When someone asks you, “Where are you from?” you usually have a definite answer.
But for the children of expatriates, the answer is more complicated.
These children – often referred to as Third Culture Kids or TCKs – grow up in environments and societies that are different than their parents’ background. There may not be one exact spot where these children feel they fit in.
For instance, Third Culture Kids may have parents who are both from different countries and cultures, but don’t live in either of those locations. Or they may be part of families that move to different countries, making it difficult to define a true home. Often times they are “military brats,” or have parents who are diplomats, missionaries or international business leaders.
If you are considering a move abroad – and making your children Third Culture Kids – it’s important to understand the positives and negatives of this lifestyle and the effects it will have on your family.
Understanding the Stress on Third Culture Kids and Effects on the Family
Change is difficult for children.
It’s hard enough when kids have to change schools or move to a different state. Now try to understand the stress on kids who have to make all of these changes in an entirely different country.
There are government agencies and nonprofit groups, such as the Foreign Service Youth Foundation, that will provide resources, training, and children’s books to help kids with the transition of living abroad.
But even with resources at your disposal, it’s important to understand the stress on Third Culture Kids due to major changes and how it may affect your family.
1. Impact on Younger Third Culture Kids
Younger children, from toddler aged to elementary school, are creatures of habit.
Just like most adults, these kids will get into routines that make them feel comfortable and help them adjust to different situations.
However, when you move to a different country, those routines are broken.
For example, children may have to adjust to living without a favorite toy or pet that they weren’t able to bring with them to their new home. Or they might have had a teacher or nanny with which they had grown comfortable.
Coping with these losses may cause behavior changes in younger Third Culture Kids until they can find a new routine and method of comfort. Fortunately, younger children seem to adapt to these types of changes quickly if they are given the opportunity to make new connections.
2. Impact on Older Third Culture Kids
Teenaged Third Culture Kids face the same challenges as younger children. But the older the children are, they more aware they are about the difficulties of fitting in while new to a different country.
Considering that many expats send their children to American-run or international schools, these students are surrounded by other Third Culture Kids in similar scenarios. As a result, older children may become extremely attached to their school and classmates.
When moving, older children are more aware of different fashion trends, lingo and music, which differ greatly from culture to culture. In addition, these kids have an entirely different world view compared to their new peers, which may make it more difficult to be relatable.
Struggles with fitting in for older Third Culture Kids may cause these teens to become disconnected and keep to themselves. However, this may also force children to become more independent and explore new locations and cultures.
Positive Characteristics of Third Culture Kids
While there may be some challenges when they are growing up, it appears Third Culture Kids may benefit greatly from their world experiences.
In fact, as they grow older, they take more pride in their situation and may be more prepared for adult life than other people their age.
A large research program conducted by the University of Michigan found that American Third Culture Kids generally had a higher level of education and more senior roles within their professional field.
And a recent study by Denizen found Third Culture Kids enjoyed their childhood lifestyle. The majority of respondents say they weren’t sure if they’d still be living in their current city two years from now, and only 4 percent of people said they wouldn’t want to raise their own children as Third Culture Kids.
Third Culture Kids in Your Family
In the end, all children are different and will handle change and growing up away from their homeland differently.
Just be sure you understand their potential stresses on your kids and your family, and be there to provide support to help your children adapt and thrive in any environment.
They’ll likely thank you for it later.