Should a teenager go to another country with girlfriend for a month?
September 5, 2019 8:40 AM   Subscribe

My son wants to spend a month in another country with his girlfriend next summer. He'll be seventeen, she'll be eighteen. Where do I start to figure out if this is a good idea?

I feel like I'm not even sure how many questions I have. They'd be staying with her grandmother. Girlfriend and grandmother are bilingual, my son does not know the language but is learning.
Are there legal problems with traveling since he's still a minor, or is that not important since she'll be eighteen? We're American, they're going to an EU country.
Where do I even start with the complications of him living for a month with someone we've never met?
How can we talk about their relationship and the possibility that he could end up getting his heart broken and have the stress of not being able to easily come home. They've been dating since January, and also dated previously before she broke up to focus in school. I generally like her and feel relationship is a positive for both, but also worry about intensity at young age, typical for teens I suppose.
Can you help answer the questions I don't even know I need answers for?
posted by saffry to Human Relations (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, they probably want to wait and see if they’re still dating in a few months, but otherwise, this sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. I spent a month in two different countries in Europe two summers in a row in high school. I stayed with families. I didn’t know the language in the first country. It was fantastic.

Your concerns aren’t unfounded, but the possibility of a broken heart seems a poor reason to skip a trip like this. If they did break up, he would figure it out. It’s part of growing up.

This isn’t just fine. It’s wonderful and amazing and I hope you can be excited for and supportive of your son. We want our kids to have friends who enrich their lives. He’s a lucky kid!
posted by bluedaisy at 8:47 AM on September 5, 2019 [42 favorites]

Some worst-case planning:

my son does not know the language but is learning
problems with traveling since he's still a minor

Do you (or your son) have the financial means for him to take a short-notice trip back home if things go badly? Are his language skills and general level of maturity sufficient for him to get himself to an airport, even after a potential heart break?

Has your son ever spent an extended period of time away from his family, such as summer camp? How does he handle long periods of time away from family, in general?
posted by jedicus at 8:49 AM on September 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

Sorry to be indelicate, but are they sleeping together? Because if they aren't now, they very likely would be at that point. You should consider your values on that point, and your confidence that he is committed enough to safe-sex practices to go to a drugstore at midnight where he doesn't speak the language to find some condoms.
posted by praemunire at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2019 [28 favorites]

How can we talk about their relationship and the possibility that he could end up getting his heart broken and have the stress of not being able to easily come home. They've been dating since January, and also dated previously before she broke up to focus in school. I generally like her and feel relationship is a positive for both, but also worry about intensity at young age, typical for teens I suppose.

Life is unpredictable and wild and full of challenges. That's how we grow. What I do know is that I promise your son would survive what you just described and worrying about it isn't doing much but is normal.

This sounds like a fantastic adventure. I totally see why that could fill you with unease. Make sure your son has a way to contact you and have him check in regularly (but not all the time!) for your peace of mind. He will in all likelihood be a bit homesick and appreciate that Tuesday night is a call with mom.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think it'd be a fantastic opportunity, but as he's still a minor there might be legal steps you need to take. This, from the CBP website:

Can a minor under 18 years of age travel to another country without their parents?

Minors may be able to travel to another country without either one of their parents. They may however require a notarized written consent letter from both parents. Minors interested in traveling without their parents should contact the embassy to address admissibility questions.

A list of embassies and entry requirements can be obtained at the Department of State website, or call the particular embassy by phone.

link here
posted by essexjan at 8:54 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

(Just as a general observation, I find the thought that a neurotypical 17-year-old could not handle a month abroad in a reasonably safe country while living with a family, even, a bit...baffling. Obviously you'd want to communicate with the grandmother ahead of time to make sure there weren't any critical differences in house rules/values, but presumably at that point your son will be maybe a year out from college. Surely you've been raising him with the underlying understanding that he's going to be nearly completely responsible for himself in the very near future?)
posted by praemunire at 8:57 AM on September 5, 2019 [51 favorites]

Yeah, I just remembered that people do study abroad trips all the time. For quite awhile! We hosted many kids from foreign countries for an entire year growing up. Autonomy is a cornerstone of psychological wellbeing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:10 AM on September 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

Are there legal problems with traveling since he's still a minor, or is that not important since she'll be eighteen?

Her age won’t come into it. As others have said, a notarized letter should do the trick. Kids (particularly teenagers) travel solo all the time.

