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High School Study Abroad: What Parents Need to Know

High school students

After nurturing these humans from the moment they’re born until they’re crazy teenagers, the last thing that any parent wants is to help them pack their bags and see them off at the airport to travel to a far away land where your hugs won’t be readily available for fixing problems.

You’re letting your baby go, but it’s truthfully for the best reason possible.

You’re letting your baby go, but it’s truthfully for the best reason possible. In this time in history, travel is becoming more popular and is proven to open young minds and create a more well-rounded and compassionate individual (if done correctly). Letting your teen study abroad in high school has many major benefits for them.

Still, we understand you're nervous, so to mull your concerns, here's your guide on what to know before they go.

Keeping in Contact -- A Touchy Subject

High school students, Costa Rica

Though you’ll want to remain in constant contact with your son or daughter, this is a time when you can practice letting go a little bit.

Your young adult is heading out on what could quite possibly be their biggest adventure they have had -- and even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t have time to update you on every move they made. So don't think that a missed phone call means something bad happened. Au contraire!

Plus, if you’re in touch with them all day everyday, there’s a large chance that while they’re taking time to Skype or talk to you, they’ll be missing out on some great opportunities!

However, it is still important for both of you to remain in contact at some points. Here are a few things to keep in mind to make your chats stress free and not cramp their style:

Don’t Get Them an International Phone Plan

Though it may seem like the easiest option (even if you have to sit in the cell phone store in the mall forever), purchasing an overseas package on their current US phone plan will only give you headaches complete with roaming fees and data usage charts skyrocketing. Instead:

  • Have them get a cheap, unlocked international phone only for phone calls.
  • You can easily purchase an already unlocked phone, like the uber-basic text-and-call only Samsung GT, or a data-enabled BLU Dash JR K Smartphone on Amazon.
  • Once they're in country, have them buy a local sim card and refill it with credit as needed.
  • Let them keep their American phone as a backup that they can only use when in a Wi-Fi zone.
  • Note: to avoid crazy roaming charges, have them keep it on airplane mode at all times -- even when they turn wifi on.

This way you will still have access to Facetime or Skype if and when needed, but they won’t be playing candy crush while at the Louvre and will be able to enjoy their time away from home. Need more info? Go Overseas also has a complete guide to cell phone plans for study abroad students in Europe -- if that's where your kid is going!

Send Snail Mail and Care Packages

Yes of course in this current era the use of letters and postcards has long passed and it almost seems silly for a family to send them when they’re Skyping every week. However, writing down experiences makes the writers reflect on their actions, ingest the new world around them, and truly calm and center themselves in an unfamiliar (but awesome) place.

If they have a mailing address and are in one spot for long enough, send postcards or letters overseas. If they do get into this practice as well, you can save their writing and put it in a scrapbook for them to have as a welcome home present that helps with the reverse culture shock that we’ll talk about later.

Learn to Love Skype and FaceTime

If your child has access to Skype, Facetime (which should already be on your iPhone) or another program with video capabilities, try and schedule a time during the week that works well for both of you to talk.

This way, you’ll know when you’ll be able to talk to your child without distractions and keep in touch weekly without any problems. If you're unfamiliar with Skype, do a test call with them before they leave so you can both get the hang of it.

Encourage Them to Create a Blog

If your trailblazer likes to write and wants to document their journey and share it with many friends and family, talk with them about creating a blog so that everyone can follow along in their weekly outings. IF they aren’t much of a writer, they can still have a photography blog to show off the sights and sounds of their new world (Tumblr works great for this style).

Though you will want to know every move they make, if your son or daughter doesn't talk to you everyday, it's usually a good thing!

Then you can proudly shout out their web address to others at family functions and watch them ooh and ahh at your little world-traveler.

Remember, No News is Good News

Though you will want to know every move they make, if your son or daughter doesn’t talk to you everyday, it’s usually a good thing! This means that they’re out exploring their new world and aren’t homesick enough to hunker down in their apartment to talk to you. Don’t take offense! Don't panic! You’re letting your little bird fly!

Also, if anything serious happens, your student's study abroad program provider will get in contact with you ASAP. If your son / daughter hasn't called you in a little too long, please, don't call up the study abroad provider at 3am in the morning in a panic! Instead, keep in touch with other parents with kids on the trips. Chances are, there's at least one kid talking to their parents, and you can get some peace of mind with that through-the-grapevine news.

Homesickness Is Normal but Don’t Make It Worse

Girl, selfie, Nicaragua

Of course being away from home for the first time is going to produce homesickness at some point. However, there are ways to help your child get through this, and ways to hinder their experience as well -- which you need to watch out for.

Many parents I've seen have sent packages after packages, loaded their children down with products from home, created a technologic cloud around their heads with a wave of communication and electronics, and sent them on their way.

