Helping 'Third Culture Kids' to Thrive

Autumn 2019 will see a fairly typical pattern of families arriving in the UAE. Whilst this is an exciting land of opportunity for many adults, what is the likely impact upon on our children, especially for those who experience one or more international moves? In this article, Andy Parkin, Deputy Head of Juniors at Kent College Dubai, and father of two expat children, explores the concept of the “Third Culture Kid".
Helping 'Third Culture Kids' to Thrive
By Jenny Mollon
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As we pack our belongings for an expat posting, it's easy to feel like your family are the first to experience the tearful farewells and nervous excitement that comes with uprooting and moving across the world, writes Andy Parkin, Deputy Head of Juniors at Kent College Dubai

We can take heart that we are not alone. In fact, worldwide there is a significant trend of families becoming increasingly mobile as the world opens up its borders and the opportunities of in a dynamic global workplace continues to develop. 

The Life of Expat Children (a.k.a Third Culture Kids)

The term ‘Third Culture Kid’ or ‘TCK’ was developed by researchers who studied American families who lived and worked in India. They discovered that these children  took aspects of their own culture and the culture of the country they were residing in and formed a third culture.

From this significant body of academic research arose the commonly used definition of a TCK:

‘A TCK is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.’

(Pollock, Van Reken & Pollock, Michael V.,2017:13)

The Impact of a Global Lifestyle

As a teacher in international schools and the parent of two expat children, this subject fascinated me, so much so I made it a focus for my Masters degree.  What I found was compelling: people who have experienced a mobile, expatriate lifestyle as a child, often report a feeling of confusion over their identity as individuals.  How then can parents and educators begin to mitigate this confusion?  Surely there are upsides to being an expat - so what does the research say these benefits are?

What is completely clear is that the long-term effects of moving children are still not fully known. What we do know is that it can be stressful for children, as they are required to move school, lose regular contact with friends and much loved family and experience a significant change in lifestyle.

The experience of moving can impact children in a number of ways. Some children may develop mental and physical health problems as a result of these major life changes. Simple things like missing the taste of a favourite food, familiar smells and cultural rituals in addition to the more physical elements of their country (for example the climate and physical geography) have all been identified as common, impactful losses by TCKs.

Leaving a much loved school is deemed as a serious loss to globally mobile children, and it is a loss that, in many families, can fall down the list of priorities as parents focus on the more practical logistics of an international move. My own experience tells me that schools and parents must work together and thoughtfully consider the impact (and, more importantly, formulate steps to mitigate that impact) that regular global moves can have on each child as an individual.

I say as an individual as, just as with any childhood challenge, all children will react differently to becoming a TCK.  Some may experience anxiety, depression, and stress, whilst others might quickly embrace new friends, new opportunities and a new lifestyle.  Whichever way your child appears to react, it's important to be remember that it may be in the medium to long term that we as parents truly see the effect of a move.

The flipside of these concerns is that being a globally mobile child can, however, have many significant benefits. These include increased resilience and greater communication and problem solving skills due to being effectively forced to adapt to new ways of life.

More plus points can be found at a material level: there is often an element of increased affluence connected with being mobile, including gaining more access to travel and experiencing new locations.  Emotionally, the benefits include new friendships with people from a range of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds.

I believe that international schools have a significant part to play here; not only as a place of education but as a friendly hub for parents and the wider community, a place where expat parents can build relationships and create their own support network or ‘social capital’.  They say it "takes a village" to raise a child, and as expat parents I believe we need to seek out and build that village in each new location or posting.  With support, children of mobile families can (and often do) cultivate a significant sense of ownership (even, home!) in their new location and culture.

Another significant benefit for globally mobile children is an increase in educational opportunities and cultural experiences. Although globally mobile children may find it difficult when asked to identify “home” or a place where they “belong”, it's clear that many develop a new resilience and confidence as a result of the move.  Characteristics that surely will serve them well as adults.

With current geo-political factors (such as Brexit in the UK) looming on the horizon, I believe that the expatriate children of today could well be developing skills that will equip them to play an important part in future, more developed societies.  To capitalise upon this, school policies that focus on the pastoral care of its pupils should be documenting what the school does to effectively support and cultivate the upsides of being a TCK.

Are international schools effectively supporting our TCK students at present?  The picture is mixed.  The most perceptive and forward thinking schools are beginning to accept that they are not able to educate such globally mobile children without first addressing the impacts the constant moves may have on them.

My advice to expat parents? When choosing a school look not just for academics but ask your school how it supports families work through these issues, and help “TCKs” to thrive.

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