Supporting Your TCK

by Lisa Green, LMFT

When thinking of the worker and expat community in which many of us live, we often think of the men and women that have picked up and moved from a place that is familiar, comfortable, and “home,” to a place that is decidedly less familiar, less comfortable, and takes a long time to feel anything like home. But those men and women aren’t alone. Oftentimes, they bring with them another group of people with their own culture, feelings, and norms: their kids. These are known as “Third Culture Kids,” or TCKs, who “having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership of any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.” (David Pollock, The Third Culture Kid Experience)

A TCK has a difficult time answering the question: “Where are you from?” and rather than simple categories like “school” and “neighborhood” friends, often need to categorize their friends by continent. TCKs have the opportunity to have both wide and deep experiences outside their own culture, to learn languages like a native, and to gain perspective and knowledge of the world from experience, not just books or pictures. The life of a TCK often cultivates a sense of adventure, independence, flexibility, resilience, and understanding of others that will give them tools to thrive in a variety of settings and relationships throughout life.

The benefits of TCK life are obvious to most of us. But realistically, we realize there are also plenty of challenges. We’ll talk about some of the biggest challenges of being a TCK, and how best to support your child to mitigate some of those difficulties.

TCKs experience a lot of transition and loss. One of the hallmarks of life as a TCK is transient relationships and a lack of consistency in many other areas- living situation, country, language, even safety. People are always coming and going around them, and goodbyes are a regular part of life. Even going on home assignment, which for many kids is a fun time to see far away family and friends, involves saying goodbye to their community for a time- and then at the end, saying goodbye again to extended family.

The transitions may seem normal at the time- we think “this is just life.” Growing up in a Navy family, I moved every 2-3 years- from the 4 corners of the US to overseas posts. When my father retired from the Navy I was 16 and had moved 7 times. Because we were usually surrounded by other military families who were also constantly on the move, it felt normal. But as a teen and adult, I realized the toll these moves had taken on me, and had to work extra hard to be willing to invest in new relationships, say goodbyes well, and process my feelings about new losses that seemed to ever be a part of life. I figured out that it helps so much to learn to do those things well in the midst of the experience, rather than later in life.

TCKs can struggle with feeling like they don’t belong. TCKs are in the unique position of being their own culture- thus the “third” in TCK. There are cultural differences from their peers, no matter how much a family is integrated into the host country, and even look different. And when they go to their “home” country, they may look like everyone else and have the same national identity, but the experience of living overseas has made them different, and it is usually a very felt difference. “I have no idea where I belong,” is something we hear from TCKs often, and why TCKs often connect well with each other.

TCKs can absorb the stress of the family. We all know, overseas life is stressful! And though life in home countries can be stressful as well, there are often added pressures, dangers, and adjustments to be made living overseas. Adults feel the pressure of this, and I guarantee you that even if they are not able to voice it, children and adolescents feel it too. It’s important to recognize that the stress and anxiety you feel as a parent is often felt by your child, and this is an opportunity to model and teach your TCK how to handle that stress and anxiety in a healthy way (which means you need to be able to do that yourself!).

So how to I support my TCK?

The great thing about this next part is that while the following ideas are healthy and helpful for your TCK, they are also very healthy things to practice for yourselves as parents/adults, and to model for any kids and adolescents around you.

Help them understand what it means to be a TCK. Often, we hear from TCKs that it is helpful for them to learn and understand what it means to be a TCK, because it clarifies so much for them to realize that there is a reason they feel so different (especially when returning to their home country), and it’s not something wrong with them! Especially in adolescence, TCKs often love to connect with others of a similar experience, helping them feel like there are people who they can identify with and who understand them. As a parent, family discussions with your TCK about how it impacts them to live the lives you’ve chosen will help to build understanding, resilience, and a sense of purpose. To start the discussion, consider picking up one of the books listed at the end of the article (one for both children, and teens). Try reading with your child, and asking them how they relate to the story/real life examples shared, what they find fun/exciting about it, and what they think is difficult. Teens especially may also benefit from talks with adults who grew up as TCKs themselves, as it’s often easy to relate to and receive advice from someone who understands the experience.

Teach and practice healthy emotional responses. One of the most important things you can do as a parent or support person for a TCK is to help them identify and talk through the difficulties they may face. Help them develop a fluent emotional vocabulary, and encourage them to use it regularly, especially in order to develop healthy responses to losses, (even small ones!). If a close friend moves away, talk to your TCK what it feels like to say goodbye, and they ways they’ll miss that friend. When all the kids in their school are celebrating a holiday from a different religion, or your child is attending school and he’s not fluent in the local language yet, ask your child about what it’s like being on the outside of that experience, and help him or her to develop skills and resources in how to handle feeling left out. When everyone is stressed and overwhelmed in the family, model good self care, and talk to your kids about the ways they feel stress and anxiety, and what can help them feel better.

Nourish relationships. Teach the importance of both family and outside relationships. Spend time as a family developing close ties, traditions, and a sense of belonging. Help your kids to keep in touch with their family and friends at home, so they feel connected and familiar when visiting. Remember that they have a need for some constancy in relationships, and that helping them learn how to maintain relationships, even when separated, will only set them up to win later in life. Encourage them to keep emailing the best friend that moved a year ago, or do the same with their national friend when on home assignment. Help your TCK develop bonds; and when times of transition and goodbyes come, to say goodbye well.

Parents of TCKs, and anyone else involved in the support of expat kids, have a lot to pay attention to- physical health and safety needs, education, emotional development, modeling good relationships, the balance of work and family life, to name a few. It’s a big job, made tougher by overseas life. But by the grace of God, and with prayer, attention, education and support, we can do it well.

Suggested Resources (All books are available electronically through Amazon)

Third Culture Kids, Growing up Among Worlds by Pollock and Van Reken

Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child by J Simens

Swirly by S Saunders (for children)

Expat Teens Talk by Pittman and Smit (for teens)