Family relationships: helping your exchange student create balance

Your exchange student may struggle with trying to stay connected to friends and family back home while also creating new friendships and family bonds in Ireland. Balancing time between family life, contacts abroad and teenage social life can be difficult to navigate.

Creating new connections

We encourage our students to build a genuine connection with their host family by spending quality time together and sharing cultures. We suggest students get involved in their school community through sports and after-school activities, as that is a great way to make Irish friends and learn more about the culture. Additionally, our students may want to be involved with EF, whether it's local gatherings with EF support staff, staying in touch with other exchange students they've met during Camp or Welcome Days or joining our Student Ambassador Programme. When all of these opportunities combine with maintaining good grades and staying connected with their life back in their home country, an exchange student’s world quickly becomes a lot for them to manage. Your guidance while they manage family time, school time, social time and EF time will go a long way to ensure they are not overextending themselves.

Balancing friends and family

In the beginning of the exchange, students may rely more heavily on their host family for their social connections, as they may not have formed genuine bonds with new friends just yet. Students could struggle with integrating into a social group at school or building friendships in a new culture. But once they create solid friendships, they might spend more time with their friends and less time at home. It can be a challenge for students to balance their time between their host family and their new friends here. Helping them strike a good balance starts with communication. Tell your student which family activities you hope to share with them on a regular basis and those special occasion events that they should prioritize. By sharing your expectations, it will help your student plan their schedule and ensure you have quality family time together.

Staying connected abroad

Your student’s family and friends back home are likely curious about what they’re experiencing abroad, so your student may spend a lot of time sharing updates, stories and pictures with them. They might be in an active group message or want to video chat, so you may notice your student staying up late or waking up early in order to contact their family and friends back home. It can be difficult for your student to self-regulate the amount of time they're connecting with life in their home country. Help your student by encouraging them to set a designated time of the day or week to update and connect with their family and friends back home. This way they can be more present in their Irish life during all other times.

Social media

Social media is an ever-present part of a teenager’s life today. You may notice that your student spends a lot of time on their phone or computer - much more than you expected they would. Teens these days like to communicate with their peers through texts, messaging apps and social media. Many exchange students also choose to document their exchange through blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels, photo-sharing websites and social networking apps. These are great ways to share their experience and keep those memories alive. Encourage your student to post quality content that they’ll be proud of for years to come, since their digital footprint can have long-lasting effects. Help them to occasionally disconnect from technology by setting healthy boundaries for phone and social media use.

Case study: Phone use

Students and families should get on the same page about phone use so that it doesn’t negatively affect the exchange experience. Here are recommendations for establishing boundaries for phone use in your home.

Communicate expectations

Talk with your student about the rules in your home around using electronics. Communicating expectations for age-appropriate content for movies, TV and games is important, especially if you have younger children in the home. 

Unplug during family time

Establish the expectation that the use of phones and other electronic devices are discouraged at the dinner table or during family activities.  

Set expectations for social media and video game use

To prioritize schoolwork over social media and playing video games, limit their screen time until they've finished their assignments. 

Set a device-free curfew before bedtime

To help your student get the sleep they need, pick a time to plug all devices into a central charging station in a common room and leave them there for the night. However, their phone should always be accessible for emergencies in order to contact EF or their parents.

Student perspective

Nerja from Denmark is spending her exchange in Kilkenny. She is really close to her parents and two little brothers back home, so she tries to speak with them every day. Nerja also has a large group of friends back home who are all in an active group chat with her. Nerja texts them as soon as she gets up and throughout the school day.

Host family perspective

Jackie is a single woman who is hosting for the first time. She's struggling with how much Nerja is attached to her phone. In the mornings, Jackie has to remind Nerja to get ready for school and eat breakfast because she's always in her room on her phone. When they watch movies together, Nerja is either texting or scrolling through social media. One night, Jackie noticed that Nerja’s bedroom light was still on at 1 am. Having never hosted or had kids before, Jackie isn't sure if this is normal teenage behaviour.

How they handled it

Not knowing how best to approach this, Jackie asked her RM, Abby, for help. Abby explained how attached teenagers are to their phones and encouraged Jackie to set healthy boundaries for Nerja so that they could spend more quality time together. With this advice, Jackie told Nerja that she wanted to have a better relationship with her and that it hurt her feelings when she was distracted. Jackie created a few new rules for the home that would apply to both of them. The first was that they needed to leave their phones in their rooms and on silent during dinners together and on movie nights. They also needed to leave their phones in the living room all night. Paulette got alarm clocks for their rooms so there was no excuse to need their phones in the mornings. Abby also suggested they set aside time for a weekly video chat with Nerja’s family, so Jackie asked Nerja to decide that time with her parents. It only took a few weeks for them to adopt these new habits. Better balanced phone use allowed them both to get to know each other better and enjoy the exchange experience a lot more.

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