I am an expat woman and my Daughter is 5 years old, and it is a big task helping her manage her stress, and my own at the same time. Her energy, her mindset and her changes as she learns are not shocking, but they are still a challenge to handle correctly.
As we settled in she experienced some loneliness. She would hang out in the empty park outside our house trying to look like she was having fun. She would shout “wheeeeee! Jugar!” while swinging alone, to lure other kids outside. Several people explained, “Salvadorans don´t go outside”. That is one of many generalizations I heard that is not totally true.
Eventually Emme´s hilarious efforts changed the afternoon patterns at our little residencial. Kids started forcing their parents, or nannies, outside to play. I was pretty proud and it seemed like a good sign. We have now met several of our neighbors, and their kids. Sometimes it pays to be the weird expat woman who doesn’t quite fit in.
The following weeks were a mix of victories and defeats. For one, she realized the language barrier was real, and that she had to use actual Spanish to communicate. This was sort of a defeat because she slowed down, and withdrew a bit. She became a little less determined to be part of the groups of girls, and more accepting of playing nearby, but not with anyone.
One interesting adaptation I saw is she played more boldly with the boys if they are around. I think it´s because they don´t organize their play verbally as much (another generalization?) They just run after the ball or climb all over the monkey bars while hitting each other. This is the same in any language.
As time went on, she developed a strong dislike for school. She would do anything to get out of it, so much so that I even conducted a Forensic Interview (remnants of former job) to be sure it was just natural challenges she was reacting to.
Gradually Emme became defiant (no real stretch for her personality, but the change was distinct) overly emotional about small things, and even started behaving angrily around her puppy. She destroyed her room when she didn’t get what she wanted, and announced she didn’t want anything pretty in her room anymore. She began to literally refuse to do anything she didn’t want to, like homework, or baths. She is a girl with stamina in the refusal department. She can go without things she wants, and put up with most anything to avoid complying. She is pretty sure that any and every hill is worth dieing on to win that one battle.
To try to get around the constant direct conflict, I pulled her aside a few times to just sit and talk. last night we had a talk I would have expected with a 12-13 year old girl, but maybe I underestimated a five year old girls ability to reason through what she is feeling.
It all started when she spilled a cup of orange juice before dinner. Neither my husband nor I got mad, and we just cleaned it up with her. Emme however got very angry shortly after cleaning. She sulked in the other room, and yelled at her puppy, who kept trying to get up onto her couch with her.
I told her to calm down, and made a little fun of her for being mad about spilling the juice. Somehow, my approach just made it worse. She sulked like she’d been reprimanded. At dinner she announced, “Mommy has to talk with me alone after dinner”. Rather than argue about what I do and don’t “have to do”, I said I would love to talk to her.
After dinner Emme asked me to talk to her about getting yelled at. I asked her tell me more (its a pretty broad subject), and she launched into a very long and very mature sounding description of anger and fear about the move and the changes. She described nightmares about being adopted, (We had to give up our two parrots to adoptive owners before the move). She said that the one friend she had started playing with at school doesn´t play with her now, and a special needs boy at the school follows her around, calls her “mama” all day and takes her things. She is in a very small class of 5 children and social options are few. She went on with no coaxing for quite a while. She showed me some drawings that described how she felt when she spilled the juice. I then found many other drawings in her room. It turns out she keeps a “drawing diary”, or at least she draws when she is sad or angry, which I found striking on several levels.
I never made any effort to get her to draw her feelings or use art therapy. The clarity of the images in depicting her world was surprising. That I hadn´t noticed how much was going on with her was also surprising, because despite the battles lately, I thought I was giving her loads of attention. in fact I may have been simultaneously spoiling and ignoring her (classic bad combination). In retrospect I should not be surprised as she imitates most things her adult brothers do, and they are both people who make very dramatic and expressive art.
Emme is a fierce little girl. She is bossy, strong willed, outgoing and demanding. With all of that fire it is easy to miss that there is a regular five year old behind it. It is easy to dismiss her as manipulative when there is reality to what she is feeling and saying. The fact that she shouts it in your face can make parents block it out. We sometimes judge a kid based on how well they imitate adult structures.
What is the next step for an expat woman living abroad with a tiny expat daughter? here are a few. I hope that they will add up to heading in the right direction.
1) We are not on a set schedule, and that’s changing. It’s amazing how difficult it is to separate family time from work time when you don’t have a job, but are working several projects at a time. example: It is now illegal for both parents type on the computer at the same time in the afternoon. It has already helped.
2) We went to visit the school she will attend in the fall, and met with staff there, some of whom speak English. She is looking forward to a whole fresh start in the fall. I think starting in a bigger school with more Spanish skills will help. (though I still expect a struggle)
3) A set plan for unified and consistent discipline.
4) Nightly games, all the family of course, but including neighbor kids if possible. We are starting with UNO, and working our way up. UNO requires no real language, and kids her age can just about get it. With adults helping she can develop more social skills (including loosing gracefully) with a little guidance and a few yucca chips.
5) No more taking her to adult environments, and expecting her to behave. The times I find I use bribes to silence bad behavior, so that I cant ignore her (….. don’t lie ….. all you parents have those moments) …. are way too often now that we are here. She doesn’t mind them much. She gets to act out and get ice-cream as the purchase price for finishing the meeting. If its a long meeting she gets two) Those are over. We do our business meetings separately or
during school. No more situations that tempt us to reinforce bad things.
If you think about it, the parental behaviors that took her from strong-willed to out-of-control, are typical of many expat families. Maybe you are going to work at home and think that you will be closer to your kids. For many it works out that way, but for other the lack of structure blurs the lines between work and family. Business meetings become dinner chats. Your children are expected to get along with the kids of whoever you are meeting, and the chat is at an odd hour because of the new freedom. Expat women are nervous about the impression they are making and do odd things to get their kids to keep everything pleasant. Parents have their own new stresses and don’t catch that you are changing how you do some things in a way that does not help your kids adapt well.
Expat moms beware! Watch yourself for your own changes and how the change your kids boundaries. More to come as these expat parents rework their whole broken program!
What have your experiences of being an expat woman and a mom with children living abroad? write your comments below ->