Where do I start to figure out if this is a good idea?

I think you start and end with him. Does he make good decisions most of the time? How resilient is he?

I wouldn’t worry too much about language. The EU is very easy to navigate for English speakers and if you are comfortable that he could get himself around a US city then you can be comfortable that with some persistence he will be able to move about and accomplish things on his own.

All in all spending time outside of your birth culture is one of the great rites of passage that everyone should have. Even if he has a miserable month it will change his life for the better. I would definitely err on the side of letting him have this adventure.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:12 AM on September 5, 2019 [10 favorites]

This is all assuming they will still be together next summer (almost a year from now! a long time for teenagers) - it sounds great to me if you feel your son is mature enough. If you can possibly meet the grandmother (or Skype with her) that would be my own personal requirement for this type of arrangement.

Discussions with your son about his responsibilities for the trip would be significant and would (to me) include: birth control and consent, emergency preparedness, research into transportation and his ability to get from place to place, healthy eating and possibly some cooking skills, a plan for what he's going to do while in Europe that's not "stay home and play video games," and I would probably make him document his trip in photos on Instagram with captions or something so I could see what he's doing but not in a creepy way and wring something educational out of it.

You didn't mention it, but if you're game for this, it seems like a good idea to give him a "yes" now with stipulations, since otherwise he will nag you for permission for months. If there are stipulations he needs to meet in order to go on this trip, lay them out IN ADVANCE. For example, does he need to get a certain GPA this school year? Get his Eagle Scout award? Apply to X colleges? Take his grandpa out to breakfast once a month? Ask him what he thinks those milestones should be.
posted by juniperesque at 9:19 AM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Three things:

- I would tell him you are fine with it if he’s still fine with it at the point in the future when he actually needs to make plans to go. Then figure out a reasonable point at which you need to spend money (on plane tickets, for example), and wait until then to confirm with him. If they’re staying with Grandma then it sounds like you have months and months to go before you actually need to take concrete steps. This gives them time to see where dating takes them and if they’re still together. There’s no reason to buy tickets ASAP.

- Have a “break glass in case of emergency” plan to get him out of there just in case. I was a little older than him but ended up on a side trip in Europe I didn’t want to be on and that wasn’t comfortable, and had my backup plan that got me out of there and flying to family in London in less than a day.

- Make sure he’s mature enough to handle himself re sex, drinking, and drugs. Have whatever discussions you might not have had yet.
posted by sallybrown at 9:21 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

If the EU country is France or Germany, I have *never* met someone from there who didn't speak basic English. I wouldn't worry about the language at all if it's one of those or similar, especially if he's also learning the language now.

I'd make sure you have enough money and a plan to get him home if shit hits the fan, make contact with the grandmother so you know she's, you know, a real person who is expecting him, and honestly I think that's enough. 17 / 18 is the age when a whole bunch of kids here go abroad for gap years, so it's seen as pretty normal and not really something to worry about unless they're going to somewhere actually dangerous. The girlfriend thing brings birth control into the picture, but that's about it.
posted by stillnocturnal at 9:26 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just a heads up that in countries like Denmark its considered pretty normal and ok for adults to buy booze for minors. it's legal to drink here (in Finland, and AFAIK most European countries) at 18, but in all honesty, it's not hard to get your hands on alchohol. My buds used to have wine with their parents at dinner and it wasn't a big deal, but YMMV.
posted by speakeasy at 9:40 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone saying he should go! As stated above, have a plan to get him home if need be. Make contact with grandma. Talk about sex and drinking (LEGALLY drinking, even if he drinks now he may be able to go to bars, etc. depending on the country.)

I travelled to both Europe and Central America around that age and never had a problem. I just had my passport. Probably a good idea to get the notarized letter just in case but I would be very surprised if he needed it. I've never heard of that being done.

I don't think the language thing will be much of an issue, depending on where he is. Unlike a commenter above I have met people in (eastern) Germany that didn't speak English but they were mostly older and with rudimentary German I could get by easily. All of the "kids" spoke great English. Anyway it's a wonderful way to learn/get better at the language.

I don't love the idea of "you have to do these things to go", but DO talk about money. Is he paying? Are you? A mix of both? A kid that age doesn't need much in the way of conditions (he can only go if x) but should also be responsible for at least a good amount of the trip.
posted by sillysally at 9:42 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

How can we talk about their relationship and the possibility that he could end up getting his heart broken and have the stress of not being able to easily come home.