On bad days, these kids hole themselves up in their apartments eating Cheez-its and watching episodes of Friends while they sit in their bed and Facetime everyone they know from home until they can go to bed again. This is not assisting them at all.

Instead, what they need is to get out and enjoy their new surroundings, make new friends and look at what adventures are in front of them instead of how much they miss their dog.

Limit the amount of food and comforts of home they’re allowed to take with them and make sure they bring things like a great camera, a sketch book, their favorite hacky sack, or something else that will allow them to get out and experience the culture and life abroad! It’ll help them in the long run.

Keeping Them Safe from Afar

For parents, safety is of the utmost concern whenever your children are away. As we’ve said, for a student in high school, this abroad experience will probably be their first time away without you -- which makes some Moms and Dads grow gray hair with even just the thought of it.

There are a few things you can do before your child takes off abroad, as well as after they’re there to make sure that they return happy, healthy, and in one piece from their journey:

Talk About Safety Before Departure, But Don’t Scare Them!

Though you’ll want to jump right into the “don’t talk to strangers” spiel, refrain from scaring them! Though they are heading abroad – they are remaining in the same world full of good people and bad.

The honest point of these kids heading abroad is to enjoy and learn other languages, cultures, beauties, and people. If they are nervous that all will swindle or hurt them, the culture will be lost to them.

Of course, speak about the safety of their purses when walking in crowded areas. Tell them about the possibility of drinking alcohol (because they may be of age abroad) -- and to always walk home with friends. Little details mentioned through the trip-prep will stay with them abroad and help them to have your voice of reason in the back of their head when met with complicated situations.

Find a Program with a Host Family for Peace of Mind

Generally, the accommodations on programs available for high school students are with host families, dorm-style rooms, or, more uncommonly, apartments.

Little details mentioned through the trip-prep will stay with them abroad.

For a teenager leaving home for the first time, you and your child may feel more comfortable if they have a family to go home to at night. Host families sign up to take in international students for a semester or more and welcome them into their family.

This would allow your student to study abroad, truly delve into the culture during and after classes, and still have someone responsible looking after them. Plus, the pro of having a family to stay in contact with after they return home will certainly help with their culture shock a bit more!

Of course, if your student is doing a study-and-travel program, this may not be an option. If it is though, take advantage!

Trust Your Program

You’ve researched and made a conscious decision with your child about where they will study and put lots of thought and effort into signing up for a program that has great reviews and a good record. So, you should have confidence in them. Truly trust that they will be there when you cannot be.

These companies are in business because parents want someone to be their backup when a son or daughter goes overseas. Let them do their job! But, of course, this is after you do yours of researching and making sure the program you picked is perfect! (Psst, you do know you're already in the right spot to find high school programs abroad, right??)

Reverse Culture Shock is a Real Thing

Window

Returning home after time abroad can be almost as big of a cultural shock as being away and some students are more affected than others.

When I came home from studying in Italy, I went to the grocery store to get ricotta cheese for my mother and almost had a nervous breakdown because there were too many choices. For the past four months I had just been going to my butcher shop and pointing to the only ricotta there and asking for a slice. The surplus of America shocked me.

Of course, after a month or two I stopped complaining that the coffee was horrible and I gave in to the fact that a car was necessary to get places in the USA (after many attempts of me walking everywhere which led to my mother rescuing me in rain storms on the side of busy roads with no sidewalks).

It's a process, so be sensitive when your teen gets back home and isn’t exactly the same as when they left. They aren’t! They’ve grown and have become a citizen of the world!

Even if they talk about their study abroad experience to the point that it's driving you crazy, try to remain nice. Be the one person that wants to hear about it -- they're just excited to share!

Love Their New Identity!

The largest transition that happens when your child is abroad – especially in high school -- is that this is the first time they are truly on their own. They are beginning to shop for themselves, run their own agenda, and make their own decisions -- so they’ll probably become a bit more independent upon their return.

Congratulations on raising a globetrotter and keep the support coming throughout their travels in the future.

Perhaps they’ll have a greater interest in politics, cooking, or cleaning the house. Or maybe they’ll just be happy to be back to a place where someone else does their laundry for them but they’ll have more appreciation for it!

Embrace these changes regardless of what they are and accept that your little baby is growing up. Congratulations on raising a globetrotter and keep the support coming throughout their travels in the future. Truthfully, airplane tickets are better than birthday cakes anyway.

For more in-depth strategies, read our parents guide to study abroad.

Photo Credits: Judi Zienchuk, Holly Lippman, Madeline Hill, and Death to the Stock Photo.

Lisa Saltagi

Lisa studied in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in 2010 and since has always needed to have a flight booked somewhere. After failing at office life, she flew to Italy and became a European tour-guide for a year. Now, she’s focusing on her writing while living in Florence with her husband. Check her out on Google+.