I had considered writing about something else this week, but Coronavirus and isolation are still dominating my thoughts, and I suspect those of many others. It is an interesting and, in some ways, difficult time to be an expat.

I live in England and consider it my home; my children go to school here; my husband and I work here. Although I am happy where I am, I still feel the poignant pull of going home to the country where I grew up, and I find the yearly trips back crucially important. Most of my extended family is back there, as are the places I miss that have so much personal history attached.  

It is an odd feeling knowing that my annual trip home is now in jeopardy. I cannot see us being able to travel this summer, and we might not even get there in the winter. Knowing this, I find myself living in my head a lot at the moment – fantasizing about the places and people I love on the other side of the sea. Somehow, knowing I probably will not be able to get back ‘home’ this summer has shifted my psychology and I feel like I am living here, but living a half-life in my head over there. I find that my dreams are full of airports, airplanes, and travel; sometimes successful and sometimes aborted. 

Having been an expat for most of my adult life, I am accustomed to living apart from the family in which I grew up. But I always knew that if I wanted or needed to go back and see them, I could. This feels different. I am aware, very suddenly, of the vast distances separating me from my family and the landscapes of where I grew up. Vast distances that are unbreachable without access to flights. The world has ground to a halt, and this has left many of us expats stranded psychologically in ways we have never been before. Although I am happy in my life here, and my day to day remains fulfilling and somewhat normal (as much as it can, despite shifting to home schooling and only going outside once a day), my head and heart are feeling the distance between my current home and my other home. 

I am trying to breach that gap by being more regularly in touch with the people who matter to me, and by planning on having an amazing trip when we next go back. Having ideas and plans about what we will do when we next visit is an exercise that I find helps me to feel connected. I also find that having a mindfulness practice can help to pull me out of my head and into the present moment. For the present moment is all we really have; thoughts about visiting the country of my birth are just that: thoughts. And as I find I am pulled psychologically towards another continent, I need to equally anchor myself here: noticing the beautiful weather we have been having, playing with the children, appreciating the family I have here, and enjoying nature in the beautiful spring. Those are my ways of coping. We will all have our own, and in the current circumstances these will be evolving to meet our changing needs.  

Stay well,

Melissa

There is no doubt that the Coronavirus is keeping many families apart at present, but for some families, expat families, this can mean being thousands of miles apart.

You may argue that this is part and parcel of expat life and, in a way, you would be right, as such families do spend a considerable amount of time separate from their extended families. Only this time it is different, as for many expat families there are limited opportunities to return home during this crisis, if any at all. Like many, on April 5th, 2020, I watched as The Queen addressed the nation regarding the coronavirus crisis and heard her poignant message “We’ll Meet Again”. As I write my blog, I should be enjoying Easter break with my family. However, I am sitting in my villa in Oman, my husband is sitting in his apartment in Saudi Arabia, and our two university-aged children are holed up in our house in the UK with the family cat, the only one who appears content at present as she has company 24/7. So how did this scenario happen?  

As an expat family we have enjoyed moving around the world together, appreciating new places and new experiences. Without doubt, it’s been a fantastic way of life. However, despite the perceived glamour, expat life has its challenges, and amongst the gains there are losses. Losses increase as expat families age and begin to splinter. First, my eldest left for boarding school, after deciding that she would like to experience Sixth Form education in her home country and prepare for university life. My youngest followed, two years later aged 14. The nest was emptying. A year later, my husband had reached maximum age for work Qatar so he moved to Saudi Arabia, where you can continue working. As there was no position for me, I remained working in Qatar. So it was that for a while we had four people in four different countries. People would often ask me if it was hard, I always replied that it wasn’t. And it really wasn’t at that time. We spent our holidays in the UK when the children would be home, so it didn’t seem any different than if I was waiting for them at home. Boarding school suited them both, it provided two expat children with an opportunity to experience their home country, in the only way available for them. Distance was never an issue, I never really felt we were apart despite the 4,000 miles between us. I believe there is a difference between physical distance and emotional distance. Though we were physically miles apart, emotionally I think we have always been a close family. For me, six hours flying from one country to another was no different than navigating the UK traffic. It’s just time. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I see borders (mountains, oceans and countries) like home country people might. I have travelled so much that the world seems to blur into one place rather than a collage of countries, if that make sense. I always took the stance that as long as everyone was alright, I was alright. Life was mostly uncomplicated, even if it looked crazy from the outside. If there was a problem, I could always get back. 

