Keeping Your Family Safe While Living Cross-Culturally

By World Family Education

Keeping children safe is a core value at World Family Education.

Living internationally presents unique challenges to keeping your family safe. In your host country, you may find very different standards for safety, and you may find very different perspectives on how children are treated or expected to behave. How will you navigate these new waters and protect your family from new and unknown risks?

This discussion of family safety takes into consideration all aspects of abuse and harm, shown in the lists below. 

Note that while much of what we consider abuse is caused by adults, in reality a lot of unsafe and abusive behavior can come from peers.

Examples of Abuse and Harm

(Adapted from Social Care Institute for Excellence [UK])

Examples of physical harm:

  • Broken bones, cuts, bruises, drowning
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Poor hygiene, poor infrastructure design, unsafe structures
  • Structural fire
  • Floods, storms, lightning, earthquakes
  • Collateral damage from war, crime, or terrorism

Examples of physical abuse:

  • Scalding/burning
  • Slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, hair-pulling, biting
  • Pushing, rough handling, holding underwater
  • Physical punishments (particularly those done in anger or frustration)
  • Inappropriate use of restraint, restricting movement (e.g., tying someone to a chair)
  • Purposefully making someone uncomfortable (e.g., opening a window and removing blankets in low temperatures)
  • Forced isolation or confinement
  • Misuse of medication 
  • Forcible feeding or withholding food

Possible signs of physical abuse:

  • Bruising, cuts, welts, burns, and/or marks on the body or loss of hair in clumps
  • No explanation for injuries or inconsistency with the account of what happened
  • Frequent injuries, injuries are inconsistent with the person’s lifestyle
  • Subdued or changed behavior in the presence of a particular person
  • Signs of malnutrition

Note that most international standards assume that children cannot/do not consent to sexual contact.

Examples of sexual abuse:

  • Rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault
  • Inappropriate touch anywhere on the person’s body
  • Any sexual activity that the person lacks the capacity to consent toInappropriate looking, sexual teasing or innuendo, or sexual harassment
  • Sexual photography or forced use of pornography or witnessing of sexual actsIndecent exposure

Possible signs of sexual abuse:

  • Bruising, particularly to the thighs, buttocks, and upper arms, and marks on the neck
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bleeding, pain, or itching in the genital area
  • Infections, unexplained genital discharge, or sexually transmitted diseases
  • Poor concentration, withdrawal, sleep disturbance, self-harming
  • Fear of receiving help with personal care
  • Reluctance to be alone with a particular person

Examples of emotional abuse:

  • Intimidation, coercion, harassment, use of threats, humiliation, bullying, swearing, or verbal abuse
  • Enforced social isolation, neglect
  • Preventing the expression of choice and opinion
  • Failure to respect privacy
  • Threats of harm or abandonment
  • Cyber bullying, intimidation, or harassment

Possible signs of emotional abuse:

  • Change in behavior when a particular person is present
  • Withdrawal or change in the psychological state of the person
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Uncooperative and aggressive behavior, tearfulness, anger
  • A change of appetite, weight loss/gain

Examples of cultural abuse:

  • Unequal treatment based on race, culture, religion, language, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Verbal abuse, derogatory remarks, or harassment related to the above characteristics
  • Denying access to communication aids, not allowing access to an interpreter
  • Preventing someone from meeting their religious or cultural dietary or dress customs  
  • Social isolation of someone who doesn’t share the language or culture

Possible signs of discriminatory abuse:

  • Appearing withdrawn and isolated
  • Expressions of anger, frustration, fear, or anxiety
  • Avoidance of specific people or groups

Examples of spiritual abuse:

  • Preventing someone from practicing their faith or religion
  • Forcing someone to act against their spiritual or religious obligations
  • Ridiculing someone’s understanding of religious practices or beliefs
  • Misusing spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to justify other types of abuse and violence
  • Accusing someone of being too religious or not religious enough
  • Using spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to justify authoritarian management or rigid regimes
  • Using spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to justify withholding education, medication, food, hygiene, socialization, etc.  
  • Failure to respond to abuse appropriately on religious or institutional grounds (self-protection)

Possible signs of spiritual abuse: 

  • Inability or unwillingness to make decisions independently 
  • Fear of offending or shaming spiritual or religious leaders, strong defense of these leaders
  • Use of spiritual or religious rationale to dismiss abuse or mistreatment
  • Obsession with performance and pleasing authority for spiritual or religious reasons
  • Adherence to abnormal spiritual and religious doctrines 

At the heart of family safety is understanding your family’s vulnerabilities, communicating with family members about these, and creating a plan to avoid or deal with problems. 

Need some practical tools to improve your family safety? Use World Family Education’s Family Safety Worksheets.

Vulnerabilities

In your home culture, you’re more likely to understand norms of behavior towards children. Knowing what to do when there is a threat or problem is typically quite clear. However, cultural expectations can get turned upside down in a new place. It’s important to understand the impact these four areas have on your family’s safety:

  • The physical characteristics of your new location (plants/animals, traffic, unsafe buildings, climate, etc.) may contribute to safety concerns that need to be addressed.
  • Overall cultural norms in your host country have a big impact on how your children are treated and expected to behave. One significant difference may be in how your host culture views and carries out child discipline, especially in school settings or if you have a local caregiver. It is critical that you work to understand these cultural differences as soon as possible.
  • The relational dynamics within the specific communities you live and spend time in (condo complex, neighborhood, school, faith community, etc.) need to be understood and assessed. It is important to note that a lot of negative and hurtful behavior can come from your children’s peers and older kids, so be sure to monitor those relationships closely.
  • Families living internationally do so within the context of overarching systems. Some of these are part of the sending or employing organization (military, diplomatic, company/business, mission, school, etc.), and some are part of the local structure (police/military, medical, immigration, politics, infrastructure, etc.). These systems, especially if new to you, can present safety concerns, and some will impact the protocols and ways and/or extent you can deal with safety issues. 

Unique cultural dynamics exist in any ethnic group, community, or system your family interacts with. And while many parts of the family safety discussion are universal, some are unique due to different cultural contexts. 

In each cultural setting you encounter, there will likely be cultural norms that violate your family’s moral or safety boundaries. The first step in meeting this challenge is to understand, define, and agree on a set of family moral and safety boundaries. From this baseline, you can assess each setting, relationship, and situation. There will be times when you need to create boundaries to protect your family.

At the same time, some of your family boundaries may not make sense in your host culture and may not, in fact, be necessary. You have permission to look at the cultural scenarios you find yourself in and filter your expectations accordingly. Do this as a family, since your kids’ perspectives are very important in assessing risk. 

Respecting your host culture is important, and necessary for relationships, but not if it means putting your children at risk. Find the balance that respects the culture and makes all members of the family feel secure in your love and care for them.

Family Communication

Strong family relationships and open communication between family members are vital to preventing a security breach or promoting healing after the fact. A family that prioritizes open and honest relationship and stays connected and unified can handle a lot “in the moment” and has the best prognosis for long-term recovery after a problem. 

Even if open communication is strong, it is natural for a child to feel that they should hide stress or discomfort from you, especially if they think it will impact your work, status, or happiness. This means that you will need to be keenly aware of how your child shows stress, and be on the lookout for these signs, particularly in times of transition or new relationships.

Security needs to be a whole family effort. A parent’s instincts about safety are very valuable in determining risk. Likewise, parents should understand that a child’s instincts for safety are strong and natural, and usually a pretty good indicator of risk. As part of your plan, you should help your kids recognize and utilize their instincts and intuition in situations with potential risk. Maintaining good communication within the family ensures that all members are sharing their instinctual input about a situation. 

Even if open communication is strong, it is natural for a child to feel that they should hide stress or discomfort from you, especially if they think it will impact your work, status, or happiness.

When you have these discussions with your family, avoid communicating or instilling fear. For example, instead of talking about kids getting kidnapped by strangers who claim they are sent by parents, tell your kids that if you ever send someone to pick them up, it will always be someone they know. Your conversations should bring security and comfort rather than fear or distrust. Instilling fear in your child can skew their natural instincts away from trust and toward distrust of people, which is not accurate or helpful. Don’t aim to instill a distrust for strangers, but rather a distrust for strange or inappropriate behavior.

In many places, children have long been taught to avoid talking to strangers. This is not a very helpful guideline for several reasons. For one, people you know and even trust may pose the biggest security risk. Also, it can cause confusion in situations where a child is expected to talk to strangers, such as meeting new people at a function or when a child is lost or needs help. It also gives the false impression that strangers are not trustworthy. Teach your children how to notice signs that a person might be acting abnormally or suspiciously. Teach them how to find a safe person when lost or in trouble such as a security guard, store manager, or a woman with children. 

Your family should have vocabulary for talking about things related to safety. For example, your family can talk about the differences between safe touch, unsafe touch, and unwanted touch.

  • SAFE TOUCH is wanted, meant for nurturing and communicating affection, and does not harm or violate privacy.
  • UNSAFE TOUCH is any touch that hurts or harms, or involves private body parts. You can use something like the PANTS (underwear rule) from NSPCC to teach more specifically about private body parts (lesson plans). This is straightforward and simple to define, however your host culture might have different ideas about who has the right to touch what, and how, on younger kids. If this is the case, you will need to be specific with caregivers and friends about your expectations.

    Your kids should know that unsafe touch is never OK and can be stopped by any means available. Instances of unsafe touch should always be spoken about and reported to parents.
  • UNWANTED TOUCH does not hurt or harm or violate privacy, but is simply not welcome for any reason. This could be well intended and even culturally expected touch that makes a child uncomfortable such as shaking hands or wanting a photo together. It can also include things like sitting on laps or hugs that are not welcome.

    In some countries, there will likely be cultural norms in this area that make your kids uncomfortable, and they need to have permission to communicate their discomfort in appropriate ways. It is a really good idea to pre-empt these situations by explaining the cultural norms and why they are present. This may relieve the discomfort, but if not, make a plan to avoid or manage the contact before it happens. 

    Let your child know that when an unwanted touch occurs, they should tell you. You will need to determine the true nature and intent of the incident, and help your child process it. It is important that even though it may appear trivial or unreasonable, your child’s discomfort with a situation or touch is legitimate and should be respected and listened to.

Planning as a Family

If you have discovered your vulnerabilities and cultivated an open communication environment in your family, you have likely created proactive plans and procedures to increase your family’s safety. The following are a few areas to consider planning for.

  • Expressing Dissent — As you help your kids understand that they have the right to consent or dissent to anything others ask them to do, they also need a plan to communicate dissent in an appropriate way. This plan needs to take into consideration the cultural norms and expectations of child behavior in your location.

    However, kids need to know that they can take drastic measures to protect themselves. There may be differences between your home culture and your host culture in the ways that kids can express dissent to adults or peers, and your kids need to be taught how to navigate both. At the same time, your child should be prepared to break cultural norms and make a scene or fight back if necessary.
  • Grooming — Grooming is the process a sexual predator uses to gain the trust of the child (and family), build the relationship, and set up the abuse. While talking specifically about grooming and sexual predators would not be appropriate for younger children, it is important to set up patterns that help you know when grooming may be occurring.

    This includes training your kids that if anyone tells them “Don’t tell anyone. This is our secret,” it is the best time to tell someone. They should also be aware of, and follow, your family’s standards for spending time alone with adults.

    Be sure to keep the lines of communication open to the point that your kids are used to having you ask them questions about their day, activities, conversations, and relationships. They should be aware that you want them to always tell you when they are getting special treatment or have spent time with someone alone, especially if it seems strange or awkward. 
  • Home Alone — Your family should have a good idea of when a child is ready to stay at home or go somewhere alone. This may be different for each child, and it is important to know when they are ready. In his book, Protecting the Gift, Gavin de Becker offers 12 markers to determine if a child is ready for this kind of independence:

    THE TEST OF TWELVE
  • Does your child know how to honor his feelings? If someone makes him uncomfortable, that’s an important signal.
  • Are you as the parent strong enough to hear about any experience your child has had, no matter how unpleasant?
  • Does your child know it’s okay to rebuff and defy adults?
  • Does your child know it’s okay to be assertive?
  • Does your child know how to ask for assistance or help?
  • Does your child know how to choose who to ask? For example, he should look for a woman to help him.
  • Does your child know how to describe his peril?
  • Does your child know it’s okay to strike, even to injure someone if he believes he is in danger, and that you’ll support any action he takes as a result of feeling uncomfortable or afraid?
  • Does your child know it’s okay to make noise, to scream, to yell, to run?
  • Does your child know that if someone ever tries to force him to go somewhere, what he screams should include, “This is not my father”? Onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are likely to assume the adult is a parent.
  • Does your child know that if someone says, “Don’t yell,” the thing to do is yell? The corollary is if someone says, “Don’t tell,” the thing to do is tell.
  • Does your child know to fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view with someone he doesn’t know, and particularly to resist going anywhere with someone who tries to persuade him?
  • When Lost — At some point, your child will feel like he or she has lost track of you. In that moment of panic, does your child know what to do? If you have planned for this scenario, the child can approach the situation which more confidence and less stress. Make sure that kids have (or memorize) your contact information at all times. In general, finding the information desk or cashier is a good place to start in a larger store or mall. When in a more public space, finding someone in uniform or a woman (especially with children) are safe bets for getting help. Before entering a location where you may be separated, clearly define a meeting point and time.
  • When in a Bad Situation — Sometimes kids will find themselves in an uncomfortable position and then need a way to communicate discreetly with you. Design a set of code words and signals that your family can use to indicate there is something not right. When you are with your child, a signal would work well, however if you are separated, your child will need a code word or phrase to indicate over the phone that they need your help.
  • Evacuation or Lockdown — In case of an emergency, do your kids know what to do? Make sure your family has a good home exit plan in case of fire. Likewise, in every place your family sleeps during your travels, identify the emergency exits and make a plan in case of fire. Similarly, make sure your kids know how to exit a vehicle quickly and safely in case of an accident. Sometimes exiting a building is not the best option, and locking down is the better path. Be sure your kids know how and where to hide during a home invasion or severe weather situation.
  • Pick Up and Drop Off — One potential area of vulnerability is during drop off and pick up from school or activities. Not only are there physical risks associated with cars and roads, but the potential for miscommunication and separation are high. It is good to have a plan for meeting including location and time. Sometimes that does not work, and you should prearrange a backup plan.

    If you are arranging for someone else to pick up your child, be sure that they know your safety expectations (kids in the back, seat belts, safe driving, etc.), and be sure your child knows them well, and knows they will be picking them up. Assure your child that you will never send someone they don’t know to pick them up.

    When dropping off a younger child, take the time and effort to escort the child until you deliver them to the adult in charge. For older children, make sure you have visual contact with them until they enter the safety of the school or other venue.
  • Internet Interactions — The internet presents another big safety vulnerability that deserves its own article. In general, the main points remain the same: determine your family’s values and parameters, communicate them in a way that ensures the child adopts them, and then maintain open communication and relationship. Beyond that, determine as a family, a plan for when technology is abused or family standards are violated. You can introduce some degree of security through insisting on using technology in common areas of the home, using software filters, and network controls, however, helping your child make safe and healthy choices will be the best way forward.

Next Step:
Use World Family Education’s Practical Family Safety Worksheets to help your family assess vulnerabilities, open communication, and make plans.  

Other Resources

Protecting the Gift — A book with practical steps to enhance children’s safety at every age level. Provides help with safety skills for children outside the home, warning signs of sexual abuse, help with choosing schools, strategies for keeping teenagers safe from violence, and more.

Doing Right by Our Kids — A book that offers powerful guides to child safety for families, institutions, and advocates.

The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults — A comprehensive guide that puts Kidpower.org’s nearly 30 years of experience at the fingertips of parents, educators, and all adults who care about protecting children and teens.

Kidpower.org — Offers a large collection of resources to help parents and kids prevent bullying, abuse, kidnapping, prejudice, and sexual assault.

Home Alone — Guidelines from the UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for determining the right time to allow your child to be at home by themselves.

Let’s Talk PANTS — Help for parents to talk to their children about staying safe from sexual abuse from the UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Kids Keep Safe — Educates children about potential dangers and staying safe. Produced by Kidsreach, an organization based in New Zealand, Australia, and Sri Lanka.

UK Safer Internet Centre — Tips, advice, guides, and resources to help keep your child safe online.

Common Sense Media Reviews of entertainment and tech for parents to determine appropriate material for their children. Based in the U.S.

uknowKids Subscription-based service helps parents monitor their kids’ digital activities on phones and tablets.

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