Parenting an Adult Child Living Overseas

A mother's journey of the pros and cons

by SHFamily | Wed, October 25, 2017

By Elizabeth Lee

Parenting adult children poses a myriad of challenges, but doing so from thousands of miles away adds a whole different dimension. Maintaining a strong relationship with your child while giving and receiving the support that you both need from time to time takes extra effort and an embrace of technology, but the rewards are boundless. When my 22-year-old daughter Sarah announced that she wanted to move to China after graduating from college, I was surprised and more than a little forlorn. I was recently widowed, and the thought of her so far away made my heart heavy. It felt like she was abandoning me just when I most wanted to keep her close.

Taking flight

I didn’t expect her to come home to Washington, D.C., but all of our prior conversations had focused around a few cities in the United States. She didn’t speak a word of Mandarin or Cantonese and talking about moving halfway around the world to live in a country with a totally different culture and political system left me feeling anxious, alone, but also a little jealous. We traveled a lot as a family and she had lived abroad on her own, but only in Western countries. Her grandparents were the only members of our family who had ever been to any part of Asia, but she was fascinated with China, really wanting to push herself. Her method? Finding a job and being self-supporting – which she promptly did.

Flight Tickets

I felt fiercely protective of my daughter and worried about everything. Would she be safe? Where would she live? What if she got sick? How would we communicate? We went through a lot together in the early months after her father died and I was desperately afraid of losing the close connection that so sustained me. At the same time I envied her sense of hope, anticipation and adventure. In the end, what could I say? We raised her as an independent, adventurous spirit. The only reasons to dissuade her were principally selfish, and I was not ready to put my needs in front of hers.

Adventurous Spirit

So I asked lots and lots of questions about her motivation, her employer, her support network and where she would live. I researched Shanghai and sought out all of the contacts I could find among friends and colleagues. I reviewed her work contract and together we formulated the questions she would ask to fill in missing information. We made a plan for me to come visit three and a half months in, then we had a big family party and put her on an airplane. I had a huge knot in my stomach but could not have been prouder.

Yuyuan Garden

Sarah and I both live alone. It’s rare for us to go more than a week without actually talking, but when we do, we still communicate by text or email, if only to let the other know that we are ok. When either of us travels, she or I make a point of letting the other know just when we arrive at our destination. It is a kind of ritual, one I used to maintain with her father, and it is sustaining. 


Technology can be your lifeline. Knowing that Sarah has regular access to the internet makes regular communication possible, something I’ve very much needed. Mail is great but unreliable, and we live in a world of instant communication. WeChat is my best friend, allowing Sarah and me to text, talk and video chat at any time of day. Texting allows us to keep tabs on one another. Seeing her emotions as we talk enables me to better read the situation, to feel closer to her, and hopefully to give (or receive) better advice. Time zones can be challenging, as my nighttime is her daytime, and we both lead busy lives. But the rewards for me greatly exceed any potential challenges to my sleep patterns, and regular access to caffeine lightens the burden on my mornings.

Strengthening ties

I’m not sure Sarah needed that first visit from me three and a half months into her first contract, but I definitely needed to visit her. Seeing her apartment, her neighborhood and meeting some of her closest friends made it possible for me to visualize her daily life, bringing to life what she would regularly describe to me through our digital screens. Exploring Shanghai for myself gave me a much greater appreciation of the joys and challenges Sarah faces daily in her life there, creating  an appetite for further exploration of a part of the world I might never have visited on my own. We have since traveled together in other parts of the region, visiting Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, China, but I can’t wait to go back to Shanghai and see more of the world that she has grown into.

Elizabeth Sarah

When it became clear that Sarah’s life in China was not term limited, I asked her to commit to coming back to the US for the Christmas holiday this year to see her aging grandparents and her extended family. It’s been really important to me to encourage Sarah to maintain her relationships with family and friends, wherever she lives, and here again technology has become an invaluable resource. 

I’ve tried my best to create occasional opportunities for her to come to me, though I’m learning that home is no longer defined by where I live, even if it’s where my child grew up. While she has formed her own sense of family living in Shanghai, our nuclear family puts in extra effort to maintain and strengthen our family unit despite the distance, and that requires asking for what you need. Sarah’s commitment to come home for the holidays requires real sacrifice on her part, but it means the world to me and to the rest of our small family, and from what I understand, it’s one she’s happy to make.

Passport Stamps

Trying to understand the country she calls home has become an integral part of my life. I monitor the news about our country’s relationship with China, keeping the information for our country’s embassy and consulate close at hand. While she has medical coverage in China, I have retained her on my insurance policy in case she needs to return to the US for treatment, knowing that there’s a system I understand and have confidence in as an available support for her. When she is no longer eligible for dependent coverage early next year, we will explore emergency medical insurance plans in the event she is confronted with major illness. 

Like any mother, I worry about Sarah’s health and safety, but trusting her to take care of herself is something I’ve spent my whole life learning how to do, and it’s one I’ll continue to work on, regardless of place or time.

Letting them soar

This is the story of my journey as the single mother of an adult child living abroad, but the lessons I’ve learned are universal. I am blessed with a deep and abiding relationship with my child, but only because we both really work at it. I suspect we work that much harder because of the distance between us. I don’t live my life around my daughter, and I never have, but after losing my husband, the role she played in my life became that much more significant, and I worried that much more.

 China Beijing

I’ve had to rebuild a life for myself through my work and my community, and having her not be a physically present part of that has been really difficult at times. But the most important lesson for me has been learning to let go. As parents, we want our children to spread their wings and take flight when they reach adulthood, but sometimes we also want to designate the flight pattern. Do I love that my child lives halfway across the world? Absolutely not. But as hard as it is having her so far away, I feel so much stronger for being the mom I want to be, encouraging her to follow her own path. 

Shanghai Skyline

Moving to Shanghai has given Sarah the opportunity to grow and thrive and build a life for herself that would have been incomprehensible to me five years ago. The lessons she has learned, the community that she continues to build and the friendships she has made will serve her well for a lifetime. What more could a mother ask for?