Today, my guest is Kate Berger. With Kate, we talk about the main message parents need to give to children, what to do when an older child steps into the role of a physically absent parent and the importance of learning to cope with change. Kate is a child psychologist and the founder of the Expat Kids Club. Her main aim is to support emotional well-being of expatriate children, and she does that through individual, family and corporate consultations.
In this Episode:
- Why it’s important for children, parents and corporations to “learn and develop skills to cope effectively”. 01:52
- Challenges due to Frequent Business Travel – Consequences of a parent travelling in and out of home 06:26
- Addressing when an older child steps into the physically absent parent’s role. Importance of parents working collaboratively 13:08
- Kate uses the word ‘instability’ to describe the coming and going of a parent who travels. She gives her insights on whether to strive for more stability or learn how to live better with it. 16:55
- The main message parents need to give to their children 20:28
Resources mentioned in the episode:
- Families in Global Transition
- Find out more about Third Culture Kids
- The International Therapists Directory
The Expat Kids Club
Kate Berger, MSc , Child & Adolescent Psychologist
Offices in Amstelveen & Wassenaar
Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad. The podcast for expats with traveling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter. I support partners who live and parent when apart for work. In this podcast, I interview men and women who live abroad and have traveling partners, so that we can all benefit from their wisdom and experience. I also invite experts to apply their expertise to this topic.
Today, my guest is Kate Berger. Kate is a child psychologist and the founder of the Expat Kids Club. Her main aim is to support emotional well-being of expatriate children, and she does that through individual, family and corporate consultations.
First, we'll talk a little bit about what she does, and then we'll move on to her insights on living a life with geographical distance or frequent travel. Kate, welcome.Kate Berger:
Hi Rhoda, thank you.Rhoda Bangerter:
Thanks so much for being here. I'm looking forward to this conversation with you. So, tell us a little bit what you do, because you focus on children who move, right?Kate Berger:
Yes, that's right. So I run a private psychology practice, we're based in the Netherlands, but we support the global Community, the mobile Community as well. And we work in a child-centered way, meaning that the children are our clients, and we're supporting them through all the complexities that come with being a part of this international lifestyle let's say, there's a third culture kid profile.
But of course, because we work with young people, that means we're also collaborating with the support system around them, which obviously includes parents and schools and other types of providers as well.Rhoda Bangerter:
Right. We connected when I was looking for resources about telling children that you're moving. Because one of the things that came up in our international school with some parents were not telling their children, out of I think a concern that they would be sad or devastated.
And so, I think it was a genuine concern, “let's not tell them until the very last minute and then they'll be happy, and then we move”. And I feel like oh, I'm like oh, to me, that just sounded like really brutal. Although, it's coming from a really, a place of care. So that's how we connected. Can you just talk a little bit about that? Like is it okay for them to be sad?Kate Berger:
Yes, absolutely. And this is something that is sort of a question that comes up a lot in our work of, you know, when do we let the kids know that this relocation is happening. And I agree with you, I think that there is often a tendency to sort of want to put it off as long as possible to avoid some difficult feelings.
We are in the business of moving closer towards difficult thoughts and feelings, because if we put ourselves in a coping habit of avoidance and distraction, then we all know those strategies really work in the short term. But eventually, we're going to encounter difficult thoughts and feelings in life. So it's much more effective in the long term to move closer to all that difficulty and learn and develop skills to cope effectively.
So even though yes, it's hard, we don't want to avoid the difficulty in the context of letting kids know that we're moving, because they're going to have a hard time sooner or later with that in most cases. And it doesn't have to mean it's going to be like devastating, but there are certainly challenges inherent in the process. So we want to be sort of prepared and equipped to handle that as effectively as possible.Rhoda Bangerter:
So in your private practice, like in the Expat Kid’s Club, would you have like, you have online resources right that parents could go for this topic specifically or others where you can be like okay, I can like find out, how do I deal with my kids’ sadness? Or like a really strong response?Kate Berger:
Yes, absolutely. And a portion of the work that we do is indeed parental consultation in this way. So we get a lot of parents that are reaching out to us saying like we're planning to move in the next three or six months or whatever, how do we talk to our kids about this? And what do we need to keep in mind?