The thing is, we are now in this moment. Barely two months into my new job in the beautiful city of Muscat, we are in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are now all separated once more, but this time it feels different, there is no way back at present and that is hard. Suddenly the borders are reappearing. Now we experience the negative aspects of expat life. To fight the anxiety that comes with this situation, I have spent time reflecting on how to stay grounded and cope with the situation many expatriates are finding themselves in. Having trained as a Counsellor, I am aware of making sure that even during difficult times I can still see the positives, and to keep in view the personal strengths and safety nets we all have in place. So, I began to focus on the gifts that expat life develops within you and how we can, as a family, use them during these times 

Firstly, the lack of opportunity to touch base on a physical level means that expats are experienced in maintaining virtual relationships. This is our normal way of living, and though we understand face to face is better, the shock of this enforced way of connecting is not new for us. We are skilled in this and we have learnt to manage it over long periods of time. Our daily virtual family gatherings help to keep us connected. We even have an internet pub, The Bull and Bush, that we have met in for many years before now. 5pm is happy hour, it is well attended, complete with crisps, peanuts and last orders. I appreciate that connecting virtually may have its challenges, but we have to remember that this is our norm, it has served us well for years so there is no need for us to subscribe to the same worry and concern others are experiencing. We see it as an opportunity to connect rather than focusing on the disconnection that results from it.  

Second, the ability for expats to build connections and maintain them to survive each new place means they do not shy away from asking for or offering help. Expats place deep value in the relationships they forge and tend to go above and beyond for each other in times of need. In our absence, my family and friends at home, including the ‘Old Expat Boys Club’ have always willingly stepped up. This ensured my children were able to return home safely from university, belongings intact. A relief for sure! I am confident they will continue to provide them with a safety net for as long as they need. Another expat gift is Resourcefulness or the ability to think outside the box. To be able to quickly navigate, adapt, build support systems and survive in each new place, expats must be resourceful. Expats know how to quickly mobilise during difficult situations. They have an ingrained survival mechanism that clicks into place at a moment’s notice. This helped ensure my previously bare kitchen and house was stocked within no time – yes, even toilet rolls. Last, is the expat ability to stay in the moment during stressful times rather than worry about the knock-on effects. This is where we are for now, this is what is happening, everything is just a moment in time, let’s make the most of it or deal with it in the best way we can. This is often the mantra of the highly mobile. 

No doubt, as the world returns to normal, for those of you who are counsellors, you may engage professionally with expat clients, as many may be repatriated. It is important that counsellors understand the challenges facing these families. It is said that expatriates suffer more losses in the first eighteen years of their life than most other people in their lifetime. These losses are far reaching and will impact your client on multiple levels. In the wake of Coronavirus, economic uncertainty is real for many. For expats, it may only be the tip of the iceberg. Remember that when an expat loses a job, they lose not only their financial security, but their house, the country they have lived in and may have called home, access to friends and connections built over the years, their children’s school and school identity, their personal history and pets and possessions often left behind. This is in addition to the more tangible loss of any family members who may no longer be around on their return. Taking the time to increase your knowledge and skills to recognise and work with a population who remain largely invisible in our home countries is vital in helping you work more successfully with this unique clientele.  

Stay Well,

Kathy

As I write this blog, my family and I are entering our fourth week of isolation here in the UK.

As the coronavirus ravages the globe and changes the way we live and work, there is so much information out there about how we can cope and stay mentally healthy. We may find that we are on our own for long periods of time, or that we are with our families much more than we are used to. For some of us, this means home schooling and a complete change in how we work. For others, this can be a time of uncertainty as we don’t know what is ahead of us professionally.

