Supporting Third Culture Kids

By Emily Drakeford

I am always very intrigued to hear my children's response when people ask them, "Where are you from?" as the answer is never the same each time, and it creates confusion in them, and the person who asked it. One sometimes answers "Singapore" as they were born there, another "Hong Kong" as they were born here, and another often says "Australia" or "England", depending on which trip they've just been on to visit grandparents. What is more interesting, is others' reaction to their responses. I remember on one occasion a reply of "You're not Singaporean! You don't look it!" evoked a look of devastation and shock in my daughter's face which made me realise that this need to be from somewhere when they weren't really from anywhere, was a fundamental struggle for them, even at a young age.

The benefits of embracing the opportunity to live in another country, and being a third culture kid are undeniable. Research suggests that there are immense benefits of being a third culture kid, which can be defined as someone "who has spent a significant part of their developmental years outside of their parents' culture, while not having full ownership in any" (Pollock & Van Deken, 2009), including the ability to be more adaptive, open-minded and have a better understanding of others' core values. In addition, it can create the need to "live in the moment": TCKs are more like to engage in new experiences and lead a full life , as there is an uncertainty when the time in that country will end. It can also allow individuals to cross cultures, and relate to a larger group of individuals, therefore developing highly developed interpersonal and intercultural skills. Third culture kids are also reported to have a greater sense of empathy and are more equipped to handle misunderstandings better, as well as being more independent and self-reliant.

However, as I've experienced with my own children, being a TKC also presents unique difficulties. For those children who are constantly moving, they can feel victim to fate, and feel like that they have no control over their lives. Some children may also struggle with the change and instability in friendships. Yet, many of the problems third culture kids can experience can be fuelled by the innate tendency of individuals to categorise and place individuals which leaves them open to difficulties forming a clear self-identity . People are "cognitive misers", saving effort and time on mental processing by attempting to identifying individuals to one culture which can leave third culture kids feeling understood and self-doubting. Some third culture kids may feel like that they often "wear masks", acting like chameleons by adapting to others around them and changing their identity to feel accepted by others. In this way, they may feel like that they hide parts of themselves from fear of being misunderstood, unrelatable or appearing as arrogant. This can lead to feelings of loneliness or an impatience with others as they are unable to prove exactly who they are. TCKs can also feel caught between the values of their parents and the values of those around them, or may feel "off-balance'' in the culture they are living in. As our values form a big part of our identity, TCKs can often find it difficult to figure out who they really are,

With this in mind, how can we, as parents, support our third culture kids develop a strong sense of self in a changing environment?

We can:

  • Help them embrace the positive multicultural upbringing has upon them and view the sense of rootlessness as a freedom to choose the best bits of lots of different cultures and form a unique self.

  • Help them celebrate their freedom to self-define: they can change and re-invent themselves as they are not tied to one culture

  • Nurture the idea of belonging to many places not just to one

  • Create a security in our relationships with our children by allowing them to voice their experiences and express their frustrations by being emotionally and physically available as much as possible. In this way, if they are experiencing a lack of stability, the family environment can be turned to for comfort.

  • Re assure them that they are not expected to act to our cultural expectations and mould to a culture that they are not connected to. Rather, accept that their values and sense of self is different to ours and that they are not expected to self-censor to be accepted.

  • Maintain a connection for them to your own culture (listening to music; watching tv shows from home; watching important sports games), therefore if relocation to the parents' home happens, they are able to connect to others more easily.

  • Teach strategies to deal with stress and plan for the anxiety constant moves and change can create in some children

  • Talk about your own experiences in adapting to new cultures and the difficulties you have experienced by creating open dialogue within the family environment

The experience of being a TCK is unique and offers a freedom to develop an identity which takes the best bits from lots of cultures and is created by the child themselves, Although it is with its challenges, as long as they feel mattered and accepted at home, the benefits of being a TKC will always far outweigh the disadvantages.


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