By Lauren Wells
Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have an exceptional ability to become “cultural chameleons.” They have the uncanny ability to subconsciously pick out the subtleties in a new culture and operate successfully in that culture even if they only move between their passport country and one host country. Because of this, adapting becomes their lifestyle. More than that, I believe that adapting becomes their comfort zone.
For the majority of TCKs, moving is thrilling, exciting, and comfortable. This process of settl-ing and adapt-ing is familiar territory, and they know how to navigate it well. It is when they begin to settle that they feel uncomfortable and must make the conscious decision to wade into the uncharted territory of settled and adapted.
The adaptable and flexible nature of your child can be a great quality. It is a skill that they have learned (or will learn) out of necessity, in order to cope with the transition between cultures. And it will serve them very well in life if they learn to use it effectively. Fortunately, you, as parents, can help your TCKs navigate this change and develop the awareness needed to make this trait healthy and productive.
The majority of TCKs will always have the itch for change and, because of their upbringing, the “easy” solution to a difficulty is often a big change. This is where TCKs differ from mono-cultural individuals who feel they have a need for “change.” When a mono-cultural individual feels they need a change in their life, they might redecorate their house. When a TCK feels they need a change, they might move to Iceland.
The TCK’s solution to their mental alarm clock is often a move (sometimes cross-culturally), a major career change, a school change, or a relationship change. These may not seem problematic and, on the surface, often aren’t when the TCK is a child, teen, or young adult. However, when they don’t learn how to satisfy this need in a healthy way, and this “need” arises later in adulthood, it can be incredibly crippling to their career, marriage, family life, and more.
So how can you as a parent of young TCKs prevent this struggle from becoming debilitating when your TCK reaches adulthood? Here are 6 ways I believe you can help.
1. Acknowledge that Your Child Will Have This “Need” for Change. If you know that your TCK will likely struggle with the need for change into and through their adulthood, then you can subtly teach them, from a young age, how to channel that need appropriately. Talk about the things that you can routinely and flippantly change (house decor, wardrobe, bedrooms, hairstyles, etc.) and the things that you really need to think and pray about before you change (friends, places, schools, jobs, etc.). Help your child embrace their love, and even need, for positive change.
2. Talk about It. Talk about this concept of being comfortable in the adapting process and less comfortable in a settled life. Your children may not understand and your teenagers may not want to hear it, but we can hope that when they become adults and are faced with this challenge, they will remember your words and be proactive about controlling the change instead of letting it control them.
3. Leave Well. When you leave your passport country for the first time, and every “leave” after that, make sure you are intentional about how you leave. It is nearly impossible to settle well in a new place if you have not left the previous place well.
When we (humans) know that we are about to leave people for an extended period of time, we tend to emotionally disconnect from people prematurely. This can very easily become a habit for TCKs and can lead to a lot of “burnt bridges” and unresolved grief over the years. Your children need to learn how to leave well from a young age.
One of my favorite tools for leaving well is David C. Pollock’s concept of the RAFT. Here is a simplified explanation and how you can implement it with young children:
R= Reconciliation. Or, Say Sorry. Ensure that you and your TCKs are reconciled with people before you leave. TCKs quickly learn that they can forgo the un-comfortableness of making amends with friends by simply getting on an airplane. This far too easily becomes a habit. Teach them from a young age that reconciling before a move is not optional.
A= Affirmation. Tell the people who you love that you love them. Help your TCKs write Thank You Cards or draw pictures for their friends and family. Perhaps make a list together as a family of all of the people to whom you want to say, “Thank you” or “I love you” before you leave, and then include your children when you do so.
F= Farewell. Say goodbye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. This is especially important for young children. Take a final trip to their favorite park, schedule final play dates, say goodbye. It is critical to the grieving process that children know that it is the final play date, trip to the park, night sleeping in their bed, etc., and are able to say goodbye.
T= Think Destination. Talk with your kids about the place where you will be moving. What do you know about it? What might be different from where you are living now? What is the plan when you first arrive? Perhaps watch YouTube videos or look at pictures of where you will be living.
4. Arrive Well. Show your children how to settle. It can be tempting, especially as an adult, to live with one foot in this new culture and leave the rest of yourself back in your passport culture. Some people do this by trying to keep their home and family life as “American” (or whatever other nationality) as possible while living in a different country. This will not do your TCKs any good and will definitely not teach them how to settle well. Wherever you are living, dive in. Make friends. Learn the language. Eat the food. Engage.
Because TCKs become incredibly good at adapting and integrating, this lifestyle will become their comfort zone. That is OK as long as they also learn to step outside of their comfort zone and settle in some areas.
5. Encourage Deep Friendships. When TCKs move often, it becomes easier to forgo deep friendships rather than deal with the hurt of frequent goodbyes. Encourage your child to maintain friendships. TCKs become very skilled at making friends, but many have a more challenging time maintaining and developing deep, lasting friendships.
When TCKs have moved frequently, they may not want to invest deeply in friendships in order to avoid the pain of leaving friends yet again. The idea of deep friendships may also trigger that dreaded settled feeling. Teach your children to push past the fear and into those deep friendships. Encourage them to keep in touch with friends they have left behind and be willing to make new friends. Technology nowadays makes it much easier for TCKs to keep in touch with friends all over the world. Take advantage of it! Older TCKs may just need your gentle encouragement, while younger children may need more time and help on your part. It is worth the effort for your TCKs to have deep, life-long friends who can love and support them in the midst of their moving, changing, and adapting.
6. Teach the Process of Making a Healthy Change. Be an example of the process of making big changes. If you are looking at moving or changing your child’s school, pray with them about it. Ask God for wisdom; make a pros and cons list; make it a big decision. Often parents of TCKs don’t invite their children into the decision-making process and instead only tell them once a decision has been made. In some scenarios this is necessary, but in most, allowing them to be a part of the process gives them the opportunity to see changes made well.
In closing, I want to be clear that the healthy version of a TCK who has overcome the need for constant adapting, is not necessarily the TCK that settles down in one place for the rest of their life. That may be the case, but most likely it is not. The healthy TCK realizes that they have a need for change and knows that they are more comfortable with the adapting process than with the settled life.
However, they have learned how to control the need for change instead of letting it control them. They are willing to be somewhat uncomfortable so that they can live a settled life in necessary areas. For TCKs, doing this effectively is a life-long learning process, and that process begins with you, as parents, the second you decide to pack your bags and move overseas.
Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.