Living overseas presents both a world of opportunities and significant challenges for children and adolescents, but following some helpful tips on raising third culture kids can help them (and you) transition.
Children of expats have been called ‘third culture kids’. David C. Pollock, a key researcher in this area, says “a third culture kid is an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture other than that of the parents, resulting in integration of elements from both the host culture and parental culture into a third culture.”
Learn more about them and some helpful advice on how to raise third culture kids and help them transition:
What are third culture kids?
Third culture kids (TCKs) share some important characteristics: they are often able to develop friendships quickly; they are self-confident, flexible, adaptable and frequently have a high degree of independence. They may also exhibit higher levels of maturity than their home-based counterparts. Importantly, they also develop the ability to move between cultures through their linguistic skills and their cross-cultural awareness.
There are benefits that come from living internationally, but there are also challenges. During their adolescent years, young people work out their identities, with friends and peers becoming central to their lives. Moving can put a great deal of stress on them and their families with disruptions to their social lives and their sense of stability.
The five stages of TCK transition
The research on TCKs, including David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds and Mary Hayden’s Introduction to International Education, suggests that there are five stages in making a transition from country to country: Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering and Reinvolvement.
At this stage, life seems normal: we are part of a community, we follow its customs and we are focused on our present and immediate relationships.
The stage begins when the idea of leaving is raised, ending with the point of departure. The leaver begins loosening emotional ties and moving away from the relationships and responsibilities they have had.
This stage begins with the departure and ends with the decision to settle in and become part of the new place. Connections with the past seem gone and they enter a community where relationships are already well-defined.
The individual has decided to become part of the new community. They may still feel vulnerable, but life is no longer chaotic and a sense of belonging to the new community has begun.
Finally, the individual becomes part of the community. They accept their home, the new community and their role in it.
Four steps in raising third-culture kids and helping them transition
Once a move is confirmed, parents, teachers and support staff in schools need to work proactively to help students make a successful transition. RAFT, or ‘Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think Destination’, is a four-point checklist to think through when helping children of expats prepare for transition.
‘Reconciliation’ means resolving any conflicts that may exist between friends. ‘Affirmation’ acknowledges the importance of those significant in our lives at the current place and prepares for future maintenance of these relationships. Scheduling time for ‘Farewells’ is crucial, too. Pollock and Van Renken suggest that parents talk with their children about what to take and what to leave behind. Their final point, ‘Think Destination’, is about thinking realistically about the new destination while saying goodbye to the old.
In Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, the parent-to-child relationship is described as the most important factor in how international children face the challenges of living abroad. TCKs need to be valued, thought of as special, protected and comforted. This is true for all children, but in the context of living far from home the need for this kind of care becomes acute.
Parents can listen carefully to their children’s concerns and behaviour and try to understand the reasons for it. They can also ensure that there is family time available to be emotionally (and physically) present.
Many schools have programmes that help with the transition into the new school and assist leaving families. After the move, parents can support their child by helping them find ways to connect with others and maintain bonds with family members left behind at home.