Becoming a single parent while living in a foreign country presents its own unique challenges. Our resident child psychologist, Kate Berger, offers general advice on how to parent the best you can during this period of transition.
Managing Divorce While Living Abroad
Today it is estimated that a third of all marriages end in divorce. Despite this high number, there is still little research on divorce amongst the expatriate population. Parents living abroad face a lot of unique challenges relating to time and relationship roles shifting before, during, and after an overseas relocation. Families can face further difficulties associated with balancing their own relationships while effectively supporting their children in the relocation process.
There is no guide out there (to my knowledge anyhow!) on becoming a single expat parent but I’ve worked with quite a few families in this situation in recent months and want to offer some general support on the matter in order to help you and help your child reach their potential and prosper amidst adversity.
In my experience, single parents want to protect their child from all the 'bad stuff' associated with an expat lifestyle: having to make new friends, adjusting to a new, non-native environment, and mourning the loss of day-to-day contact with friends and family.
Divorce brings additional challenges for their kids: stressed parents, changes in the amount of time kids may spend with each parent, confusion, questions, anger, etc. If you want to protect your child from any negative effects associated with parental divorce in these difficult circumstances, I advise you to keep these points in mind:
1. A child can be happy when being raised by a single parent.
Some kids who are raised by a single parent may risk feeling less supported in comparison to their peers who may have two parents. Children may have mixed emotions about their other - perhaps absent – parent; and if the other parent is living in another city or country, this can be challenging when the child wants to have the father/mother in their life but doesn’t know how. However, if a child’s basic needs are attended to – they grow up in a loving, safe environment with quality care - they can still develop normally and happily. While having one parent may not represent the ideal scenario that you had intended for your child, if you are the best caregiver in your ability, your child will not only learn by your example but also that he/she is worthy of your efforts, time and love, even though it may be difficult. This is something important to convey to children of divorced parents.
2. Be honest and share information.
One of the reasons divorce can be so difficult for children is because they do not understand it. It’s important to be honest and clear about the circumstances that led to the separation (however, age-appropriate explanations are necessary!), and reassure kids that they are not responsible for what has occurred. When logistics are being sorted, keep kids involved in the process to eliminate uncertainties – e.g., when one parent moves out of the home, include the kids in the process of visiting the new home. Designate time to discuss any legal or financial matters when the kids are not present, but let them know that “Mommy and Daddy are having a meeting tonight to figure out important stuff about the future”, for example. This will reassure kids that matters are being handled with confidence, and thus helps diminish any insecurity that their future will not be safe.
3. Be respectful and kind in communications.
It’s important to remain respectful when discussing the other parent with your child, so, as much as possible, bite your tongue (and go tell a friend!) if the other parent makes your skin crawl. Remind yourself that at one point you happily brought your child into this world with the other parent, so it will do a lot of good (for all involved, but especially for the kids!) if you treat one another with respect and take responsibility to communicate as adults, however you feel about each other. There are always valid reasons for being angry and hurt in a divorce (infidelity, lies, or changes in interests and attitudes), however your children are innocent and you will unfairly damage them emotionally if you make them choose sides and if you lose sight of their needs in the separation process.
4. Make yourself a priority.
Your kids will follow by your example, so taking care of yourself sends the clear message that self-respect and boundaries are important for well-being. Most parents already know that you’re not going to be a 'good parent' if you’re a mess, so it’s OK – and necessary – that you make time for yourself, and don’t feel guilty about it! Make sure your own emotional and social needs are met – it’s a struggle to not feel alone and isolated especially as expats, and you need to mourn the loss of your marriage, so make friends and seek support from a therapist/counselor/coach as needed. Trusted confidants in your life, who you can rely on and have fun with, will make you feel better, and your kids will reap the benefits.
5. Be realistic and listen to you kids.
It’s important to address your child’s practical and emotional needs and the best way to do this is to listen. If your child is finding it difficult to express themself, ask open-ended questions: “What do you think about not having Mommy with us for dinner?” or “There have been a lot of changes recently - what are you confused about that I can try to answer?” And listen to non-verbal cues like any sudden behavioral changes. Often kids are letting you know when they are feeling frustrated, angry, sad or confused, and it’s a matter of tuning in to their wavelength and validating their feelings. Let your child know, via listening and communicating (verbally and non-verbally- a hug in their time of need can go a long way), that they are supported and understood, and a priority in your life.
Bottom line: Divorcing as an expat is difficult, and there’s no one-answer for how to parent in the midst of all of the changes. Keeping your child’s needs in mind, and setting the intention to be the best parent you can be can make all the difference. When you need professional support, don’t wait to seek help.
Child Psychologist, Kate Berger, MSc, offers emotional health services for expatriate children and adolescents in the Amsterdam area through her practice, the Expat Kids Club.