Issues Facing Third-Culture Kids
I have been working in Beijing for about eight years and have worked with families with third-culture kid (TCK) issues since August 2003. A TCK is a child who has spent significant time in one or more cultures other than his/her birth culture. A child’s birth culture is usually defined as his/her parents’ cultures. No matter what their cultures is, TCKs tend to have more in common with other TCKs than with non-TCKs.
TCKs don’t tend to identify with the country they’re living in or the country they’re from or the country their parents are from. You can probably imagine how this befuddling background might give rise to confusion. But before discussing the issues that TCKs face, I think it is crucial to look at their families, which are the filters through which kids are initially introduced to culture.
A major factor that determines how kids adapt to cultural challenges is their family relationships. A secure attachment provides an incredibly strong base for children. Therefore, the best gift we can give our children is not an iPad or strategies for dealing with cultural challenges. The best gift we can give our children is our empathic presence in their lives. Being present with our children, our calm attention, and our empathy will help them develop the inner resilience they need to cope with cultural challenges that TCKs face.
We can’t decrease the incidence of challenges that our kids will face at school, work and in their personal lives. As parents, we can only help our children develop resilience and flexibility, but they still have to deal with any situations that arise. Therefore, we need to focus on building resilience because this issue subsumes cultural coping.
A child’s inner resilience is directly related to the parent’s own coping abilities and flexibility. The child’s resilience also correlates with his/her capacity for self-nurturance and self-care, both of which develop out of a strong parent-child relationship. We learn resilience through being nurtured and cared for. A newborn does not have fully developed brain functions to effectively cope with stress and is fully dependent on his/her parents for emotional regulation, especially regarding stress. As the infant grows, s/he begins to internalize the nurturing and regulation that s/he initially received from his/her parents. This teaches the child to regulate his/her own emotions and cope with stress.
There’s No Place Like Home
TCKs with strong, empathic, supportive families usually identify “home” as being where their nuclear family is. However, when a child has no secure base in his own family, “home” then becomes something external. Children who are confused about where “home” is tend to define it using superficial notions – such as proximity, similarity, etc. We have learned from recent research that the absence of close parent-child bonds push children to bond with the most immediate source of attention, whether that is an internet chat group, distant Facebook acquaintances, or a gang. It is crucial that we help our children by being there for them and convincing them that “home” is with us and not tied to a geographic location.
If your children will be living here for any length of time, they will need to be aware of China’s/Beijing’s culture and customs. From what we know about cultural adjustment, people adapt best when they keep family and culture-of-origin customs WHILE learning and adapt to the new culture. It is not about either/or; it’s about integration, taking both new and old and combining it into a new entity
Common Issues TCKs Face
Many of the issues I see with TCKs are related to disturbances in relationships and attachments. A child’s family moves from one country to a new country and leaves behind friendships, relations, and familiarity. At the same time that the kids are trying to adjust, the parents are also dealing with adjustment issues. This means parents are devoting less time to the children who crucially need their support to move through the adjustment process with resilience.
Another high-frequency issue I see with both TCKs and third-culture adults is alienation. Today’s world contains so many distractions from relationships. When parents are absent – whether because of travel or because the parent is on Facebook in the next room – children suffer. Kids thrive on connecting face-to-face: storytelling, creative play, physical activity, etc. If this connection is not there at crucial times, the relationship may be irreparably damaged.
What to Do About TCK Issues
Parents can help their children circumvent these problems by nurturing strong relationships with them. Rather than forcing them to be interested in family matters, work on attending to their emotional needs. When parents empathically support their children, they don’t go to peers for support. Children and younger teens are not even capable of supporting a child in the way that an empathic parent can. Be with your kids during crucial times of transition; these are the times they need us most. If you have to travel a lot or are frequently separated from your kids, call them to maintain the relationship and contact.
I have been here almost eight years now, and I would say that the feeling of isolation was much more common 10 years ago. Now, we can more easily find people who are in the same boat. The number of TCKs has increased and knowledge about TCKs has increased as well. It is also much easier to maintain our important attachments than it was 10 years ago. As you can probably tell by this point, I believe that attachments and relationships are at the core of our ability to cope with life, including whatever cultural curveballs life throws at us.
TCK issues are always related to relationships: finding ways to develop relationships in new situations, adapting to friends leaving, missing “home” and “family,” etc. The most significant difficulties usually arise when parents ignore the needs of their kids to satisfy their own needs and desires. We are all guilty of this to some degree. Awareness that we have neglected our children is the first step to rebuilding/strengthening the relationship. They don’t need us in their faces 24/7, but they do need us around during crucial transitions and times of great stress. Cultural transitions can be an area of great stress for our kids, and so it is important that we are emotionally present and available to help them with TCK issues when they arise.