I feel somewhat prepared for dealing with isolation, however, as I went through an experience that was in some ways similar a couple of years ago. I went through a long period of illness, which meant that I could not work and spent a lot of time on my own at home. This time was very, very difficult in many ways. But I figured out ways to cope and come through that time, and I thought I would share some of the insights I learned during this period in order to help others.

At first, it was hard to come to terms with what I was losing – my health was poor, and I had to put my career on hold for a time. I spent a lot of time in thought. Eventually I decided that I needed to use the time to re-evaluate where I was professionally and personally and to use the time to grow. I listened to a lot of podcasts and I spent a lot of time reflecting. But one of the main things that got me through this time was professional development.

I found that taking an active role in my own learning gave me something to focus on that was productive. The voices of my teachers and mentors became so important to me, as they were a window to growth and to the outside world. Focussing on enhancing my skill set helped me to have a sense of purpose and to feel that I was still somehow contributing to my own career, even if I couldn’t work at the time. Because of the profound impact professional development had on me at a time when I really needed it, I feel passionate about working in the professional development field and making these opportunities available to others.

It is my sincere hope that this reflection provides another perspective on what can help to keep us mentally healthy during the coronavirus crisis. Many of us are in lockdown, having lost our daily routine, our normal way of working, and contact with the outside world. Having a sense of purpose and forward momentum is a way of transforming enforced seclusion into an opportunity for growth.

I wish you all good health.
Melissa

I have to admit, I go to bed early and I tend to wake up early. When I wake up, I often start by thinking of all the things I need to do that day; sort of making lists in my head. It’s not the most peaceful way to wake up, but I just find that it’s what I “do.”

Well, yesterday I was listening to a podcast about the importance of how we wake up. I am already aware of the advice to start the day with some meditation, and I do meditate regularly. I just generally don’t do it when I wake up, despite knowing the advice. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

This morning, however, since it was at the front of my mind, I decided to use the time in between when I woke up and when I needed to get up to do some mindfulness meditation. I decided to do a body scan, having practiced Jon Kabat Zinn’s guided body scans for many years. I started with my feet and scanned slowly up to my head. And this morning was then different from most mornings. Rather than lie in bed and think about what I needed to do, I found myself drifting back to sleep, relaxed. I then woke up later, with the alarm. The differences didn’t end there – I didn’t want to open my laptop when I woke up, which I often do. This morning, instead, I wanted to read a book.

I think this is powerful. Not just because we know that how we wake up matters, but because despite knowing this, I usually don’t do it. Like I said earlier, old habits die hard. So this experience today will hopefully be the beginning of me trying something new and developing new habits.

In our most current course, the Certificate in International School Counseling, we have a module that covers wellbeing and how wellness practices can impact schools. We also cover types of breathing and meditation that help and that can be easily taught to children, teachers, and members of the school community.

I aim to write another couple of courses which incorporate powerful wellness research, one on wellbeing, and one for counselors/therapists on incorporating neuroscience in your practice.

Change doesn’t require drastic action or grand gestures; it just takes for us to wake up well in the morning. I hope reading this inspires you to look at your morning routine, and to incorporate some wellbeing practices when you wake up!

I remember my first days as an International School Counselor. I had finished my Masters’ degree at San Diego State University, and had interned as a counselor to students of school and college age before spending two years in England as a high school counselor. When I discovered that there was a network of international schools worldwide, and that most of them had counselors, I was incredibly excited. I went to a recruitment fair and landed my first international school counseling job.

I arrived at my new school, a large International Baccalaureate (IB) school in the Middle East. It was exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure. As the Middle School Counselor, I needed to jump in to my new role and to understand both the academic program and the socio-emotional development needs of my students. And the truth was, I didn’t know anything about the IB. I frantically did as much reading as I could, but I felt lost when people would talk about “the Exhibition” or “the Learner Profile.”

It was clear that I would need to know about these things and to be able to talk knowledgeably about them, but I arrived without the knowledge or context to be able to make sense of them. I even researched IB training for non-teachers. I couldn’t find anything. So I decided that I needed to do all I could to learn about these areas on my own. I had the support of our fabulous Middle Years Program Coordinator and a great IB coordinator, and I learned what I needed to in order to best support my students and the school as a whole. I found ways of integrating the Learner Profile into my guidance work, and I worked hard to make sure the Middle School counseling program was visible and accessible.

