No, But Where Are You Really From? Identity and Transitions For Third Culture Kids
It’s safe to say that a hub like Singapore has no shortage of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). The term was first coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, referring to children who spend a significant part of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture. TCKs often feel that they are a blend of their birth culture and their adopted cultures, therefore creating one of their own: a third culture.
Many are children of expatriate workers, but it’s not exclusive to that. Some TCKs are children from interracial unions, others are children from interracial adoptions, and yet others are local children who attend a school that focuses on a culture other than their own.
Is it an enriching and powerful experience? Yes. Is it hard to feel at times that you don’t belong or have a constant place called home? Also, yes.
So, what can we do to help our TCKs thrive? This post sheds light on 7 things that parents can do to help their TCKs manage transitions and develop a healthy sense of identify and belonging.
1. Acknowledge that there are pros and cons
It’s easy to want to paint a glossy picture for our kids, and there are plenty of benefits to being a TCK, but it’s not all roses. Being open about the pros and cons helps children have some predictability, validates their experience, and keeps the door open for ongoing communication as their thoughts and emotions arise.
Becoming adaptable and better able to cope with change
Having a worldview – appreciating different cultures, feeling more connected to the world and people as a whole
Having an open mind from exposure to greater diversity
Learning more languages
Seeing the world as their oyster - a sense of freedom to be comfortable in many settings and countries
A nebulous sense of ‘home’
Feeling that they don’t belong to any one culture
Repeated losses caused by regular moves, which can bring feelings of grief and anxiety
Feeling different when they return home, particularly when their new school does not have transition support programmes often found in international schools
Stress from having to make new friends and starting over
2. Give them time, attention and acknowledge their loss
Clinical psychologist and international expert in expatriate psychology and adjustment Dr Cathy Tsang-Feign states that TCKs need help adjusting to their new environments. Many parents believe that children are adaptable and to some degree that may be true, but Dr Tsang-Feing suggests that “Special effort is needed, especially on the parents’ part, to help children adjust to a new environment. Giving them time and patience is the first step… In many cases, time, love and affection offered by parents can do their children far more help than therapy”.
Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who specialises in the placement of TCKs, states that all children have 3 basic needs: belonging, recognition and connection, and that these needs are “ripped away with each move”. TCKs experience great losses with each transition, from loss of friends, community and pets, but often don’t have time to adequately mourn their losses.
Observe your children and if you see them behaving out of character or withdrawing, be there for them, engage with them and invite them to speak with you. Simply listening and validating their feelings of grief, can help them immensely in moving forward. It may sound simplistic, but the best way out of grief, is through it.
3. Involve your child’s preferences
When transitions are inevitable, ask yourself, how can I encompass my child’s preference. How can they be a part of the decision? In what ways can we honour their wishes to make it more comfortable for them?
For a younger child ask them what would make them feel more comfortable. This can look like a comfort object or a predictable ritual before transitioning. For an older child, ask them what their preferences might be and honour them in safe and appropriate ways.
4. Say goodbyes properly
The last period of being in one country can be rushed, but it’s vital for closure to allocate sufficient time to say goodbyes – to friends, school, to walk around special places and do whatever each person needs to do to say farewell.
Making a list with your child of how they want to say goodbye can be extremely helpful. Having closure in one country allows for a smoother transition into the next.
5. Celebrate our commonality
When it comes to ‘belonging’, it can be helpful to engage in age-appropriate dialogues about how we are different in some ways, but fundamentally the same in others. What if our commonality was our focus? How would we feel about our identity and belonging, then?
We know that regardless of who we are, we all feel the same feelings, have the same basic needs to survive and thrive, and are all generally physically the same on the inside. Giving this focus can help children feel a global sense of belonging despite cultural differences.
6. Connect with other TCKs and like-minded people
Once you are in a new country, connect with others in similar situations, such as the expat community, an international school or cultural groups. This can foster a sense of belonging and a knowing that they are not the only ones with hybrid cultural identities.
It’s also incredibly valuable to expose children to role models who are TCKs, whether in person or through stories. Representation matters – especially for children that might feel that they are a minority in some way. For example, a notable TCK is former US President Barack Obama, who was born to a Kenyan father and American mother and moved to Jakarta after his mother married an Indonesian.
7. Work with teachers
Students have reported great gain and support from working with teachers at schools that have strong support systems for international students, and teachers like ours, who work largely with international schools and understand the sensitivities of such transitions.
Being a TCK can be a great privilege and yet challenging, it evokes feelings of freedom and being rootless. However, there is immense opportunity for growth, resilience and gaining a broad world view when TCKs are supported by parents, teachers and communities that help them thrive and feel that they are citizens of the world.
Many of our students are TCKs and a large part of our education service is about assisting kids with transitions in and out of schools and sharing a sense of belonging. Feel free to contact us if we can be of support to your family. We are here for you!