You just... bring it up? This is one of the same lines of conversation about being mindful of all things that are important on a journey like this: money, emergencies, relationships, they all have contingencies. The rest is up to him/them.

Very honestly, I think it's great that you're thinking about this angle--I was a gay kid when I left on a trip like this when I was a year older, but I didn't ask permission. I just went. I knew I didn't know everything, and I learned a lot. On my own. And it's age appropriate to learn a lot on your own. But what I wouldn't have given for a little straight (lol) talk from my folks before I left. Hindsight is 20/20, so tell him what you'd want him to hear from the vantage point of you and him looking back on this experience in 20 years.

"You can always call me, no matter what," is a good thing for someone that age to hear.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:17 AM on September 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I had a lot of autonomy as a teenager, my parents would let me choose if I went to the cottage or on other trips with them by that age, so I'd often have the house to myself, and have to take care of myself. It was really good for me, I learned how to be an independent adult while still having the support of my parents nearby and reachable. If there's anything that you may want to make sure he demonstrates in order to be allowed to go, is that he can pull his own weight in running a household. If he can show that he can clean up after himself, cook a basic meal, do his share of the dishes, and generally be a good roommate, then he's ready to be a good guest in someone else's home.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:16 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd be more concerned about what is the plan is everything is paid for, and they break up before they leave. Does he still go, but now he's on his own, and has to deal with accommodations? Does he (you) eat the cost of the plane tickets? and so forth.

While I think the trip is a great idea, the unknown of being a young adult and the fact that breakups happen, would make me counsel my own son to maybe not do it..
posted by niteHawk at 11:27 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

If they break up or whatever have a plan for how to get him home if it comes to that, but another option would also be for him to travel around on his own. He's old enough, lots of teens do it, and if you're already in Europe it's a great opportunity to get on a train and see new places.

Do research good travel insurance for him.

You don't say what the country in question is but in a lot of places it's normal to host family and friends for extended visits, and to treat teenage couples as regular couples.
posted by trig at 11:46 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just as a general observation, I find the thought that a neurotypical 17-year-old could not handle a month abroad in a reasonably safe country while living with a family, even, a bit...baffling.

That surprises me. I know essentially neurotypical adults (maybe a little anxiety) for whom this would be a hugely stressful undertaking. I know plenty of teenagers who couldn't handle it--too shy to get anything out of it or be a good houseguest to someone they've never met, or very likely to disappear for a few days and do whatever drugs are offered to them by strangers. Travel affects different people different ways, and teenagers are making adult choices with brains at different stages of adolescence.

I agree with everyone that unless the OP has a specific concern, it makes sense to look for a way to make it happen, and the fact that he wants to make the trip implies that he sees himself as able to handle it. But spending two weeks away from home on the other end of the state at 17 was INSANELY stressful (and a great learning experience) for me; in this teenager's situation, I probably would have been more of a burden on the host than anything else.
posted by gideonfrog at 12:01 PM on September 5, 2019 [9 favorites]

Off the top of my head, if this were my son, here are some things that would factor in to my decisions. This situation is slightly different from your typical study-abroad trip, at least in my experience, where there's no real oversight or accountability with regard to his daily activities.

- Establish some kind of rapport with the family he's staying with. The trip would not happen if I wasn't at least able to talk to a responsible adult in the house. If language with the grandmother is an issue, I'd want to speak to the girl's parents or someone else with whom I felt comfortable.

- His maturity/independence in being able to handle emergency situations by himself, such as, loss of passports, personal injury, an auto accident if he was driving, etc. These concerns are somewhat mitigated by providing medical/ auto insurance while he's traveling, making sure he has contact info for the nearest US embassy, etc.

- You say you're worried about him getting his heart broken. Hate to say this, but heartbreak is... inevitable. Only you can judge his emotional maturity, but if it does happen, you can have a contingency plan to bring him home if he wants come home. If he doesn't want to come home, and would like to explore more by himself and you're able to support him for a few days going to a different city and staying at a hotel, congratulations, you have a spectacularly mature boy!

- His sexual maturity/ responsibility, as someone mentioned above. Does he have the wherewithal to respectfully and responsibly conduct himself in relevant situations? Also, European society is a lot more comfortable with sex than Americans are, so protection is easily available and cannot ever be an issue for him.

