Parenting abroad adds a whole new dimension to parenting a highly sensitive child (HSC). I know I’m certainly not the only one parenting in a country they were not born in (there are at least 26 of us who have put their parenting abroad stories down on paper for the book Knocked Up Abroad Again (UK here)) but it does sometimes feel like you are on your own when everything is foreign to you and you are away from family.
Here are five issues I had to find my way around to be able to get to grips with parenting my highly sensitive children over the years as a Brit in the Netherlands.
I spend much of my day operating in Dutch and it’s a lot better now than it was even six years ago when the words hooggevoelig first reached my ears, uttered by my eldest son’s pre-school teacher.
Even when I put the word through an online translator I admit I was none the wiser. Learning about highly sensitive traits took much reading and research. Having to then translate what I was reading, which elements related to my child and what my child needed at that time in the classroom, was difficult.
There was lots of new Dutch vocabulary to learn quickly (like prikkels (stimulants) and emmer (bucket)) so that I could talk to my son’s teachers about his sensitive nature.
WHERE TO GO FOR SUPPORT
When your HSC is visibly struggling after his day at school you know to touch base with his teacher. But what if the issues are not school related? What if there are behaviours that are worrying you? What if you just need to feel there is someone there to listen to you?
Luckily for me the Netherlands has a good and wide base of youth services to support parents. I found my way around the various services, with lots of help from the consultatiebureau (baby wellness clinic) and got the support we needed at that time. I know others are not so lucky and sometimes that support is harder to find.
That’s also why I created the Happy Sensitive Kids Community Facebook group. Sometimes parents just need a pat on the shoulder, a listening ear and someone to tell them they know how it feels.
UNDERSTAND THE SCHOOL SYSTEM
I didn’t go through the Dutch education system so I was not familiar with the academic structure nor the education culture or common practices in schools when my first born turned four and started primary school. I didn’t know what to expect – what’s ‘normal’ in the Dutch education system. Nearly six years on it’s still a learning process.
Many parents of HSCs choose to homeschool their children because the traditional school environment just doesn’t help their child to flourish. I found out that that is just not an option in the Netherlands. Homeschooling is not possible for our situation. These are the kinds of ‘surprises’ you stumble upon as you expat parent a HSC.
Culture has a huge impact when you are highly sensitive. Some cultures cherish sensitive and quiet traits, some don’t. In some societies being highly sensitive works against you. That difference has a bearing on which tools a child needs to function well in society.
The Dutch are known for being direct and saying exactly what they mean – for sensitive folk that can sometimes feel uncomfortable, even hurtful. The expectation that someone will speak up if there is an issue doesn’t go hand in hand with a HSC’s nature, who usually wants to avoid conflict.
The social side of school life (Dutch children actually seem to fill their own calendars or so it feels) doesn’t always fit with a HSC’s need for quiet time, need for time to empty their bucket.
On the other hand the Dutch love for routine fits perfectly with a HSC’s needs.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE TRAIT
In some countries the idea of highly sensitive is practically unheard of. In others it is accepted wholly and in some others the notion of being highly sensitive sits somewhere in between – some people are sceptical and others embrace it.
I’m lucky that I live in a country where knowledge and acceptance of highly sensitive traits is growing fast and it’s not hard to find a good list of resources to help parent a HSC, including books in Dutch (such as Langmuts, Scrivo Media, Elaine Aron’s Het hoog sensitieve kind, Mijn kind is hooggevoelig by Ilse van den Daele) websites (the LiHSK is a great place to start) and more and more coaches (like en Vie, to-taal, Floor) dedicated to helping HSCs and their parents.
Of course, there have been pockets of resistance and education establishments and workplaces in the Netherlands, just as in any other Western society, are often not an ideal fit with highly sensitive traits – but there are at least many ears open to the idea and the needs of a HSC.
The more awareness there is in society, the more support there will be in schools for our children who struggle emotionally in the traditional schooling environment.