The choice to move a family abroad is usually made after careful weighing of pros and cons. On one hand, the opportunity to provide one’s children with international experience, access to good international schools and an environment conducive to becoming fluent in a foreign language sounds enticing. On the other hand, the prospect of uprooting one’s children to an unfamiliar environment and moving them away from friends and family might make a parent hesitate.
The Third Culture Kid Advantage
The truth is there are upsides and downsides to almost any sort of upbringing, and this is no different for Third Culture Kids (TCKs), which is a term that refers to children who grow up abroad. Ask most adult TCKs, and they will tell you that they wouldn’t change their experience for anything.
Cici Haynes, the writer behind the blog, Unsettled TCK, is a Hong Kong-American and grew up in Taiwan, India and the Philippines. When asked about her international childhood she said,
“I wouldn’t change the fact that I had an international upbringing because to this day, I can travel to pretty much any country in the world and see old friends from my childhood. I have a wealth of memories scattered across continents and my life holds an imprint of multiple cultures.”
In fact, the literature suggests that TCKs are great cross-cultural communicators, innovative, adaptable and open-minded. These are some of the very skills that Fortune 500 companies look for when hiring talent to employ and develop in this increasingly global economy. In his article for the Harvard Business Review, “What Being Global Really Means,” Angel Cabrera writes that, “Truly global leaders act as bridge builders, connectors of resources and talent across cultural and political boundaries — relentlessly dedicated to finding new ways of creating value. They don’t just think and act global, they are global.”
If provided with the right support and guidance, TCKs are exactly what today and tomorrow’s economy requires.
Yet the same TCKs that celebrate an international childhood may also talk about the difficulty they experienced as young adults in their feelings of disconnectedness and identity confusion after spending their most formative years saying goodbye after goodbye to friends, teachers and homes. Because of this compounded grief and lack of a common language to express the experience, many TCKs are at risk of developing depression and anxiety. This is especially true when TCKs return to their “home” country. The first few years home, many TCKs may be far away from the support system of their parents or from an understanding audience of their new American peers.
Dr. Eva Gortner of Houston, a licensed psychologist that specializes in serving the expat community shared her observations,
“Returning teens are often expected to remember how to behave and feel at home, which can be hard when they have internalized the norms and behaviors of other cultures…it may also take time to re-adapt to the unique colloquialisms and speech patterns in their peer community at home – leaving them open to peer scrutiny. All of this can lead to feeling like an outsider.”
The good news is parents and care providers can employ specific strategies that will help their children learn how to manage and minimize these difficulties while maximizing the many benefits of being a TCK. Sea Change Mentoring does this by offering mentoring services for TCKs delivered by professional mentors who grew up internationally themselves.
In addition to mentoring, Sea Change shares the following advice with parents of TCKs:
1. Educate yourself There is an increasing amount of books and resources out there that address the international experience. We recommend these:
- For a general overview of the experience of the TCK: “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,” by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.
- For TCKs transitioning to university: “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition,” by Tina Quick
- For a globally-minded community of families, support providers, researchers and writers: Families in Global Transition, www.figt.org
2. Educate others If and when your child returns to their home country, it will be important for the support network in their lives to understand the specific experiences and potential challenges that TCKs face. Take the time to educate your family, friends, school administrators and counselors so that they can best support your child. Counselor and expert on TCK mental health, Lois Bushong’s forthcoming book, “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile” is a great resource to share with school counselors.
3. Encourage arts and sports Kids that pick up a sport or find an outlet in artistic expression tend to fare better when they move on to the next location. When other forms of communication fail, the arts and/or sports can serve as an outlet for stress or the vehicle to create new friendships. Through our own survey of 230 adult TCKs, we found that kids who were involved in these activities had less of a problem with reverse culture shock. As one TCK said, “You can play soccer in any language.”
4. Find a supportive community No matter where you or your child moves to, it is important to find a supportive community. We encourage college-bound teens to consider attending a school with a diverse student body or finding a campus in or near an urban center, as cities tend have greater international communities. If you do move to a location that doesn’t have this diversity, find a community online. We recommend the following online communities: Denizen Magazine for expat teens and young adults. TCKid for Third Culture Kids, InterNations for globally mobile adults.
5. Grieve and say goodbye Before you make your next move, take the time to check in with each other, discuss without judgment how each family member is feeling about moving. As Lois Bushong advises, “Recognize the losses, talk about them, let themselves grieve, develop ways to say goodbye in keeping with the age and personality of each child and understand that the grief is completely normal.” Encourage your children to say proper goodbyes and to come up with plans to stay in touch with their closest friends. Parents, make sure you allow yourself the space to have your own feelings about the move, too!
A version of this article was first published in ArborBridge’s Blog.