And can you help us come up with a plan? And so then we'll do individual support and looking at kind of just individual circumstances of the family, the child, their way of processing information, all these sorts of things. It doesn't always have to be directly involving the child, but it can just be supporting on that level. So that's something that we do for sure.Rhoda Bangerter:
Oh, that is so important, right? I mean, just as parents, it's like we're not all always equipped. And this is an extra I think topic that we're just not necessarily equipped for, in terms of handling how we communicate or helping them kind of do it, do this kind of transition, because it is hard.Kate Berger:
It is hard, and I mean, it's interesting too, because we see this also in the systematic level. So like not just for individual families and parents, but we've worked with corporates also that are like we don't want to talk about the difficulty, we don't want to like mention this in any of the materials that we're providing for our employees.
Because if we talk about it, they're not going to want to do it, and then that affects a company and their bottom line and all these sorts of things. But we really encourage them as much as possible indeed to like I said move closer, talk about it, name it, acknowledge it, come up with a strategy that's effective for long-term coping with this sort of difficulty. So it's not only parents that are not always equipped, it's everybody.Rhoda Bangerter:
That is such interesting point. Oh my word, yes, that is very true. Now, you got me thinking about the organizations, because we're trying to get organizations to preempt it. It's always a little bit of a challenge to, that they see that it's actually important. But it's also just a funny point, that yes, they don't want to talk about the challenges.Kate Berger:
Yes, don't say it, don't talk about it.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes. And actually, it's practically forewarned and then you probably won't see the problem, that's the whole point, right?Kate Berger:
So you've seen in your practice, what I've experienced in sort of my research, and like not a week goes by that when people ask me what I do, and I explain someone goes oh yes, I live that, or yes, we've known that. So either frequent business travel, when you move abroad, and then your partner's gone like a lot of the time because they might be a regional manager, or they're covering a number of countries.
Or families who are choosing for one partner to stay in one place, and one partner to live in the other country, for kids education or dual careers or security in the country that one of the partners is going to. So you were saying earlier, just before we hit record that you see a lot of frequent business travel, that's one that we don't often talk about in its own right. What's sort of been your experience of that in what you've seen, what kind of challenges do you see people coming with?Kate Berger:
So many challenges that come up in that type of situation. One of the things, just in no particular order, is that we see that when a family relocates, there's this sort of question about how much effort do we put into integrating into this new community, how much effort is required in terms of being able to maintain our sense of identity as a family, as individuals within the family.
And when you have this additional sort of factor of mobility when there is a person in the family system who is sort of coming in and out of that frequently, that makes all of those types of questions more complicated to look at, and to find the answers that work for any given family. On the child level particularly, we also see that the impact in a way where it makes it difficult for a child to fully feel secure in their own role within the context of the family when there are these shifts taking place.
So to be more specific, a sort of common thing that can happen is particularly, and if it's a family with multiple children, the older child might sort of step into a parent role when the parent who is traveling frequently for work is not present, because the parenting pressure that's put on the parent that stays at home increases. And so an older child might sort of pick up on that and notice that and step into that space, which is often not helpful or appropriate.
We also see even things like families changing their kind of rules and boundaries around the house, when one parent is there or isn't there when it comes to even things like sleeping. So it's not uncommon for families that we're working with to say okay, well parent A is out of town for work again, so all the kids can sleep with parent B, which might be convenient, and it also maybe attends to certain needs that come up in the context of just feeling isolated or alone and things like that.
But then when both parents are back in the house, back to the situation where kids sleep in the kids rooms and parents sleep in the parents rooms. And so this instability, this complexity in the context of the roles and the systemic structure that's in place can be really tough and challenging for kids.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes. And I think my observation is that, and it was true for myself as well, is that we don't attribute this instability, all these kinds of intensity, to the fact that our partner's coming in and out. That we attributed to like oh, and something's wrong, something's wrong with me, something's wrong with our family, why aren't we coping? Why is it chaotic? What'd you say to that?Kate Berger:
Yes. I mean, I think this idea of like something being wrong is definitely recognizable, right? I think just generally anyway, I'm also a parent and like we tend to first critique our own parenting and think about all the things that we're doing wrong and forgot to acknowledge things that we're doing right.
But it's also sort of a natural consequence of being in a situation where there is so much instability, it sort of activates our nervous system even to kind of go into that survival mode that fight or flight, and then we're just wired to see that negativity bias is there. So we're going to inherently look for the problems or what's wrong or what's not going well in these kinds of moments, and maybe the focus becomes very much like what am I not doing right, or how am I screwing up again as a parent sort of thing.
