Everyone who’s traveled knows the spiel.
“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”
You know you’re a TCK when you can write that from memory.
This protocol is not only useful for decompressed aircrafts, but is also an important illustration for parenting children overseas. Parents are often concerned about the wellbeing of their children, as they should be, but it is equally as important for parents to be concerned about their own wellbeing. If your own oxygen mask is not secured first, then you are not going to be helpful to your child. If your own emotional and physical needs are not well tended, you will not be able to be the parent that your child needs you to be. This is particularly true when you are moving and living overseas.
It can be very easy to sacrifice your own emotions and needs on the alters of productivity and caring for everyone else. It might even seem more godly, or holy, or selfless, or strong to forgo your own struggles for the sake of your children, but not only is this not sustainable, it teaches your children to do the same.
“An infant’s ability to imitate simple actions, such as sticking out her tongue, comes from the same part of the brain that allows young children to develop empathy.” parentingcounts.org
Children are the world’s best copy-cats. How you process your own emotions and work through challenging situations directly impacts how your child will do so. This doesn’t only impact their “little years” but sets the patterns for the rest of their life. Because adult TCKs deal with a significant number of unique challenges, the way that they learn to deal with emotions at a young age is incredibly important. If a child who lives overseas watches her mother or father ignore their own needs and emotions, she will be more likely to do the same as a child, teenager, and adult. As they imitate you, they are not only learning how to work through their own feelings, but are also developing the ability to empathize with others.
In traumatic or uncomfortable situations, like moving overseas or sitting in a oxygen-leaking airplane, you have the opportunity to choose how you are going to respond. As a parent, the natural response is to get the oxygen mask on your kid, to make sure they are transitioning well, to tend to their grief as they move to a new country, and to help them wade through the uncharted waters of living in a new culture. However, it is critical that this natural response is consciously and continuously reversed and you first take stock of your own emotions and needs.
So, what does “putting on your own oxygen mask” actually look like?
1. Pause and listen to your thoughts.
2. Name your feelings. Are you frustrated, anxious, nervous, sad, afraid?
3. Ask the “Why?” What is the source of these feelings?
4. How is that feeling affecting you? Are you more short with your children? Are you slamming doors? Is your tone of voice different because of your feelings?
5. Respond. Now that you have taken stock of your current emotion and how it might be affecting you, work through it. Do you need a good cry? Some alone time? A cup of coffee? Find a way to tend to the emotion in some fashion. Avoid ignoring it, and instead work through it in a healthy way. Perhaps even say to your child, “Mommy/daddy is feeling a bit frustrated right now and needs to take some deep breaths and drink a cup of tea. Would you like to do that with me?” This is the process of putting on your own oxygen mask, so to speak, so that you can then tend to your child’s needs more effectively.
When you, the parent, are going through the transition of moving to a new country or working through the challenges of living overseas, don’t hold your breath and push through it for the sake of helping your child. Instead, put on your own oxygen mask first, take a deep breath, and then tend to your child. The chances of long-term emotional survival are much higher for both the parent and the child when the parent is willing to do the work of tending to their own needs.