Seasoned parents will tell you that raising teenagers anywhere in the world requires, above all else, building trust, establishing expectations and setting limits through clear two-way communication. It’s no different in Shanghai, but the size of the city and all its temptations provide some specific challenges.

If you are inclined to worry about your teenagers striking out on the road to independence here, there are some important things to keep uppermost in mind: your teenagers are in a very exciting city that is relatively safe for them to explore. They have an opportunity to learn about a wealth of cultures and to cultivate a life-long habit of respecting differences in others. In many cases, they attend schools that provide a more rigorous education than they would find at home. They also have an opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, a language that schools elsewhere are scrambling to add to the curriculum. You have provided them with enormous advantages by settling them here for their teenage years.

Seasoned parents will tell you that raising teenagers anywhere in the world requires, above all else, building trust, establishing expectations and setting limits through clear two-way communication. It’s no different in Shanghai, but the size of the city and all its temptations provide some specific challenges.

If you are inclined to worry about your teenagers striking out on the road to independence here, there are some important things to keep uppermost in mind: your teenagers are in a very exciting city that is relatively safe for them to explore. They have an opportunity to learn about a wealth of cultures and to cultivate a life-long habit of respecting differences in others. In many cases, they attend schools that provide a more rigorous education than they would find at home. They also have an opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, a language that schools elsewhere are scrambling to add to the curriculum. You have provided them with enormous advantages by settling them here for their teenage years.

Moving to China.
Chances are that your teenager didn’t have a voice in the decision to move. In some lucky families, the child may nonetheless embrace the adventure. But for many, the move is wrenching, coming at a time when their peer group is paramount. Suddenly, your teenager finds him/herself in a school where the other kids don’t dress the same, don’t do the same things after school, don’t care about the same sports teams, don’t listen to the same music, and, in the school corridors and at lunch-time, may be conversing in a language s/he doesn’t understand.

Parents need to recognize just how powerless and alone their child may feel and react accordingly. If you have any say-so, arrive in Shanghai shortly before school starts, since a June arrival offers the specter of months with a sad/angry teen alone and using every electronic means available to contact friends at home. But if early summer is when you must come, do your best to connect your teen with peers through the Community Center Shanghai (see below) and by joining expat organizations, some of which have activities in the summer, that will connect you with other families.

Another bit of advice: whenever possible, try to include your teenagers in the major family decisions that flow from the decision to move. Would they prefer to live in downtown Shanghai or out in the suburbs closer to the international schools? What are they interested in experiencing in China – including concerts and major sports events that are only available in such a large city? What are the vacation destinations – many inaccesible from their home country – which hold special appeal? Scuba diving in Thailand? Hiking along the Great Wall? Riding a horse in Mongolia? Don’t be surprised if it takes quite a while for your child to grow comfortable in his or her new home. The positive side of the equation is that by genuinely sharing the adjustment, modeling positive behavior by engaging the opportunities here yourself, and making yourself available for plenty of listening, you will strengthen your relationship with your teenager in ways that you probably never would have if you had not left home.

Social Life – and issues.
Your teenager’s new social life will probably begin once school starts and, especially for younger teens, will largely be organized around school activities. Some do a better job than others at offering an after-school life, with sports teams, clubs, community service projects, and general hanging-out time and space. The latter is especially important given how far-flung are the students’ homes. At Shanghai American School, for example, about once a month, parents and school cooperate to hold a Friday afternoon ‘open gym’, where kids have the run of much of the school to play ball, watch a movie, see a school play or other performance, while munching on pizza and snacks.

Beyond school-based activities, the Community Center (with locations in Hongqiao and Pudong) offers many opportunities for teens to get together, including writing classes, inter-school dances, coffeehouses, and half-day trips within the city. Teenagers of all ages might enjoy some of the following activities on their own or with friends: going rock climbing at the climbing wall at Shanghai Stadium, catching a movie in English at a local theater, going bowling, or ice skating at several places around town. (For specific information, see Resources, below.) As early as eighth grade, many expat teenagers like to go out to eat at local restaurants and sip a drink at Starbucks with their friends on weekend evenings. Because the city is so safe (relative to large Western cities), while taxis are inexpensive and reliable, and the subway system is extending rapidly, youngsters can have the run of the town.