But you can zoom out and think about okay, well, what is going right or what are some kinds of factors that are not necessarily that control, like what's control, what's out of my control context to see, okay, maybe that would help identify something like this movement, this instability as something that's actually influencing what we're seeing on a day-to-day behavioral level and what's challenging.Rhoda Bangerter:
I think the three though you pointed out are interesting for people, I think if they recognize it in their own family, would you say like okay, so then they recognize it and they say oh, okay, that's kind of, I don't want to use the word normal, but it is a common effect of this lifestyle. So an older child taking a parental role, which might need to be addressed and maybe you can speak to that a little bit.
The differences in rules when a parent is gone, when they're coming back that's a really common one. And what was the third one? I can't remember. But those two are already like biggies I think of what I see a lot.
And I think just people knowing oh, okay, if they see that in their families, that is something that is direct from this kind of that in and out, in and out of the life. So what would you advise people to do? Like first maybe address the question of an older child taking on a parent's role, what would you say to that?Kate Berger:
Yes. I mean, I think it's really important to just generally in any context where there is this type of instability, in terms of the parent level of functioning, which could also be from just separation or divorce and things like that. We see kind of similar types of impact, right? But to make sure that the parents are working collaboratively or co-parenting or working as a unit, and that this sort of idea.
We talk a lot about having like the upper management level, and that the parents are that upper management for the kids, and that decisions, important decisions are being made on that level. And kids can give feedback or share their perspectives, wonderful, great, well, take that into consideration. But at the end of the day, the messaging coming across to the kids is that if they're both parents involved are the ones ultimately sort of making decisions about the rules and the boundaries and things like that.
And if one parent is not physically able to be present for all of those moments of communication, being creative about how to include that parent in those moments even if it's like writing things down or video, having video family meetings or whatever it might be.
So again, at the end of the day, the messaging is clear is that this is coming from this unit of parents together and giving them the child room to go back to their kind of child level let's say maybe in that space, because it's important for kids to be kids.Rhoda Bangerter:
Would you say something to the older child? Sort of along the lines of listen hey, I know that you've kind of taken on more responsibility, and I really want you to not have to take on more than, I don't know, how would you word it?Kate Berger:
Yes, definitely would talk about it for sure, and maybe just with some curiosity and some questions initially to try to understand what type of experience the child is having in the context of all this. So like what's this like for you? Think about that, what has it made you feel, like those kinds of ways of building empathic connection and understanding. And then definitely, saying things along the lines of it's not your responsibility, it's our job as parents to make sure you're not going to be in charge of that, we've got this, that type of approach. Absolutely, I think yes, definitely talk about it.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes, because if the older child is stepping up, its potentially because they've seen a gap, or they've seen that we're not coping, or just they feel that there's a gap and that they need to take it on. Maybe we're coping very well, but maybe they've just felt that it was their role, I don't know.Kate Berger:
Yes. I mean, I think generally it is happening when they are sensing some sort of gap, right? Or that the parent is not coping. So in those conversations that you're having, it's also important to acknowledge maybe some of the struggles in an age-appropriate way that you as a parent might be experiencing.
It's hard for me too, or I'm struggling with XYZ. But also making sure that at the end of the day the parents have the responsibility to come up with a plan for what we're going to do to take care of ourselves, to model that it's okay to not be okay.
But then we also have to take care of ourselves and figure out what resources do we need to bring in to get our family functioning in a way that's healthy, and that brings the opportunity for us to live the best life that we want to live in the context of all this challenge.Rhoda Bangerter:
You use the word instability for this going and coming. I mean, is it about managing these transitions and this instability? Or is it about trying to gain stability?Kate Berger:
I mean, I think both. And there's that control kind of question that comes into it, but like you can definitely do things to mitigate the instability by countering it with providing additional stability, right? So thinking consciously about okay, how can we bring in maybe more traditions rituals like daily whatever’s, so that there is that sense of this happen, like something's predictable here.
But also, like you say too, like developing the resilience to be able to cope with instability, because life is filled with it. So it's not that we want to say like let's figure out everything so that we can just counter it, but more like okay, so what's that like to encounter instability, what thoughts, what feelings are coming up, what do we need to take care of ourselves, not necessarily to change it or make it go away, not to make those thoughts and those feelings and those experiences change or go away.
But how can we develop the skills to really turn this into something that gives us an opportunity, to sort of become, like what comes to mind for me like we say to parents all the time like you're raising adults, right? Like you're not raising kids, you're raising adults.
