Where are you from, third culture kid?
Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city where the culture of children is often in contrast to their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. Children may appear to be from a certain country of origin by their features, but they have often lived away from that home country for a majority of their childhood. These children are called “Third Culture Kids” (TCK).
Their experiences tell us a different story about what is home to them. A child may have been born in Germany, but be able to speak Chinese, German, English, and Thai. This child may have gone to school in four different countries. When he goes back to Germany, he may feel odd and be unable to relate to his peers. For example, he may refer to specific multicultural experiences that his friends cannot relate to. When he comes back to his host country, he is much more comfortable because his experience is shared by others like him.
What Makes a TCK?
A third culture kid is defined as a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parent’s culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all the cultures while not having full ownership in any. TCKs’ lives are characterized with high mobility and traveling between different worlds (according Pollack, Growing up Among Worlds, 1999). While being a TCK has challenges, there are many things parents can do to help children and adolescents find success in their emerging cultural identity.
TCKs have not developed their basic value system, sense of identity, and establishment of core relationships with family and friends in their home culture so they often look to their host country to figure out how to behave in different contexts. TCK kids have to comprehend the rules in each country in order to better adapt to each new background. As a result, it takes longer for them to develop their personal identity because they have to deal with more changes and then have to synthesize the information from the past with their current life.
How to Help Your Child Adjust to Being a TCK
While it is exciting for individuals to live abroad and see new things, it’s also a huge loss for them as they have had to say so many “good-byes”. Some of the things kids have said regarding the TCK experience are: “I don’t know what home is. It’s confusing. I hope someone does not ask where I am from because I don't know what to say."
“Out of the blue, I feel a sense of sadness and I can’t explain why.”
“I am not sure where I am going to be next year. I am not sure how much to invest because I will be leaving”.
What can you as parents do to help your child deal with transition and change as you make another move to a new country? A few suggestions based on years of experience with counselling follow:
Empathy means trying to understand what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is not just saying the words but really conveying your understanding by asking questions, listening, and being there through the child’s pain.
For example, if your child misses his old friends and does not want to move to a new country. He might even be angry, acting out, and mad about moving.
The non-empathetic response would be: “You will make new friends like you always do. Do not worry about it. You will be at a better school with nicer facilities. We have to move because of my job. I thought you understood that.”
A more empathetic approach is: “I know that it is hard to miss your friends and I get it. I am sorry we have to leave and we will do our best to come back and keep in touch with your friends. What kind of activities do you want to do with your friends before you leave? I know that they are very important.”
It is important to acknowledge their feelings as real so they feel like they can talk to you when they are sad, and that your children feel validated for their experience.
Help Synthesize Their Experiences from the Past
You can talk about their different experiences in each country. Since a child has experienced change, what helps is that you are talking about his/her experiences and that you are emotionally supporting them through the changes. What hurts a TCK child the most is that they can feel alone and misunderstood by so many people.
They have had a life that is unrecognizable to many who live in their home country or their host country. If parents can show a child that they are genuinely interested in the child’s feelings, it will convey love, trust, and affection. Many times the parents do not want to know because they are experiencing their own grief and guilt for what has happened in the past. The truth is that the more you are open to talking about their experiences, the better it is for you, your child, and your relationship with one another.
Be Clear about Your Future Plans
We tend to be protective of our kids because we do not want to hurt them so we postpone the news of moving so they are not hurt or anxious. If you do not tell your child, they cannot trust you and are more anxious about what is going to happen. It is important to be honest and share what is happening so they can feel a sense of control.
When a child has some notice about the fact that they are leaving, they can process their feelings of loss and can have time to mourn what has been left behind. Sometimes your child is “fine” and does not feel any sadness at the moment. That is okay too as long as you continue to check-in and notice other signs of how they are processing their feelings. It is important for your child to have a chance to say “good-bye” in whatever way they can.
As parents, you can ask the following questions:
- How would you like to say good-bye?
- How do you want to mark this transition?
- Do you want to draw a picture?
- Do you want to take pictures and make an album?
- Do you want to do individual activities with specific friends?
- Do you want to do a party?
- What ritual do we do the night before we leave?
Model Appropriate Behavior
How can I model to my child about how to deal with change? You have to model by immersing yourself in your new culture. You can make friends and appreciate new things in your environment. It is not easy for the accompanying spouse who has had to give up one’s career to say good-bye to their friends and family, and start fresh. Children might pick up on these feelings from their parent and act out. It is important for parents to show their kids how to talk about personal experiences and have a better outlook on possibilities. It is natural to experience anger, frustration, and loss when you move.
How can we move from the anger to a place of enjoyment and fulfillment? That happens when you acknowledge the loss, identify your needs, and discover ways to fulfill your needs. For your kids, it will help if you plan play dates and help them find people in the community that they feel a connection to. It does not in any way substitute the friends they had, but it helps them channel their feelings of loneliness and longing by developing new connections.
The Upsides of Being a TCK
Finally, you should stress that being a TCK is a gift because he or she has a chance to learn valuable lessons that cannot be taught. For example, travelers tend to get frustrated when they visit countries and find that they are not able to shop during the middle of the day. According to David C. Pollack, “TCKs understand that this custom not only helps people survive better if the climate is hot, but it’s a time when parents greet the children as they return from school and spend time together as a family. Many TCKs learn to value relationships above conveniences as they have lived in such places and it is a gift they carry with them wherever they may go”( Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds, 1999). They are highly adaptable and learn things quickly due to high mobility and many cross cultural transitions. TCKs think outside the box and are able to understand people from diverse backgrounds.
In order for a child to thrive and take advantage of their international experiences, they need to be taken into consideration and be cared for as they deal with the confusion, anxiety, and grief. Third culture kids have the same needs as any child to be loved, valued, and to experience being a part of a loving community. As parents, you have the ability to help your child navigate through this difficult, challenging, and amazing experience by being open to the full range of emotions that can come up for your child as you start your next journey.
Anita Barot is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist now practicing in Bangkok and Singapore. She has more than 10 years of experience counseling children, adults, couples, and families to help them communicate better, resolve conflict, and overcome challenges in their personal and professional lives. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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