Expat Children And Their Grandparents Back Home

For many expat families, grandparents are a fixed point of reference in their homeland. The quality of their relationship is not determined by the frequency of visits – but rather by the emotional support.
expat grandparents expat children
Photo by Nikoline Arns on Unsplash

Two-year-old Leon places framed pictures of grandma and grandpa on the dining table before climbing onto his high chair and having dinner. And Henry, four years old, is counting on grandpa to buy him the much longed-for garden playhouse when he comes to visit soon. Sixteen-year-old Marie often asks her grandmother for advice – they meet on Facebook. Many expatriate children have a very strong and special relationship with their grandparents back home – if despite the great distance the contact is intensive.

Sociological studies show that grandparents play an important role in their grandchildren’s lives. They are considered generous, have enough time, really listen and always help with advice and action. Grandparents are often more patient and relaxed than parents who are stressed out by everyday life. For expats living abroad it is especially good to know: the quality of the grandparents-grandchildren relationship is not determined by the frequency of personal contacts. The most important influencing factors are emotional support, trusting conversations, acceptance, a lack of pressure to perform and the absence of conflicts in parenting.

Roots And Home

But expat grandparents also have a very special role to play. Children who move to a new country with their parents every few years often don’t really know where they actually belong, where their roots are. The grandparents’ hometown can provide this missing point of reference. Especially when holidays are spent in their home and family celebrations are celebrated, little expats can find a geographical and cultural constant in their lives there. If, for example, an originally German expat family lives in the Asian metropolis, the grandparents are responsible for visiting the farm, baking German bread, feeding ducks, picking strawberries or mushrooms. Here children experience nature, Christmas traditions or family rituals. The grandparents form a constant connection to their German origins – no matter what country they are in at the moment.

In addition, expat grandparents can help expat parents to teach their children values and rules that may not exist in their social environment in the host country in the way the family would like. While the local parents are always in direct contrast to what the children experience at school and in their circle of acquaintances, grandparents who are far away from the host country can more easily form a “higher” moral authority, which often unconsciously has a great influence on the children.

Contact Right From The Start

For all this, good and regular contact between expat grandchildren and expat grandparents is a prerequisite, which, depending on the age of the grandchildren, is not always easy to fulfil long-distance.

Babies and children under the age of two need very frequent contact in order to recognise a person at all, to carefully build up trust and to overcome shyness. Grandparents who live nearby will quickly become a familiar face through babysitting, going out for walks and help in the household. If these opportunities disappear, it is much more difficult to integrate grandma and grandpa into family life in a way that benefits even small children. Hearing the voice on the phone, singing songs on tape and regularly “waving” over Skype seems to be little alternative for expat grandparents, but it does create the first tender bonds – on both sides.

From the age of about two years, children are able to remember faces from photos and link them to positive experiences. Contacts via the Internet with webcam, letters, child-friendly photo albums, gifts and videos literally leave a lasting impression.

The closer the fourth birthday approaches, the easier it is to establish contact. Then the expat grandparents themselves will be called from time to time. Later on, especially when the children can read and write, it becomes easier and easier for grandparents to build a direct, individual relationship with their grandchildren.

Different Means Of Communication

Extensive phone calls between expat grandparents, parents and children are certainly the best way to keep each other informed. It can often be advisable to arrange fixed telephone hours. This way, the joint discussions get the time and dedication they deserve. Each child should also have their own telephone times with grandparents so that a personal conversation can develop. If parents and siblings are sitting behind each other or even argue over the telephone, this is often a major obstacle for everyone.

But spontaneous, shorter calls are also important. Because they create real closeness. When the children have won a football match or brought home an exceptionally good school grade, it is nice for everyone to quickly call and share these special events with the grandparents in “real time”. Expat grandparents should also ask lots of questions, know the names of their grandchildren’s best friends and/or teachers, know how the children’s week is organised and what is currently on their minds. Only then can they quickly respond to surprising calls and always be up to date. No information should be considered as not worth mentioning. Because children really appreciate it when grandparents take part in their lives, give them full attention and some extra praise.

Technology Makes Things Easier

Computer and internet access are almost a must for expat grandparents with family abroad. E-mails can be typed quickly and informally at any time of day and sent in seconds. Digital photos can also be sent along, which are often more interesting than the written lines.

Communication via internet with webcam is certainly unbeatable. Therefore, expats should definitely spend the time to introduce computer-inexperienced grandparents to this technology. Skype or a comparable offer enables phone calls with live pictures. Chat rooms and blogs offer the opportunity to send short messages spontaneously and share them with several family members at the same time.

Know-how of Facebook and Twitter is especially beneficial for expat grandparents with teenage grandchildren. If they move securely in the world of communication of the younger generation, they often find it easier to get closer to their grandchildren than anyone else in the immediate family environment.

See And Hear

Expat grandparents like to see that their grandchildren abroad develop magnificently with their own eyes. That is why extensive photo series are particularly appreciated. Instead of sending the photos by post, online photo albums are a good idea. They are easy to maintain and provide not only grandparents with regular snapshots of everyday life abroad, but also friends and acquaintances.

The spoken word often gives small children in particular more closeness than the written word. For example, expat grandparents can read and record stories, sing songs or simply tell something from their everyday life. Or they can film themselves and their daily activities at home. Video recordings of the last children’s birthday party, an excursion or other highlights of family life abroad are invaluable for grandparents in return.

Old-fashioned, But Valuable

Despite all modern means of communication, everyone is happy to receive a handwritten letter or a parcel from home. Small gifts from expat grandparents are always something special for children. The excitement when the parcel carrier rings the doorbell and delivers something for them makes every child’s heart beat faster. The expat grandparents can then receive self-painted pictures by fax, and handmade works of art by mail as a thank you.

Regular Family Newsletter

For large families whose members live in different places around the world, a kind of family newsletter is a good idea. If one person agrees to take over the coordination, all families, including grandparents, c
an send texts and pictures, which are then summarized once or twice a year in a newsletter to everyone.

Relaxed Visits

Regular communication helps to really enjoy the short time spent together during the home visit or when the expat grandparents travel to the host country. The children are not strangers, even if they have not seen grandma and grandpa for a long time. And parents and grandparents can start right away without having to recount all the changes of the past months. However, the time spent together should not only be used for eventful activities, but also to experience everyday life together. Because a direct insight makes communication after the holiday much easier.

Families that are scattered around the globe do not always find it easy to form an intact extended family. But even in the same country not all grandparents live in the immediate vicinity. It is the trademark of our times that more effort must be made to maintain good relations with the family. But the profit associated with this is perhaps even greater today than ever before.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

Key Takeaways

  • Grandparents offer a missing point of reference for many expat children.
  • They can help expat parents to teach their children values that may not exist in their social environment abroad.
  • Extensive calls are the best way to keep each other informed.
  • Grandparents should ask lots of questions, and no information should be considered as not worth mentioning. 
  • Children really appreciate it when grandparents take part in their lives, give them full attention and some extra praise.
  • Expats should spend the time to introduce computer-inexperienced grandparents to video calls with webcam.
  • Know-how of Facebook is especially beneficial for grandparents with teenage grandchildren.
  • Online photo albums are a good idea.
  • Everyone is happy to receive a handwritten letter or a parcel from home.
  • Large families with members in different places around the world could start a kind family newsletter.
  • Regular communication helps to really enjoy the short time spent together during visits.
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