No matter who you are, traveling abroad can seem like an exhilarating, overwhelming, and nerve-wracking idea. What may be even more nerve wracking is the thought of your child going abroad. As a parent, you no doubt want your kid to have a successful, enriching, rewarding time abroad. Every person defines success in different ways. A successful time abroad may mean something completely different for you than it would for your child.
For you, having a successful time abroad may mean identifying the 17 types of coral on a scuba diving trip in Belize. For your kid, success abroad may be as simple yet daunting as finding a group of friends to play basketball with while studying abroad in Australia. Maybe your child is packing their bags for a multi-country high school volunteering trip, or they are shopping for internships. Either way, it’s important to keep one thing in mind:
Your kid will still be the same person when they come back, but their perspective of the world will have fundamentally changed.
Here are some tips to empower your kid to have a successful experience before, during, and after their time abroad:
This is the most nerve-wracking stage for you and your kid, especially if it's the first time they are leaving. Instead of dwelling on the future, capture and appreciate the time you have left with each other!
Preserve your memories: Find an activity that you and your child both enjoy doing together. Play cards, or watch a movie about travel to get inspired. Even preparing your kid to learn a new language will help you enjoy the last moments you have together, instead of worrying about your kid’s time abroad. Take pictures of you and your kid having a blast, so that the both of you can hang them up on your walls after the big departure date.
When kids feels overwhelmed with the newness of being abroad, few things will be as comforting as having photos of family and friends on their wall to make them realize that there are people who love them, no matter how far away.
Research your kid’s destination: Being as informed as possible of your child’s host country and city will prepare the both of you. Maybe your kid will have wifi at home, or maybe they will have to bike three miles to get to an internet café. Maybe it’s cheaper than you thought to send each other postcards and packages. Knowing these things will help you know what to expect in terms of communicating with each other.
In terms of your child’s experience, research their host country’s norms: What do they eat? Will there be conflicts with your kid’s food allergies while abroad? How do people dress? Do women wear shorts in the street, or do they wear head scarves? What is considered “professional dress?” In Nicaragua, jeans are fine to wear to work, but not in Chile, where khakis will do. Knowing what to wear will help your child present him or herself in the safest, most professional way.
Help your kid form travel goals: The earlier your student learns to travel meaningfully, the easier it will become. Have them think about why they are going abroad. Yes, they will be traveling, but why would they travel to a different country rather than staying in their own? You want your kid to think about how they can make informed, conscious decisions while abroad. Encourage your child to consider the communities they will visit, and how their presence will impact them (for better or worse). Plant these seeds early on so your kid adopts a 360 degree view of their travel decisions, and how they can affect the lives of others.
Strike up a conversation: Not sure how your kid feels about what kinds of choices they will make abroad? Ask them! You’d be surprised at the conversations that would come up if you asked them questions such as:
- Are you nervous about going abroad? Why?
- What are you looking forward to doing?
- What do you know about the country you’re going to?
- How do you think going abroad will help your career?
If you have gone abroad before, this is a great chance for you to think about what you were nervous about. When it comes to traveling abroad, the first time is always the hardest because you don’t know what to expect. Your kid may not have elaborate answers to these questions yet, and that is fine. The point is for them to think critically about their journey.
Sometimes it helps to encourage kids to be overdramatic…this gets the juices flowing, and light conversation is typically a good segue to more serious discussions.
- What’s the worst possible thing you can imagine happening?
- What are your greatest fears about going abroad? Sharks?
- Let’s brainstorm the most embarrassing thing you are probably going to do while there…
Help them choose a program: And you thought choosing a destination was hard enough! Even after your kid has zeroed in on a new place to call a temporary "home," there are many program options within each country to choose from. Students can opt to sign up for programs that focus on community service and volunteering, language learning, or adventure. Organizations such as the Youth for Understanding, Maximo Nivel, and ISA all offer programs with varied themes and varied levels of immersion. It is up to you, as a team, to choose a program that fits your personal goals and checks off all the list of a dream program.
Be sure to read reviews of programs, talk to past participants, and ask other parents for insight they'd be willing to share. Check the organizations out on social media for "social proof" to see photos of current and past students and get a general vibe for the organization as a whole. Choose a program that is committed to working alongside the local community and integrating them whenever possible. A company that consciously regards the environment and the people in the communities they are working in is always a good sign.
This is when the magic happens. Although you are physically apart, here's how you can be there for your kiddo:
Continue the conversation: Once your kid has settled into his or her new country, ask them the conversation questions again. You will be surprised to see much more they have to say. They will tell you how their fears, concerns, and assumptions will have developed.
Stay in touch: Agree on a method of keeping in touch, but be patient. There is no magic formula for staying in touch, but setting up a preferred method and schedule helps. You could agree to Skype once a week. For some parents, just seeing their kids’ Facebook updates and photos is enough. Other parents prefer weekly email updates. Other junior travelers might set up a blog that would send their number one subscriber (you) an email each time they post a story.
Setting up a positive communication system in advance will help you both feel like you are there for each other as much as possible. Phoning home is a great way to turn a bad day abroad into a much better day. When your kid sticks to a communication schedule, this will help them manage their time abroad, and will make them excellent communicators. Let your kid know you miss them, but don’t guilt trip them. You both know they are there to have a valuable experience, to grow, and to learn more about the world. They will be back home eventually!
Use snail mail: Your kid may be in a part of the world where peanut butter isn’t available, so a care package will make their day. Ask your kid to send you postcards of the countries they travel. This will give them a chance to see what it’s like to use a post office in another country, and will also give you the chance to cover your fridge with colorful postcards from around the world.
Once you've finished hugging your kid for ten minutes at the baggage claim, here’s how to help them readjust to life back home.
Be aware of reverse culture shock: Don’t be surprised if your kid locks himself in his room a week after being abroad, or if he comes home, wondering why the signs at the street signs aren’t translated into multiple languages for tourists. Maybe your daughter stays up all night watching movies dubbed in German, because it makes her feel as if her time abroad wasn’t a dream. For the next few months, your kid’s stories will start with “When I was in Denmark…” and that is a testament to how much going abroad impacted them. They are still the same person, but their view of the world has changed. Tell them you’re proud of them for going abroad.
Encourage your kid to inspire other adventurers: Once your kid is back at school, encourage them to inspire their classmates to travel. Their friends may have been too intimidated to study abroad until they saw your kid do it themself. They could even speak at different high schools or college fairs about their experiences. When your kid travels abroad, they will encourage others to travel overseas.
Your kid probably took many pictures while abroad. If they didn’t start a blog, encourage them to start one in order for them to feel connected to their amazing time overseas. Having a blog is a great way to build a professional portfolio, because it shows that you are dedicated to publishing writing and photos that make others feel connected to your story.
After the reverse culture shock has faded and your kid has adjusted back to life at home, know that you had an integral part in their success. Being study abroad parents is no easy task, but you’ve done a good thing for your kid. Thanks to your preparation and patience, you helped them realize that they could succeed as a high school student abroad. If they can do that, they can do anything they set their mind to.