Living overseas, away from our home cultures, our extended families, networks of friends and support systems presents both a world of opportunities and some significant challenges, especially for children and adolescents. Those of us who choose to live overseas often worry about how much of an impact raising our children away from their parent’s home culture will have on them and their future lives. However, a great deal of research into expatriate children has shown that there are many advantages to raising a child internationally.
Children from expatriate families have been called “third-culture kids” and David Pollock, one of the key researchers in this area, offers a definition:
“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. ”
Researchers have identified some important characteristics that third culture kids share (also referred to as “TCKs”). For example, they are often able to develop friendships quickly and at a deeper level, because they have had to do so with each move. They are self-confident, possess flexibility and adaptability and often a high degree of independence. They often become innovators and leaders. In addition, teenagers may 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. They develop what Pollock calls a “three dimensional world view”:
It is three-dimensional, with not only knowledge but understanding and empathy. The sense of security in getting around in the world and acting appropriately in it is significant preparation. The person can become a cultural bridge and an active, positive influence in an increasingly intercultural world.
So there are many powerful benefits that come from living internationally, but there are some challenges. For example, during the adolescent years, young people are working out their identities, distinct from their parents, and friends and peers become central to their lives. Since many teenagers at this stage of development feel emotions intensely, the kinds of disruption – to social life, sense of stability and so on – that they experience during moving can put a great deal of stress on them and their families.
Stressful transitions occur in everyday life regardless of whether we are in our home countries or moving abroad. They can range from moving house, or changing schools, to the bigger transitions of a death in the family, for instance. However, there are aspects of the processes of transition for the third culture kid that can intensify the experience. For example, the transition cycle can occur more frequently for TCKs than for other children. Children might be moving every couple years, moving from entry to leaving stages (see below) very quickly, with little time to establish themselves in the new host country and experiencing multiple cycles of change.
In addition, TCKs are changing cultures as well as places and they can experience the added stress of cultural shock as they find they have to adapt to new languages, customs etc. It’s also important to remember that “’culture” can also mean a different school culture, particularly when moving from a home country to an international school.
The research on third culture kids suggests that there are five stages in making a transition from country to country. These are: Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering and Reinvolvement (taken from David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds and Mary Hayden Introduction to International Education)
At the Involvement stage, before leaving becomes an issue, life seems normal: we are part of a community, we follow its customs and we are focused on our present and immediate relationships.
The Leaving stage begins when leaving is raised and ends with the point of departure. The leaver begins loosening emotional ties and moving away from the relationships and responsibilities they have had. Added to this, we start to see a gap emerge between ourselves and the community: people are making future plans without us and we are beginning to feel like an outsider.
The Transition stage begins with the departure and ends with the decision to settle in and become part of the new place. This can be a chaotic time for families as they lose their previous anchors and support systems. This is the time families experience the enormous change directly in the difference between the everyday life of the old and new communities. Their connections with the past seem gone and they enter a community where relationships are already well-defined and where they seem without status.
At the next stage, the Entering stage, the individual has decided to become part of the new community but is still discovering what that means. While they may still feel vulnerable, and may fluctuate between excitement at being in the new place and homesickness for the old, life is no longer chaotic. There is the beginning of a sense of belonging to the new community.
Finally, at the Reinvolvement stage, the individual once again becomes part of the community. They accept their home and new community and their role in it.
They discover a sense of intimacy and a feeling that their presence matters.
All these stages present challenges for parents of young children and teenagers. Pollock and Van Renken argue that it is important that dealing with the upcoming transition begins early. They suggest that once a move is confirmed, it’s important to communicate that to children and make it public, so the process of closure can begin. Parents and others in the community, such as teachers and support staff in schools, then need to work proactively to help students with the skills and knowledge they need to make a successful transition.
They also suggest thinking in terms of what they call a “RAFT,” or Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and “Think Destination.” Essentially, this is a checklist of things to think through when helping children prepare for the transition and to provide effective closure for their time in their old host country.
Reconciliation means resolving any conflicts that may exist between friends, for example, to ensure that there is no unfinished business in existing relationships. Accompanying this, Affirmation means acknowledging the importance of those significant in our lives at the current place in order to prepare the ground for the future maintenance of these relationship.
Scheduling time for Farewells is crucial too: farewells may involve people, places and even possessions that may not make the cut in the shipment. On this, Pollock and Van Renken suggest that parents should talk with their children about what to take and what to leave behind. They state that, “everyone needs to carry some treasured item to the new location” to help “connect one part of the global nomad’s life to the next.”
Their final point, “Think Destination,” they define as the need to think realistically about the destination (such as, for instance, providing pictures of the new house and school for the children), even while saying goodbye to the old.
The research on third culture kids gives us some further strategies for dealing with the impacts of such transitions. The first point to emphasise is how central the family is to the well-being and sense of stability of third-culture children. For third-culture kids, relationships are more important than geography, and their families become extremely important in providing a centre to their lives.
Bill and Ochan Powell, two experts in the area of third culture children, affirm the importance of stable families and state that “children need parents to share a strong set of values and beliefs with them (and if they don’t have that framework of values, it is damaging). They don’t necessarily need to have their roots in their national culture.”
Bill and Ochan Powell with Mary-Lyn Campbell, Head of School, Inter-Community School Zurich, Switzerland
David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Renken, in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, argue that the parent-to-child relationship is the most important factor in how international children face the challenges of living abroad. They argue that third culture kids need to be valued, to be thought of as special, to be protected and to be comforted. These factors are true for all children, but in the context of living far from home the need for this kind of care becomes acute.
They suggest some simple strategies that can help to meet the emotional needs of international children. Parents can listen carefully to their children’s concerns and behavior and try to understand the reasons for it. They can value children’s contributions to discussions of things that will affect them, such as a global move.
They can also ensure that there is family time available for being emotionally (and physically) present.
There are also a number of ways families can help their children adjust when they relocate. The Powells suggest that parents “should work with the school their child is leaving to support children in saying goodbye.” Schools like ICS have programs that help with the transition both into the new school and which assist families when they have to leave. After the move, parents can support their child by helping them find new groups of friends and ways to connect with others. Parents can also work to maintain bonds with family left behind at home, a process greatly assisted by current social media technologies.
Living abroad is a challenging, at times stressful, but ultimately rewarding experience for families who have the good fortune to do it voluntarily. As the Powells state: “in an increasingly inter-dependent world, we need people who are able to see things through the eyes of other cultures. That is a great opportunity for Third Culture Kids. In many ways, children with an international education are at an advantage.”