As they get older, teenage social life often shifts to Shanghai’s nightclubs. If you don’t know them, you can check out their ads in the local expat publications: Bonbon, Murals, The Shelter, to name a few favorites. Worry about drinking in the clubs can send a parent’s blood pressure through the roof, and for good reason. Beer is cheap, and so are shots sold by the tray; some clubs offer all you can drink for a fixed (low) price. Binge drinking can and does happen.

Whether to allow your children to go clubbing, at what age, and until how late are questions about which families must reach their own conclusions. But consider the following. With alcohol cheap and available at every convenience store, you are going to have to address the issue of drinking head-on. Kids can drink in public parks, and they can (and do) in restaurants. Forbidding them to go clubbing will not, in and of itself, keep them from drinking. Strange as it may sound, the clubs also meet some legitimate social needs, providing an opportunity for teenagers from all over the city to meet casually in a central place, chat, listen to music, and dance. Unlike in the States, however, if they want to drink, they don’t have to load up in furtive binge drinking before heading to the party. Clubs actually offer an opportunity to learn responsible drinking in moderation over the course of an evening. Perhaps not surprisingly, many Shanghai-raised teens report being bored or annoyed with the emphasis on very heavy drinking at parties that they encounter in college. And,thankfully, unlike many parents in other countries, parents here are not sick with worry over whether their child is driving or riding with a drunk teenager.

Whatever rules you decide upon, you are well-advised to communicate with your child’s friends’ parents. Norms about curfews and the age at which it is OK to drink socially vary hugely according to culture in Shanghai. You will want to settle on realistic limitations that you are comfortable with, and expect your teenagers to understand and abide by them – and you will want to monitor their activity.

If you are opposed to your children smoking cigarettes, you are also advised to be very clear with them about the dangers and likelihood of addiction even from casual smoking. Cigarettes may be purchased in China by anyone for just a few yuan. Attitudes toward smoking vary greatly here, even among Western cultures, so you may find that your teen’s friend’s parents, whether Chinese or Western, aren’t particularly bothered by their teenager’s smoking. If you don’t want your teenager to smoke, you must be very clear about this.

Now to the other big concern: drugs. Whatever goes on in the clubs, it is a certainty that marijuana is widely available to youngsters in Shanghai. Parents whose children talk openly to them are surprised at where, and how often, total strangers offer to sell it to them. Unfortunately, the natural sense of infallibility associated with adolescence sometimes seems to be heightened in expat teenagers, much of whose lives take place within a rarefied bubble. You may want to stress, over and over, with your teens that the laws in China are strict; whether or not strictly enforced against expats, they could be at any time. Their legal rights may be quite limited and the process and sanctions could be severe. This is not a risk worth taking nor a limit that can in any way be stretched. When teenagers visit from other countries, you may want to reiterate this – whatever they may do in their home countries, they may not use drugs here.

Repatriation.
These days, there is a growing recognition that children raised overseas, including those who may have spent only a few years of high school away, are ‘third culture kids’, also known as ‘global nomads’. What’s special about them is that they are at home as foreigners; although they don’t feel that they are Chinese, when they return to their home countries, they may feel that they are somehow different. The negative aspect of this is that, to varying degrees, they may again feel especially lonely, and wonder what’s wrong with them when ‘home’ doesn’t feel like home.

Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles available (see examples below) to assure kids that these feelings are quite natural. And for parents who wouldn’t have them any other way, it’s important to help our young men and women realize that their unique ability to understand the viewpoints of others, and the openness to learning and questioning that are characteristic of third culture kids, are enormous gifts in the world that they are entering.

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