Maintaining Family Bonds: Important Considerations For Staying Connected While Living Abroad

Christmas has been and gone and Chinese New Year is fast approaching here in Shanghai, which means it is a time of year when people gather together to celebrate, give thanks, and visit family members and friends they may not have the chance to see that often. The importance of time spent with significant others over the holidays is magnified for those of us in the expat community, as work, school and a variety of other circumstances have resulted in us being separated from our loved ones for, often, lengthy periods of time. So what can this holiday season teach us about the importance of staying connected with family and friends throughout the rest of the calendar year?
Most of us would not have made the commitment to living in such a vibrant, fast-paced city as Shanghai if it were not for a willingness to step outside our comfort zones and pursue something we found to be worthwhile. Perhaps it was an entrepreneurial endeavour, a transatlantic job transfer or an opportunity to study in a foreign country that landed us here. Regardless, we all know how easy it can be to lose sight of where our journey began or how far we have come along the way. When we couple that with time zone differences, work responsibilities and the basic, everyday challenges of adjusting to life in a foreign community, it comes as no surprise that many of us lose contact with the family members and friends we used to see and speak to on a regular basis. One might ask, how could we possibly find time to connect with our old lives when we’ve been so busy creating a new life here in Shanghai? And better yet, why should we even bother?
Research has demonstrated how maintaining the support of close family members and friends, despite the distance that separates us, can support both one’s physical and mental health. Positive social support from family members and friends has been shown to help reduce the likelihood of developing depressive disorders, as well as enhancing feelings of selfesteem and self-worth, and even thwarting the onset of illness or chronic disease. The research makes it clear that staying positively connected with the family members and friends we surrounded ourselves with before moving is a critical tool for navigating the inevitable challenges that come with living in a foreign community. As worldrenowned psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Bruce Perry stated, “There’s no better biological interaction that you can have than a relationship.”
Tips for Staying Connected Throughout the Year:
Create A Phone Call Schedule
Whether it be every day, every week, or every month, creating and sticking to an agreed upon phone call schedule with your family members and friends helps to hold one another accountable for staying connected.
Keep A Virtual Connection
Between Skype, e-mail, text messaging and various types of social media, the space that separates us is smaller than ever. Maintaining a virtual connection with your loved ones throughout the course of a day or week is the next best substitute to sharing a physical space with them.
Maintain Holiday Celebrations And Traditions
This tip is particularly important for those expats who are not able to make it home for the holidays. Cooking a holiday meal, hanging stockings on the mantel, or even watching your favourite holiday movie are all methods for promoting feelings of family togetherness. Combine tips #2 and #3 and watch your holiday movie “with” your family or friends over Skype.
Reach Out
Chances are you are the only one amongst your family members and friends who is currently living abroad. This means that while your lifestyle has probably changed considerably, theirs has more or less stayed the same. This can make it difficult for others to understand the unique challenges that come with living in a foreign community, which will require an extra effort on your behalf to let them know how important staying connected is to you.
Dr. Nate Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at JJ-Premier Medical Care, a comprehensive mental and medical health service clinic for expat children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: [email protected]