The short definition of the term third culture kids (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 They Different?
Third culture kids 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 third culture kids 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 third culture kid. There is an increase in mental health problems among third culture kids, 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 third culture kid. This is why it is really important for parents of third culture kids 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 1 – First Steps Before The Move
Raising a TCK starts with the confirmation of the move. Once the decision has been made, and you know you are going to move, you should start preparing your child for the transition. Talking to them as partners, and including them in the planning can be of great help in making them feel safe, and also not being taken out of their known world against their will. Making them feel they are equal partners in the family team is a great start.
Helping them say goodbye is also very important. Psychologists give us a heads-up that many children may start conflicts with their friends as a means to avoid having to say goodbye, but in the long run this only hurts them. It’s important to help your child settle any conflicts with the ones who are important to them, and affirm the importance of these relationships. This will, on one hand help them with moving on, and on the other hand it teaches them about attachment, and that having to say goodbye doesn’t mean „throwing away” people. This is particularly important since TCKs often tend to have difficulties with attachment.
Encourage your child to express their feelings! Each child has their own ways of coping with the transition. It’s easier with the very expressive ones, who have no trouble voicing their concerns. Even if they become hostile, sticking to not wanting to go, it’s easier to deal with these situations, because they openly address their feelings, so you know what is going on in their head.
It’s harder with “the silent ones”, because usually these are the kids who take their pains and concerns with them, and you have no idea what is really going on in their mind. Don’t let your child create their own horror-scenarios in their head! Ask them about their concerns, and let them know that there are no right or wrong attitudes, and their feelings are legit. They might have fears you don’t even know about, so you can only comfort them if you know their biggest concerns about the move.
As a rule of thumb we can say that your empathy is key to success: imagine yourself to be in the place of your child. Try to see the entire situation from their perspective instead of an adult’s. Don’t rely on the cliché that “kids are so flexible”. Well yes, technically they are, because they have to. They can’t say no, they can’t decide against their parents. Wherever you go, they go, so they have no other choice but to find means to adapt. But this doesn’t mean at all that they don’t struggle, precisely because many times they might find themselves in situations which they wouldn’t choose given the opportunity to decide for themselves.
Stay tuned for the next part, where we will discuss the steps after the move!
- 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.
- TCKs are therefore even in their adult years in many ways different from expats.
- There is such thing as a TCK-mind, and it comes with perks and serious challenges alike.
- Raising a TCK starts with the confirmation of the move. Start preparing your child for the transition.