Last year I sat down with a friend and asked this simple question, “How was your time back in the States?”  Her answer, in a nutshell “long, stressful and I’m glad to be back.”  

Her main reason for answering this way.  Her family.  

Now don’t get me wrong she loves her family, is close to her family and would categorize her parents and in-laws as supportive and loving, but they were still doing things that (unintentionally) added to my friend’s stress level.  The relaxed family time she dreamt about for years was a far cry from what she experienced.   Instead, she felt like she was pulled in 100 different directions by well-intentioned loved ones.

Maybe you and your loved ones who reside thousands of miles away have a wonderful relationship and you have come to navigate the waters of them coming home for visits perfectly.  Praise the Lord, if so (and please share your wisdom in the comments!!).  But, maybe you are unintentionally stressing your kids out, maybe you are intentionally being hurtful as retaliation for them taking your darling grandkids away…who knows?  Either way I bet your relationship with them is suffering.  Those lovely children you raised, they are so kind and respectful and they don’t want to say what I am about to say.   It’s called “tough love”.  You may be familiar with it from your kid’s teenage years.   

So here it goes, 10 helps to maintain healthy relationships with your expat (adult) children:

  1. Adjust your expectations.  There is a lot of lost time when a loved one is abroad for several years. Also, it is a myth, you can’t make up for lost time.  I believe you can only move forward in the time you have and be thankful for the new memories.  This begins with correct expectations.  If you are expecting your 3-year-old grandchild to run from the airport and jump into your arms with a smile and a hug…you may be disappointed.  Your grand baby will be jetlagged and tired and shy.  However, if you do expect that in a few visits they will climb into your lap for story time…that is a correct expectation.
  2. Lose the guilt trips.  Maybe your kids don’t want to live with you for three months.  Did you want to live with your parents for three months back in the day?  Maybe they do want to live with you.   Let them decide.  If they want to go spend the 4th of July with their best friends at the lake, please don’t guilt them for enjoying time away from you.  Also, they realize you missed the last three birthdays of little Johnny.  Man, it breaks their heart, too.  It doesn’t help to bring it up every time the word “birthday” is mentioned.  Guilt trips are real relationship killers.
  3. Communicate clearly before they land home.  If great-grandma is out of her mind with dementia or the family is in a huge crisis, please be upfront before the visit.  (That goes both ways, expats!) There is nothing worse than stepping off a plane after 142 hours and realizing the life you painted for them is not all roses and rainbows.  Give your loved ones a chance to process  real life situations (in real time…when issues arise).  It will help them to be able to understand and empathize.  Lose all the “you don’t how it has been blah blah” attitude.   They may not know because you never clued them in.  Communicating over oceans can be tricky and it for sure isn’t convenient.  But it is a must.
  4. Share, Share, Share them with others.   Yes, we all supposedly learned this by kindergarten, but when it comes to grandkids, I am fully convinced grandparents’ sanity goes out the window. Most likely your daughter/son have in-laws who love and want to visit and spend time with the grandbabies, also.  And guess what?  It is impossible to be two places at once.  Try to share holidays and birthdays and time generously.  Everyone suffers during a game of emotional tug-of-war. Thanksgiving celebrations can happen on December 1st.  The world won’t explode.   
  5. Try not to smother the grandkids.  They are cute and sweet and awesome, but you can’t be around for every small occasion while your loved ones are on home assignment.  You just can’t.  Even if they live with you…you must have some sort of life outside of them.  Good healthy boundaries are the sweet spot where relationships can grow.  If you plant two seeds close together, one plant will choke out the other…usually the smaller weaker one can’t survive.
  6. Engage with the overseas family.  On the other side of the spectrum, even if you fear the sting of of your family’s impending departure, make the best of the time that you have.  Quality not quantity is the key.  Tell the grandkids stories, take them to the grocery store, cook with them, enjoy the time you have with them…even if it is short.  Maybe the first meeting will be awkward, but kids don’t care and they really wont’t pick up (too much) on awkwardness.  If they are older they will appreciate your efforts even if they roll their eyes.
  7. Remember that your children actually have jobs.  Whether fund-raising, speaking engagements, office time, what have you, most of them have responsibilities outside of visiting with family.  Also, on the agenda reconnecting with family and friends.  There is usually time for both if all parties work together for the greater good.  
  8. Try to build the relationship while they are overseas.  Weekly FaceTime and phone calls really help to keep the relationship fresh.  It is also instrumental in avoiding communication issues (see #3).  Your face, voice and sense of humor will be familiar to the grandkids.  Both parties will eventually get use to the delay in the line, frozen screens and the constant hang-ups for no apparent reason. Technology is a blessing (especially when it works properly!)
  9. Ask questions and listen for the answers.  You probably are clueless about what life is like overseas and your loved ones would LOVE to share with you.  Ask questions.  Laugh at their stories.  Learn about daily life. Look at pictures.  And when they say they really don’t have room to carry big gifts back, PLEASE listen and don’t buy your granddaughter a 10-foot pink bunny rabbit. 
  10. Visit.  If at all physically and financially possible visit your loved ones in their host culture.  You will gain invaluable information on what makes them tick and you will learn how to love them better.  Your grandkids will be thrilled to show you their rooms and get a kick at you spitting out their favorite local food.  Your kids will feel loved and supported and cared for.  It really is a win-win!

All relationships are a two-way street.  That street is more difficult to navigate when it is 10,000 miles long.  With open communication, understanding, and support, family relationships, though distant, can remain strong.  The time expats spend home with their families is treasured.  Making the best of that time by not wasting energy on unwarranted conflict and by focusing on the important things will help you and your loved one’s overseas relationship thrive and grow.

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Photo Credit: Rebekah Gregg Photography