Lucille Abendanon

Top tips for keeping in touch with family you leave behind

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

In this article, we explore how to keep in touch with family and loved ones you leave behind.

It can be a scary thought, leaving your family behind and moving across the world. Perhaps your parents live close by and pop in daily. Perhaps your whole family live in the same town and you take it for granted that you’ll see each other at least once a week. Many people hesitate to move abroad because they worry what leaving close family and friends behind will do to the relationship. 

Lucille has been through this, and whilst the decision to leave loved ones can never be made lightly, she feels the lines of communication and the closeness you share in person can absolutely remain open and strong. The key is to bring loved ones into the everyday and there are a number of ways to achieve this. Here are some top tips for remaining in contact with friends and family.

Send letters

Remember when letters were the only way of communicating with loved ones who lived far away? In those days even phone calls were often expensive or unreliable. Nowadays our children hardly know the joys of letter writing, or of receiving a letter in the post. Writing letters to grandparents or other family members your kids are close to is a lovely way of keeping the lines of communication open.

Younger kids can draw pictures, older children can write about their adventures and impressions of life in a new country. It’s a lovely way to slow down and think about the person you are writing to. Create a routine around writing and posting letters, but keep it fun so the kids remain enthusiastic. It’s tempting to shoot off an email, but the time and energy it takes to write and post a letter creates a lasting bond.

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Skype/FaceTime/WhatsApp

Technology allows us to shrink the distance between us and our loved ones. Through video calls they can be right here in the room with us. Skype, FaceTime (for Apple users) and WhatsApp are the most popular video calling tools, and with WiFi they are completely free. Lucille uses them all on a regular basis, and her children have been able to give their grandparents a tour of their rooms, show them artwork and other things that mean a lot to them.

Some pointers regarding video calling family back home include:

  1. Set a time for calling, and then stick to it. Try not to cancel at the last minute.

  2. Pick a time when the family is all together, and no one is hungry or tired. This pertains particularly to families with younger children. Lucille’s family tend to call grandparents on a Sunday evening after bath time, but before bed. It’s not fun to be on a video call with grumpy kids!

  3. With older kids, the temptation will be to chat incessantly with friends they left behind. Many experts say put a limit on the length of time your kids spend video chatting to their friends, and definitely no late-night chats. This is because your child or teenager needs to focus on the present, making new friends and assimilating to life in a new country.

Send books for long distance story time

Ask grandparents or close family to send a book to your child. Make sure it’s something your child is interested in and when you read the book together talk about it being ‘grannies’ book. Otherwise arrange for granny or grandpa to read the book to your child over video call. It’s all about finding ways to maintain the closeness between your kids and family back home.

Visits

Of course nothing can replace the joy of a visit in person. Most expats return home once a year, and this is great for reconnecting with friends and family. A word of advice though: home leave can get crazy! There will be too many people to see and too little time. Be sure to prioritise spending time with family and friends who are closest to you and your kids.

Often your precious few weeks at home turn into a mad scramble to fit everyone in, sometimes flying around the country to do so. You’ll inevitably have to say no to some people and they may feel upset, but remember you’re only home once a year and it simply isn’t possible to see everybody. The best solution may be to rent holiday accommodation in a central location and invite anyone who wants to see you to come there.

It’s wonderful if friends and family can visit you in your new country too. It’s exciting for the kids to show their new lives in person. If you’ve been posted to a particularly lovely part of the world, you may be inundated with visitors!

Send photos daily

You may be scheduling video calls with family or friends back home once a week or every fortnight, but doing little things to keep in touch daily really keeps the closeness alive. So many insignificant but wonderful things happen in a day, especially when the kids are young, that it’s difficult to convey everything via video call. Snap pictures with your phone and WhatsApp them to grandparents or friends back home. It adds a wonderful immediacy to a relationship affected by distance and brings those at home into the everyday. 

Voice notes are great for kids who are too young to type. Simply press record and connect.

Start a friendship book

Lucille’s son had lived in three countries by the time he was six. He’s very much aware that the friends he has now may not be here next year. Such is the reality of expat life. They often talk about ways of remembering friends and he finds comfort in the fact that he can video call them. Lucille also loves the idea of the Friendship Book For Kids On The Move created by Petra Houweling. Petra lived in England, Scotland and Egypt before returning to The Netherlands with her husband and two children.

“Remembering your friends and capturing the little details are the most important reasons why I designed this book,” says Petra. Each page is beautifully illustrated with areas for friends to fill in such as “what I super-duper like about you…”; “I wish you…” and other bits of information about themselves. Petra says, “what I've also noticed is that children often pass the book, not only to their friends, but to all their classmates. This can lead to a better understanding and a positive feeling between children who are not that familiar to each other.”

Do your bit to maintain the bond

It’s often up to you as the parent to encourage the relationship by bringing grandparents and loved family members into your child’s everyday life. They may be physically absent but they needn’t be emotionally absent and a strong bond can still be nurtured without seeing them every day. A good way to do this is to talk about grandparents to your children. Tell them about their grandparents’ lives, interesting periods in history they may have lived through, little details about them so that your children feel they know them.

It’s also important that family members back home are kept up to date with your kids’ lives. For example. sending a regular email to grandparents keeps them in the loop and also means that when it’s time to video call they have many relevant things to talk about and the conversations are more about sharing than fact finding.

Create photo books

Take many photos of your kids with their friends, of family get-togethers and of special moments throughout the year. Get into the habit of documenting your lives. Then compile the best pictures into a photo book, which can be printed and delivered to you. There are many photo book software packages available online, some even for free. My kids love to page through the yearly books, remembering people and experiences. Lucille finds that the memories are far more accessible to them in printed form rather than being exclusively filed away on a computer or storage device. Memories are kept fresh, and there’s more incentive to keep in touch with the people you’ve made special memories with.

Conclusion

It’s difficult leaving family behind and moving across the world. If your children are particularly close to their grandparents, this becomes even harder. But the bond between family and friends doesn’t have to be negatively affected. With some planning and a little effort, the lines of communication can and do stay open. Your expat child will end up having friends all around the world, and it’s so easy to stay in touch through technology, that the distance shrinks and you can hold your world in the palm of your hand.

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.