And what to expect on their return.
By Lisa C. DeLuca
[Note: This post was written pre COVID-19.]
In her junior year, my daughter had the opportunity to study abroad in London during her 10-week, spring trimester. Though she planned to take weekend trips to neighboring countries with her roommates during the term, she wanted to stay and backpack across Europe afterward. My husband and I gave our approval. She’d worked hard and saved enough money. She had earned this.
To avoid last-minute stress, I would advise that you start helping your child prepare for their study abroad way earlier than you think necessary. They may need to do things that take time, like apply for a travel-friendly credit card to avoid the exorbitant foreign transaction fees on every overseas purchase. Also check for vaccine recommendations, travel warnings and possible visa requirements in advance for any country your student may be visiting.
How to channel your anxiety about your child’s travels productively Friends reacted with fear and worry when I told them that my daughter was planning on doing part of her travels alone, staying in hostels along the way. Trust me, I am no stranger to anxiety, but I’ve learned to use my anxiety productively rather than spend time worrying and making myself sick!
The secret is in distinguishing facts from feelings, acting appropriately on the facts and the things you can control, and letting go of the things you can’t. To help with this, you really need to know your child. Mine was prepared to take this trip, whether alone or accompanied. She was brought up hiking the White Mountains on family vacations so had learned to be aware of her surroundings, be responsible for herself and to plan ahead for safety. On family trips to other cities, I’ve seen her carry herself with confidence and often take the lead in navigating. She knows how not to look like an anxious, lost tourist even when she feels like one. She is as comfortable on her own in New York City as she is in the tiny town she grew up in.
If your child is still developing their planning or navigation skills and is too trusting of others, you should have some anxiety. But rather than nixing their desire to travel, help them plan something you know they can manage successfully. College-sponsored study abroad programs have many supports in place. Assist your child with gathering information on the resources available to them throughout their study abroad (and keep a copy) so that they can manage their own needs while away from home.
How to prevent excessive worry Identify and clear away your own automatic fears in order to remain objective enough to help your child plan realistically. Most parents worry about their children traveling. Recognize that this common fear is not a fact but a feeling based on a perception that being far away from home means you’re in danger. The vast majority of people travel safely every day, we just don’t hear about that on the news.
Also we kept reminding ourselves that it’s a six-hour drive to her college from our home and a seven-hour flight to Europe. Easy peasy. And with regard to flying, the fact is that statistically you’re far safer in an airplane than you are in a car. Our kids get into cars every day and we don’t tell them not to.
I channeled any anxiety I had before the trip into due diligence. I asked a friend to connect us with her friends who had backpacked Europe alone many times and they graciously shared lengthy, practical information about staying safe and other tips. They introduced us to WhatsApp and we downloaded it prior to the trip. We could text and make voice calls at any time for no charge. We also utilized FaceTime on our Apple devices for free video chat.
Protect the cell phone at all costs One of my daughter’s traveling companions did not heed my daughter’s advice when in Rome and her cell phone was pick-pocketed. This is a huge problem because the cell phone has many uses, like finding your way to your next destination, but more important, for presenting your boarding pass at airports, and bus and train tickets at transportation hubs. My daughter lost a day of travel helping her friend, who was leaving that day, navigate her way home without a phone.
Emphasize to your child to keep their cell phones, passport, money and debit/credit cards completely out of view of strangers, never sticking out of a purse, pocket or backpack.
Check the vaccination recommendations My biggest worry was that I thought my daughter may have overlooked the vaccination recommendation for one of the countries. And she had. She was already abroad when I found out the typhoid vaccine was recommended (not required) in one country. At that point all she could do was take precautions.
Sickness is my biggest anxiety trigger, so during that part of the trip I was always relieved when she contacted us and was clearly not sick. But it was out of my hands and I had to believe that even if my worst fear materialized, help would be available. And the fact is, it would have been.
When your child returns: re-entry Whenever people return from any kind of perspective- or life-changing experience, being home is difficult. In my family we call it “re-entry,” a term used by psychologists when people come back from something as intense as war or as benign as a vacation. My daughter was miserable about being home and it took her about three weeks to adjust. It’s more than the jet lag, it’s a psychological re-adjustment. We simply assured her it was normal, that it had a name and that she’d be okay. This helped her. And in spite of her sometimes-unpleasant moods and behaviors, we summoned patience, hugged her and loved her knowing it would pass.
In the end, it was very gratifying for me to know that my child had accomplished something I never have and never would’ve had the wherewithal to do at her age. I can see that the trip has helped her mature even more, boosted her confidence and love of life, and has helped her better define her sense of self.
Share your advice for parents on study abroad in the comments section below.
Lisa C. DeLuca is the mother of two college students, a psychotherapist in private practice and a writer. Find her at LisaCDeLuca.com.