- The country he's traveling to does factor in a little bit. Western countries are easier to navigate with limited knowledge of the native language than the Eastern ones are, but with his girlfriend and her family around, he should be fine.

- This is more a personal thing for me - my boyfriend is less worried about this stuff - but at least for the first couple weeks, I'd probably ask him to send a quick text every day to check in and call us for a few minutes every couple days. Again, that's me. I'm a worrywart, and my son would probably roll his eyes at me a lot.

My cousins and I grew up in Asia where we didn't have a lot of autonomy, but even then every summer or winter break we'd travel by ourselves as teenagers to visit other family in Europe, Australia or the States. I can't even begin to describe how immensely rich those experiences were in terms of my own growth around global perspectives, cultural sensitivity and personal independence.
posted by Everydayville at 12:01 PM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

If he’s staying in a capital or fairly large city, many people will speak at least basic English, especially those who work in stores and cafes.

I’ve lived in 5 countries in Europe, both EU and not. I see a lot of very young kids out in bars. Like definitely under 21.

Someone mentioned above but I want to be sure it’s mentioned again.....

They do not card at bars. I have never even seen a bartender ask for ID. In many cities, bars are open very very late, like dawn. They are often filled with young kids drinking a lot. God bless their livers and stamina.

I know quite a few people who teach English in high schools in various cities and won’t go to certain bars because they will run into their teenage students.

Please be sure he knows how to handle his alcohol. Depending on the country they might have a big drinking culture or not.

I don’t say this to scare you but to make sure that you definitely talk to him about this and maybe have some wine and beer at home a few times if he’s not had alcohol before. He should know how it affects him. For ex, most beer makes me loopy but I can have some wine or a couple gin tonic and not feel half as out of it.

People also generally smoke pot on mixed with tobacco. It’s frowned upon but not nearly as illegal as it in most places in the US. He will likely be offered pot if he’s out with kids his age.

Again not to scare you, just letting you know.

I think he has a chance to make some absolutely wonderful memories. I wish I could have done this in my teens. He has a chance to learn a language via immersion at an age when it’s much easier to do so. He can potentially make life long connections.

I’ve felt very safe almost everywhere as a single female. I’m sure he will be fine from a safety standpoint as long as you have the discussions others mention above about sex and short-notice travel back.
posted by sio42 at 12:06 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

If I were you, I’d try to find an adult in the destination who has some connection to you but none to the girlfriend’s family to be a “just in case” contact if things go sour (I’d probably try to find a local mefite, actually).

Lots of other good advice in-thread, but an on the ground contact is the one thing I’d add.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:09 PM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Once 20-something years ago, I dated a person from a developing country, and they told me it is a norm in their culture that teens are sent away to family in faraway places "to grow up". I think it is a genius idea, even though I didn't impose it on my own kids. When you travel abroad on your own, you have to be alert and responsible. When you have a host family, you have to be polite and to learn their mores. You will learn languages and you will learn to be you.
In Europe it was a norm for decades to go "on Interail" at least once for a month during the high-school years. Kids would get a rail pass and just travel throughout Europe, sleeping in the trains or at hostels or wherever they could. My first trip was at 16, and happily it seems to be back as a thing to do. Just to say: Europe is a place where almost everyone takes care of young travellers.
It seems from your post as if your son is invited to stay by his girlfriend's grandmother. I can't imagine any family in any place in Europe who wouldn't feel very responsible for your son's well-being and education. Just imagine yourself hosting a young European for a month. It's the same, almost.
Europe is different than the US, but I don't entirely agree that it is more acceptable to drink/smoke/do drugs here. It's more that there is less legal control but more social control. A 17 year old can drink in a bar, or be served wine at a family gathering, but if they get drunk they will embarrass themself among their peers. Being drunk is not cool. Use of marihuana and drugs varies a lot between countries and cultures, but I have a sense it won't be an issue with your son because it seems from your post his girlfriend is quite focused on education. There is a lot of press on drug use, because it is terrifying, but statistics say we parents really shouldn't worry.
In Europe sex between consenting teens is totally acceptable and none of their parent's business, and sex-ed is part of the basic education. I discuss contraception with my daughters if they initiate the conversation, which they do. So if anything, I guess your son will experience a culture where there is a more relaxed approach to sex.
This can all be a bit difficult to navigate, depending on the American teen's upbringing and emotional state. But IMO, it will be all good for your son.
posted by mumimor at 3:19 PM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

A month in another country, where you don't speak the language, is an awkward length of time. It's not enough time to really get to know the culture of a country (remember the old jokes about the kids who study abroad for a summer and come back claiming they are spiritually French now?) and yet a long enough time that you could get legitimately homesick. And it can be harder for teen boys to admit homesickness than teen girls, at least in the US and possibly in some European countries, especially those who value machismo.