So helping them become adults is helping them learn how to encounter instability, and learn how to deal with it. So that they can be prepared and equipped to handle it all the other times that they're going to face it in life.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes, for sure. And different kids will handle it differently, right? I mean, one of my kids is more chaotic than the other. Not in a bad way, I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean like he doesn't need structure, whereas the other one he does.
And so, also, I suppose, if there's a need for structure and the structure keeps shifting all the time, because sometimes people are moving and then the partner is coming back and forth. And so you've got this double transitions going on. Also probably being mindful of character. What's a good resource for managing transitions or instability or sort of lack of structure?Kate Berger:
Just in the psychology therapy world, there is a global network of providers that are very knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to supporting families going through these types of transitions let's say. Of course, the FIGT families in global transition organization is a great one that can sort of tap you into the various sort of service providers, international therapist directory is a great resource as well.
It's always, I mean, no surprise because I'm in this line of work, but I think it's always helpful to just reach out have a consult, ask your questions and then see from there what would be helpful, and who would be helpful to talk to. Because there are so many people, not only professionals, but also just other families that have gone through this that can share their insights and experiences. And what we see is like families will take a little bit of this from there, and a little bit of that from there and piece it together in a way that works for them.Rhoda Bangerter:
True. So my million-dollar question, right? Are we ruining our kids if we're living a life where the parent isn't there? So whether they're away for months at a time, or whether they're coming and going Monday to Friday or gone two weeks at a time, that's my million-dollar question to you.Kate Berger:
It's a complicated answer, because at the end of the day, kids need to feel secure in their attachments, right? To their primary caregivers for sure. And part of that security comes with feeling that person is unconditionally available for love and support and comfort, and these kinds of things. And so, we live in a modern world where you can, of course, provide that from a distance also.
So it's not that you have to be physically present. But making sure that message is coming through, that I am here for you unconditionally, you are our priority, you matter, all these kinds of things can go a long way to maybe mitigate some of the sort of negative impact of having this type of frequent movement let's say.
And I'm a huge believer in that these experiences that third culture kids particularly are going through, transition just generally not only because of this sort of family dynamic shift. But I mean, it's hard and it's painful yes, all that kind of stuff, the grief is real. But it also presents so many opportunities for growth and skills development that we know for sure puts TCKs way ahead of their peers when it comes to leadership potential and their ability to cultivate empathy and global mindset, and all these kinds of things.
If I didn't believe that I wouldn't do this work. We've seen it firsthand; I mean, we've supported thousands of families by now, and that the TCKs just that profile of having all these skills and their sort of CV resume. It's really remarkable the things that they go on to do in the world, and the impact that they make.
So you're not ruining them, but it's important to attend to these challenges that come with these services we make about the lifestyle that we want to live.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes. Would you say like they have the potential to become leaders unless they get stuck, right? In Identity or grief?Kate Berger:
Yes. I mean, I think those challenges can definitely get in the way, for sure.Rhoda Bangerter:
Yes. I think that's such an encouraging message though because there are challenges. But what I've seen as well with these family, with families that I've worked with also in our own, is there a hidden silver lining, really things that families and for us as well as a couple as parents, we've kind of come to the surface and that we wouldn't have lived otherwise. And so I'm glad we're finishing on an encouraging kind of message.
And also, I think addressing the child who steps into a parent role that was really also a very important point. I hadn't planned to ask you that question, but I'm so glad it came up because that is something that either trap, I fell into as well. When my husband was in Kabul, I'm suddenly thinking oh, I'm over sharing with my son. It's like he is not really there to be my adult emotional support here. So it was helpful just to be aware of that.
So is there anything you'd like to add before we wrap up? Thank you so much for all your insights.Kate Berger:
Yes, no, thank you as well. I mean, I think it's wonderful that you’re having these conversations and getting this information out there. And like what we were saying I think also earlier, like this is so relevant, this information is so relevant to so many people, but a lot of people don't even realize that the information is there and the resources are there. So I'm really glad that you're involved in all the initiatives that you are to bring this knowledge forward, and it's really important stuff.Rhoda Bangerter:
Super. Thank you so much. I'll put all your links on the show notes, people can get in touch with you for private consults.Kate Berger:
Yes, great. Thank you.Rhoda Bangerter:
Rhoda Bangerter is a coach who has lived abroad with a travelling husband for over 16 years. She helps home based mums and dads live an intentional life and build family togetherness even when their partner is away a lot for work.