Expat Kid On The Brink

June 28, 2011

Raising a tiny expat

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.

Expat kids and expat woman

After a difficult day

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.

Expat Woman

No shrinking violet

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.

Expat woman living in el salvador

Showing a bug

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.

Expat children living in latin america

Creek Thinking

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.

expat woman

Butterfly photo she took today

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 ->

Expat Moms: this is a great program that can pay some bills.

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About Nanelle

Nanelle is a 43 year old former Ballet Dancer and Police Officer. Join her on their move to El Salvador, Living life in El Salvador as an American expat woman and loving it.

View all posts by Nanelle

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21 Responses to “Expat Kid On The Brink”

  1. Jacob Says:

    This is fascinating, in a weird way. Kind of sad, but expected… And amazing. If she is using art therapy on her own, I think she will probably end up doing that for most of her life… though kids change with age.

    I miss her.

    • Nanelle Says:

      She misses you too. The first drawing she showed me looked alot like the the characters with solid black eyes you drew a couple years ago. I think she would love to skype, so lets set it up this week. I think it will be great!

  2. Kate Says:

    Emme is absolutely remarkable. For being such a 5 year old at times she's so mature most of the time.

    I can see nothing but a great, creative future for her once the transition period is over. I've gotta say I'm delighted to know that she's turning to art to help (I'm biased, though). It's constructive and quiet, which are both valuable things for her. But I'm also glad to hear game nights are on their way. Emme is way too charming and sociable to be playing alone all the time.

    I also hope Jacob and I can Skype with you all soon! Maybe a little dose of familiarity will help her relax and let go of her worries for a while. In the meantime, give her a hug from me and tell her I miss her!

    • Nanelle Says:

      I will, I will read her both of these messages and we will skype soon. I love that you guys are up there following your callings

  3. JavaJ Says:

    I think one of our biggest fears when expatriating was how was our daughter going to react to it? I am sorry to hear that Emme is having issues, even though as you say, it is expected. It certainly has been a lot easier for ours, since babies and toddlers are so adored here. For a while, especially in Argentina, we were worried she was getting too much attention and would let it go to her head, but she grew out of it. For us the transition was easier, as ever since she was born we have spent most of our time at home. Even when mom worked and I was a stay at home dad, we would go meet mom for lunch a few times a week. Moving to Latin America was in large part influenced by our desire to spend time with her, and we find Latin culture very accepting of children. For example, we have taken her to every single business meeting we have had. (Not too unusual when you name your business Baby Siena Wines!)

    One piece of advice is to not worry so much about what Emme does and how it reflects on you. I see a lot of parents here laugh off what their kids do, even if it's horrendous, without letting it influence the adult relationships. We saw a kid crash his grandmother's truck into a tree a few weeks ago, and everyone including grandma seemed to shrug it off to "boys will be boys." Not so much as a word.

    • Nanelle Says:

      Being with her more was part of our choice to move too. I figures. 11 hour days vs working near her? Easy choice. I hear what you say about kids being almost idolized. It's awesome. I think part of it is the age difference. Emme is just a bit older and has set ideas now. I am looking forward to the switch to a bigger school and to keeping her out of business meetings. (Your girl does great in business meetings? That is too cool!)

  4. Gabriel Says:

    I think the main problem is probably the school itself. If its just a kindergarten maybe you can try to get her either into the American or the British schools. I graduated a few years back from the British school and its a much better atmosphere for an expat kid since spanish is spoken, and they can pick it up easily, but also everyone speaks english and are used to other expat kids so they embrace them instead of isolating them. I met my best friend at school, he's British and its been years and we still see each other often.

    Its just a suggestion, but I personally think that it might be a good idea to try to move her into a more embracing environment (international school). We were all 5 at one point, and you know that even though your parents will always be there for you; you want your friends to be your own age.

    How long are you planning to stay in El Salvador for? Is it just a year or two journey or are you planning to settle here for good? If so, try giving a call to any of those schools, they'll be happy to welcome your daughter.


    • Nanelle Says:

      Gabriel, I think you are so right! I'm looking forward to the fall, and so is she. I'm also looking forward to her language skills to pick up. She is now starting with some basic phrases and sentences (some of which I don't know, try to correct her, and then it turns out she was right). We have no plans to leave El Salvador, and I think I might be glad about that right now!

  5. JavaJ Says:

    It is definitely easier with a 2 year old! So far, she is still fairly well behaved, and we are able to nip any new things that come up in the bud, as opposed to changing learned behavior. In fact, she is genuinely helpful in getting people to open up (especially in Chile, where the people don't wear their affections on their sleeve as much as other Latin countries). As for the language, she speaks better Spanish than we do, as she has been learning since she was 10 months old. It's all new to her, English, Spanish same difference. Again, one of the reasons we chose to move, we wanted her to learn another language. She was learning Italian too, but we all dropped Italian as it was interfering with our Spanish.

    So if anyone is reading this and thinking they don't want to make that move until their child is older, I would argue it is much easier when they are younger. I look forward to hearing about the new school.

  6. Diana Bailey Says:

    Well I personally know what is the perfect cure for my Emme'…………..ME! She needs a grandma.

    Are there any foster grandma's down there?? Let's see; I don't fly, boat, train or drive……..so I don't know how I would get there.

    I LOVED the detailed description of the entire communication process in this post. Never stop doing it that way. The details are what draw me as a reader. You are never afraid to 'show your underbelly' and wonder out loud with friends and loved ones, how to solve life's problems and challenges.

    I like that in a person.

    • Nanelle Says:

      Diana, coming from you that means alot. You are one of the best writers I know of! You are right, she does need a gramma, but all the grammas I see here are taken! We will have to skype it!

  7. Jennifer Says:

    Reading this gives me goosebumps. We moved here right before my sons 5th birthday and the similaritis in our stories are amazing, even down to playing UNO because it doesn't require much language. Thank you for giving me a fresh perspective and great ideas for how to make his life better. He is 7 now but still talks about his life in the US and when he can go back to it. I pray that in time he will learn to love it here and consider it home. Thanks again

  8. Peter Towers Says:

    Ended up here after the reading escapefromamerica.com article. Loved the post, the details, the analysis — so much love and sense. I have an expat background from southern Italy as a kid and was thrown back in memory. It was a bit of a ride but in the end I came out confident, independent, and bi-lingual.

    We just came back to the Bay Area after two years in the Cayman Islands, just to get our feet wet of the whole expat experience. Our daughter just turned 3 so it was easy, and traveling as a family opened up a lot of social doors more than anything else. I can't wait until we can move again, El Salvador sounds lovely.

    • Nanelle Says:

      Thank you so much for your perspective! Hearing from people who grew up international is helpful, and encouraging. For every bad part of it, there is just as much upside I think

  9. Josh Says:

    First off great post and website. All this talk is amazing and painting some kind of picture to what life is like for expats but I have not heard anybody talk about the feeling of security for the family. Can someone please try to paint me a pic on how it feels as a family and being secure. If all works out we will be in the San Salvador area.

    Thank you,


  10. Gianna Says:

    Emme is an awesome kid, she really is. You are blessed to have her.

    • Andy Newbom Says:

      thank you so much! she really is a trooper. This year, as things smooth out and shegains more and more acceptance I realize how strong she is for 7, and how all of her acting out is so much less than I could have expected!


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