Is there a compromise solution? Like a week or ten days' visit? That's enough time that he and the girlfriend can reconnect over the summer, and not so long that everything goes totally south if he and the girlfriend break up before then. (It's a lot easier to find last minute accommodation in a youth hostel for a week than for a month.)

I didn't have this option when I was a teen, but I did spend a month working in France when I was 30, and had a LOT of unexpected things happen. The biggest two were my flight into CDG was delayed so I missed my train connection and had to buy a new train ticket from a station kiosk with an American credit card (this was right when chip-and-pin was rolling out); also in the last week of my trip, my cell phone -- my primary means of communication with both family and coworkers back home -- died abruptly. Like I said, I was 30 and was fluent in the host language, so it was fine, but your kid is neither of those things -- how would he handle those issues? How does he handle curveballs now?

Another question to consider: who is paying for this? Is it a gift from you? Is your kid saving up from his after-school job? Is the girlfriend's family funding the whole trip? Some combination?

How will he stay in touch with you? Establish expectations around that upfront. I use WhatsApp with family abroad. Or enable international roaming on his US cell phone. Getting a local SIM used to be recommended all the time, but with most modern plans they are more of a hassle, unless you anticipate making a lot of calls to host-country numbers instead of home-country numbers.

Also, definitely meet and chat with grandma over Skype to make sure she is on-board with whatever your expectations are, whether that's free-range grandma-ing or making them three meals a day.

Lastly, please, make sure he is appropriately vaccinated. You don't mention which European country, but there were 90 000 measles cases in the first half of 2019, and the numbers will probably continue to rise for next year. Mumps in teen boys can cause sterility. It is NOT a recommended form of birth control.
posted by basalganglia at 5:00 PM on September 5, 2019

As somebody mentioned driving. The chances of a rental car company giving a car to a minor approach zero, irrespective of whether that person has a license. Even if they were willing the cost would be absolutely prohibitive because their normal insurance would not cover a minor and may well include significant additional fees for any driver under 25. But he should probably also be aware that he shouldn’t drive at all, even if anybody is willing to let him. In a lot of countries the driver is insured, not the car. In other countries the car is insured but a provider may still deny coverage based on age or lack of domestic or at least international license. So probably better to find other ways of getting around.

I was travelling internationally alone aged 17/18. I had some of the language but wasn’t fluent. There were no smartphones, not even dumb mobile phones. It was still fine.

Make sure he and you have a scan of his passport which makes it easier to replace if that becomes necessary. Make sure he has access to a debit and a credit card so he has a backup should he need it. Finally, make sure he has travel insurance should he need medical treatment and that you and he have a copy of the policy and then send him on his way. It may not hurt to have him forward any e-ticket to you as well, just in case he later can’t find the email.

By all means help him think through a few scenarios he may come up against including different cultural norms including around alcohol and use of other substances. But if he isn’t prone to making poor choices now he isn’t just going to start because he is away. He’d embarrass the GF and her family.

It is true that legal drinking age in Europe is lower. In a number of countries you can buy and consume beer and wine legally from 16, spirits from 18. But cultural norms around drinking vary significantly. There is an awful drinking cultures in the UK where getting wasted is considered good form in many circles but they are also much more likely to ID people and drinking age is 18. Most of the continent is more likely to drink socially. The different legal framework won’t make it more likely that he will do anything.

He’ll be with local people who will generally try to be welcoming and will try to make sure he’s ok. Because that’s what people do when they feel responsible for you. And in most cultures people feel responsible for young, foreign guests, especially those that travel with a member of the family or who are the long term boyfriends of your childhood friend/cousin etc. The social contract will help him here. Does that mean he won’t face any hurdles? No. Might be end up doing something a bit stupid, sure, possibly even unintentional. But that doesn’t make this any more dangerous than if he were visiting somebody closer to home. The geography just makes it seem more daunting. This will be a great adventure and he will learn so much that will help him, as he sets out into adulthood.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:01 PM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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