibilities as a mother. This doesn’t have to be the reality. Don’t stop disciplining your child because you feel guilty, you need things to be “nice and comfortable,” or because you are worried your child will rebel and push you away. Now, more than ever, your child must fully accept that distance doesn’t affect the “rules” at home. Being away from home is not a reason to break the rules and take advantage of the situation. You should continue being consistent about family morals, and loving your child does occasionally mean saying “No.” If your child is living with a host family, it’s also important for your son or daughter to understand that they have to follow the rules of the family they are living with. This can be hard for parents, especially if the rules are different — which is certainly common in a different country!

Teach respect

In the same way as discipline, your child needs to recognize that the host family takes care of them on your behalf. Thus they should respect them as if it were you.

Visit your child

Something that can be fun both for you and your child is if you get to visit them during their exchange period. This could give you a better understanding of their experience, and you might even get to partake in it. Talk to the host-family and find out if a visit will suit them. Don’t proposed a visit in the middle of the exchange, because you don’t want to interfere with your child’s experience. Wait until towards the end! If they have space and are comfortable with it, you might be able to stay with your child or in the alternative you can book a hotel nearby.

In summary

The world is getting smaller, faster and much more complex. Approaches to learning and teaching are shifting. To be successful in tomorrow’s world, young people need the skills essential for a consistently growing number of industries, and possible career paths. They need an understanding of different cultures, a chance to interact with people from various linguistic backgrounds, flexibility and tolerance, an appreciation for alternative perspectives and the maturity to make sensible choices and decisions. Never before has studying a second language been so crucial.

By allowing your child to travel on exchange, you are helping them discover a whole new world. Even though it’s hard to parent from far away, it’s possible to maintain a great relationship with your child and enjoy this experience with them.

 

Jana Grobbelaar is an entrepreneur, editor, and mother of three. She is the founder of Moomie, a popular online parenting forum in South Africa.

Note From an Exchange Student: I’m Homesick…How Long Will it Take Me to Settle In?

I’ve been in the U.S. for more than two months now and I don’t have any friends here. It makes me sad. I talk to my friends back home a lot since I don’t have anyone to talk to here in my host country. What else can I do?

It’s around this time of year that students express feelings such as that expressed by the comment above. Students arrive in August in an excited mood, and think that everything will fall into place quickly. How hard can it be to make friends?

Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others, however, is more of a challenge than many students realize. One of the reasons we encourage students to join a sports team (even if they’ve never played the sport) or band or drama (even if they’ve never been in band or acted in a play) is that these activities help bring abigail-keenan-sports-huddlestudents into the community and form immediate bonds with a group of students at school. It helps them feel like they belong. Even those students, however, may sometimes feel lonely, left out of an activity, or just generally homesick due to how different life is in the host home and community.

One of our students last year told us that he thinks the most important piece of advice he can give to other high school exchange students or college study abroad students is “Don’t suffer alone! Talk to someone here in your host country, talk to your host family!” We talk to our students about things that they can do to get their minds off how they are feeling. Think about what do you do back home when you are sad. Keep active. Don’t stay in your bedroom; it’s better to hang out in your host family’s living room or family room, so that you can have conversations (which can further help get your mind off how you are feeling). Go for a run. Get involved in a sport, art/music/theater. Do things with your host family, even ordinary things: watch your host family’s favorite TV show with them, go to the grocery store with your host dad, go for a walk with the dog with your host mom.

Students sometimes tell us, “but I don’t like doing any of those activities.” We tell them how any activity will help them focus on something else. Moreover, ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and—perhaps most importantly—host parents will appreciate the fact that their student is showing interest. That last item may seem like a small thing, but it’s those small things that add up, eventually, to real relationships.

J-1 visa students have a local contact person from their exchange program; F-1 visa students may have a local program contact or at least someone at their school who is responsible for exchange students. We encourage students to call that contact person when they are feeling a bit low. Be honest about how you are feeling. Your local coordinator will be happy to sit down with you and help you think of ways to feel like you belong.

Students sometimes think that the answer to their difficulties is to find a new host family. Teens have a tendency to think things happen quickly, so if they don’t immediately feel that they are making friends or becoming close to their host family, they think it means that they need a new school or that they and their host family are not a good “match.” We try to encourage students to think differently — to recognize that making friends, feeling like you belong, and being comfortable in a new environment takes time no matter where you live and who you live with.

Students also often feel that talking to family or friends in their home country will make them feel better. We find that usually the opposite is true. We work with students to get them to spend less time communicating with friends and family back home. If you are spending a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop with friends and family back home — think about cutting that time down. The more time you spend talking to people you know back home, the more you are thinking about what is going on back home — and the less time you are spending getting used to your life in your host country.girl on laptop and phone

The key advice to succeed, in our opinion, is becoming involved and truly part of your host culture. The above examples are ways to do that. Students might be able to think of more ways based on their own personal interests, and host parents might have ideas, too. Hang in there!

Photo credits: Abigail Keenan and Steinar La Engeland