Like everyone else I knew, I had never heard of “Third Culture Kids.”  I would hear colleagues talking about TCKs and the research about how to help them. I felt that there were some teacher colleagues of mine who knew more about this complex area than I did, and again, I found myself on the back foot as I tried to learn as much as I could to help this unique worldwide population.

Having been through that, I realise now that it didn’t need to be so difficult. I could have arrived at my first international school job with the knowledge necessary to hit the ground running. My dear friend and colleague, Kathy Swords, and I have written a Certificate in International School Counseling program. This is a comprehensive eight-module course designed specifically for the international school population. It will help not only new international school counselors, but also experienced international school counselors looking to enhance their knowledge and skills base, as well as having a qualification that will make them stand out when recruiting.

In our course, Kathy and I first explore the Expatriate Profile, examining the most up to date research. We look at how counselors can support expats through transitions, and offer practical counseling applications of this unique experience. We also explore the history and current state of international schools, and the types of international schools (British, American, and International Baccalaureate) that counselors are most likely to work in. We explore the curricula of these systems, and look at how counselors can integrate their program into the school life of each system. We look at situations in international schools that can bring specific challenges to the work of a counselor, and offer an ethical decision-making model from which to work. We spend some time exploring the use of mediation in international schools. We conclude the course by integrating cutting-edge research around wellbeing and neuroscience into the international school counseling program.

In addition to providing targeted professional development in international school counselling, part of our aim in creating this certificate course is to help international school counselors to stand out in the recruitment process, and to have their pick of international schools to work in; to give international school counselors enough knowledge of the different systems out there (IB, American, and British) that they can move into a different system feeling prepared and knowledgeable; and to make international school counseling the best it can be.

We realise there is a shortage of professional development specific to international school counseling, and we aim to fill that gap. We have designed our Certificate course to be completed entirely online, making it accessible to counselors the world over. This also makes it an affordable training option, removing the burden to individuals and schools of costly flights, hotels, and other expenses.

We are here to support you as you make your way through the course. Each participant will have either Kathy or me as a course facilitator, helping and encouraging you along the way.

It is our sincere hope that this course makes transitioning into and between international schools seamless. I hope you are more prepared when stepping into your international school counseling position than I was!

In order to sign up for this course, please click here.

We are delighted to announce that our course, Understanding and Working with Expatriate Clients, will be launching October 1st, 2018.

This is a three-module course directed at counsellors and psychotherapists who work (or want to work) with expats. We created this entirely online course to meet the needs of counsellors and therapists all over the globe. We feel it is a comprehensive course with a good balance of theory and ready-to-use interventions, with a focus on both working with adults and children. We love working with this unique population, and hope that this course will give other counselors and therapists the skills and confidence to work with expats too. To sign up, please send us an email at contact@theiatraining.com.

We are delighted to announce that Theia Training is now an Accredited Training Provider! We look forward to providing high-quality and relevant professional development to counselors, psychotherapists, educators, and expatriates all over the world.

What a fantastic training day in Wilmslow!

Kathy and Melissa facilitated a workshop for counsellors /psychotherapists who have an interest in working with expatriate clients.  It was a privilege to work with interested and engaged colleagues, and to hear about the myriad reasons for their interest in working with expatriates.  This was fascinating to hear about the participants’ international experience and their personal connections with the material presented. We look forward to the next training day!

We enjoyed being invited back to spent time again this year with Shell Outpost, a fantastic group of people who assist expat families during their time overseas. This is the time of year when many families are preparing to move on to pastures new and we are happy to be able to spend time with those who are leaving to speak about ways in which they could promote a healthier transition for themselves and their families. After the main presentation we were able to meet with a group of adolescents and talk about some of the age related challenges they may encounter during their move and how to mediate for these. Thank you once again for asking us to spend this time with you and your company’s families.

Kathy had an opportunity to further develop her conference speaking and workshop creating skills at the Qatar Pastoral Care Conference. The conference focused on: SUPPORTING THE WELL-BEING OF YOUNG PEOPLE IN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS.