Interview: Sue Atkins on Expat Parenting

Sue Atkins is a well-known face in the UK, the author of several best-selling parenting books and a regular parenting guru and expert on a national TV and radio.  We asked her advice on life as an expat parent.
Interview: Sue Atkins on Expat Parenting
By Jenny Mollon
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Becoming an expat parent is a daunting prospect!  For many families the summer months are 'arrival time' in the UAE, and the start of a new life as an expat family.  Despite the impact of the pandemic, summer 2021 is no exception to this trend!  We spoke with Sue Atkins, a well known UK parenting expert and asked for her best advice for making a success of family life overseas.  

Sue, you are a highly successful parenting coach, author and TV presenter in the UK, what is your background and what brought you to this point?

I was a primary teacher and Deputy Head for 25 years.  My experiences in education have made me passionate about self-esteem and self confidence in children. 

After a number of changes in my own personal life, I decided to leap from a great height and leave my teaching job!  It must have been the right thing to do as I was soon invited to write my first book “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” – one of the famous black and yellow series.  This soon became a best seller!

The success of this book then led to radio and TV work (Sue is a regular on BBC TV and Radio and British commercial channel, ITV).  I do lots of phone-ins and ‘Agony Aunt’ work and help with universal issues - sleep, bullying, and friendship problems. 

At, we often hear that expat parents have some quite specific concerns.  One of these is being disconnected from family and friendship networks at home.  What advice would you have for parents who are worried about this and the impact on their family?

First, I think it’s important to not look at home as the grass always being greener!  The same issues often apply at home – modern life means that often families are separated and living some distance apart even if you are in the same country.  Most people don’t live two roads up from their Mum anymore!  Those days have gone. 

Secondly – this comes back to my c’s - connections!  I think women are often better at networking and making new connections than men.  Really put your focus on not being isolated because then you can get a bit down and a bit blue.  And, frankly, bit too intense as a parent!  Look up and look outwards!  Smiles open a door and help you feel connected!  I recommend you get your child to join a nursery or school and really place an emphasis on networking with the other parents.  Be brave and say to someone ‘do you fancy a coffee’?   ‘Shall we get the kids together to play?’.

Then, do make sure you hang out with like-minded people.  If you find people negative and if you start joining in with their negativity, that can be very draining.  Try and avoid judgemental people too.  Parenting is not a competition!

Sue Atkins, Parenting Expert, Coach and Author

Many homes here are blessed with domestic helpers which is wonderful, especially in the absence of an extended family.  But help at home can also present a number of issues – parents often complain of children who feel entitled to be ‘looked after’ – what would be your advice here?

I am great believer in chores!  When my children were young I used to talk about ‘Team Atkins’ and be clear about everyone, really all of us having a part to play in that.  It is vital that we prepare our children for the real world.  If you have help at home well, that is wonderful but actually you need to hold on to expectations that your child can and will be a part of running the household.  

Pause to ponder on how this aspect of your family life is impacting your child and your parenting.  Look at the bigger picture.  What sort of adult do I want to create?  For me, I want children to be resilient, self-sufficient, kind and tolerant.  Each family will have their own set of values that they want to instil.

Making children a vital part of your family life empowers them.  They feel part of the team, and their self-esteem and confidence grows.  Give them regular odd jobs, but don’t forget to thank them for doing those things.  Be respectful of what they contribute, however small in the beginning.

The UAE is a busy place, and many of us children included, live very busy lifestyles.  How do you suggest we manage this?

Firstly, mums are terrible at giving themselves permission to have ‘me’ time.  Friendship time, me time, reading time, time to take a bath and relax.  This is vital.  You come back refreshed, replenished and reenergised.  Otherwise, what do children learn?  That the world is always busy and that they should always be rushing. 

We have a problem in the UK with children developing anxiety and depression.  I believe some of this begins because they are so pushed into so many organised activities that they have to do from a very young age. 

I remember when I was teaching, I had an 8 year old who was very down and depressed.  Her mother was even giving her herbal remedies for anxiety.  But when I talked them - her days were so packed!  Horse riding, ballet, French – all by the middle of the week!  I mean come on!  Let her ride her bike.  We all want our children to have a wonderful life experience, we want to give them the opportunities we didn’t have ourselves.  But, and this is crucial, we don’t have to give them everything right now!  Can they not incrementally achieve things - wait for some of it?

Look at your own motives for how you create your child’s day and week – if you are ‘pushing’ children – well, ‘pushing’ is a term that literally implies resistance.  If we are lifelong learners – we don’t need to create stressed out children, learning everything at once – support them to learn their own time.  

For me, the issue of busy lifestyles all come back to mental health and well-being.  Try to observe your lifestyle and your family lifestyle and press your mental pause button from time to time.  Balance is key.  In the end, however we try and create our children’s interests and passions for them, they tend to find what they love themselves!  Let them be and enjoy their childhood.

Self-esteem, grit, perseverance – these are real buzzwords in schools and education these days and you mention them as key to your way of thinking.  What are your top tips for parents to instil self-esteem in their children?

I believe that looking at the three key areas – I call them the 3 c’s:  Connections, counting and confidence.

The first – connection – really means looking at your child’s connection to family, to friends and to the community.   I believe these connections begin at home and always say to parents ‘children spell love T-I-M-E!’.  Spend real time with them.  PLAY with them.  Don’t feel you have to make everything an educational moment.  Just play and have fun. 

The next thing I always say is ‘eat with them’!  Lots of parents I work with lead very hectic, busy and successful lives, but they don’t sit down regularly and eat with their children.  Now, I am not saying every day – I get that we live in a busy world but certainly regular special meals where you sit down and really focus on your child.  Try not to nag about the broccoli and holding the fork properly! 

As you eat, ask your child open ended questions – a good one is “what made you laugh today at school?”  It can begin some terrific conversations and is a window into their world.  If you are involved in your child’s life right from the beginning, that then leads them to be a confident teenager and adult. 

Confidence is the next ‘c’ to focus on.  Lots of parents rob their children of the opportunity to have small successes every day – for example tying their shoelaces!  If you always do it for them, the message they get from that is ‘you have no faith in me, you have given me a vote of no confidence’! 

So in the end they turn out to be pampered or anxious adults – asking and expecting everyone to do things for them.  This is not great preparation for the real world!

Lasty, children need to feel that they count.  That their opinion matters and that they are heard.  Children need to know that their voice counts for something and that they are significant.  Again, this is so important a message for parents to give.  Really, it all begins at home. 

So, if you think about the 3 c’s in terms of your parenting, and really focus on them, you will create a child who is able to go out and face the world and be who they want to be – whether that is an astronaut or entrepreneur! was talking to Sue Atkins


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