The short definition of the term third culture kid (TCK) is children of expats. A third culture kid is someone who has been raised in a culture different to their parents’. So, there are three cultures in the game: the first is the parents’, the second is the one of the new country where the parents have moved, and the third one is the amalgamation of these first two. The first and most important thing in understanding how TCK’s minds work, is to note that they are the people who have been exposed to and moving between different cultures before they have had the time to develop their own cultural identity. The term TCK itself can refer to adults as well, but it implies that the individual has been moving across cultures in very early stages of their development. This is what sets them apart from expats, the people who have chosen to move to another country in their adult years, with a strong cultural identity of their own.
How are Third Culture Kids different?
TCKs are therefore even in their adult years in many ways different from expats. Both research and life itself has shown us already that there is such thing as a TCK-mind, and it comes with perks and serious challenges alike. We can say that in adulthood TKCs generally navigate through cultures easier, they have less problems in adapting, and having a more expanded worldview, they tend to be more creative. They also have a higher interpersonal sensitivity, and can be more empathetic. Their cultural intelligence and cross-cultural competence makes them really valuable in the global workplace, and of course let’s not forget one of their top qualities: speaking more languages.
While all these are great, there are however, serious challenges to being a TCK. There is an increase in mental health problems among TCKs, which is easy to understand, as it is the other side of the same coin: what on one hand comes with all the above mentioned benefits, comes with serious challenges as well. Not having a sense of home and belonging, constantly feeling like an outsider, having attachment problems and lacking a strong sense of identity can all come as results of being raised as a TCK. This is why it is really important for parents of TCKs to be aware of the nature of the situation their kid is at the new place, and from the very early years give the best support for them in order to make the constant transition easier.
Part 2 – Right after the move
Continue including them. Let them know that you are a team, make plans together, and make sure they feel that their input is really valuable for you!
Map the place together. Go and explore the new place together. If there were places and activities at your new home in which your child was particularly interested in back home and was part of their daily life, go and check them out from the beginning!
Pay attention to their behaviour – has anything changed compared to how they used to act back home? Does your child suddenly act in a way that’s really out of character for them? These changes can indicate that they are having problems coping with the transition, and it’s important that you are really present and see. It can often happen that they won’t openly tell you if anything’s wrong, but the changes in behaviour can speak volumes.
Be patient. Don’t expect them to get there already. We all have our own rhythm, and while in adulthood we already have our coping mechanisms and strategies, children are still in the process of developing them. Let go of the slogan, that “children take change really easily”, and be aware that in fact they might need more time to adjust. Your patience is key for their healthy development!
Remember that children don’t do what you tell them to, but what they see you do. This is a rule that is not only specific to TCKs, but to all children. But with third culture kids it becomes really important. Your child will most likely watch the way you cope with the transition while they are still in the process of developing their own methods. What you do, they will do. There will surely be times when you feel frustrated, and say things like “this is what’s wrong with this country”, or “back home it wasn’t like this’ etc. This can happen to everyone who leaves their home country, but it’s important you try not to say these things in front of your kid. Of course, discussing some issues is another thing, so we are not saying you should build taboos! But try not to vent about your new home in front of them, especially at the beginning, when everyone is trying to find out how life will be from then on.
Keep family connections and native language, culture alive. The main problem of TCKs is feeling disconnected, having no sense of belonging. While it’s important that you encourage your kid to build new relationships at the new place, and not only look back the ones they had to leave behind, it is still important to keep your family relationships and strong friendships from home alive. This will help with the feeling of belonging and your kid will also less likely feel that they had “thrown away” past relationships.
Let them keep stuff – children can become really attached to certain objects, and even more so if there is the case of moving far away from home. Holding on to a certain toy, or whatever really, can give them a sense of security. Don’t try to convince them to let go of something because it is old, or “useless” or whatnot. If they want to hold on to it, there is a reason to it.
Acknowledge their grief – sense of loss is normal and it shouldn’t be denied. This is just as important to you as to your child. And once again, remember: they will do what you do. So if your child sees that you are also grieving, it will help them, because it will give them the feeling that it is normal, and it’s nothing wrong with them. If they see that you also miss some things from back home, but you are still doing well and these things don’t contradict each other, they will more likely deal with it the same way: accepting it and moving on.
- A TCK is someone who has been raised in a culture different to their parents’. There are three cultures in the game: the first is the parents’, the second is the one of the new country, and the third one is the amalgamation of these first two.
- TCKs have been exposed to different cultures before they have had the time to develop their own cultural identity.
- After the move, pay attention to their behaviour.
- Children do what they see you do!
- Keep family connections and culture alive.
- Acknowledge their grieve.