I receive a lot of questions as I travel and speak about TCKs, but the question people most often ask is this: “If there was one thing you would recommend parents do to help their TCKs, what would it be?”
My short answer? Make your home an emotional oasis for your TCKs.
By that I mean creating a safe space for your TCKs to express the whole range of feelings and preferences stemming from their varied collections of cultural influences.
One reason the family unit can provide this space is that most families travel together. Home can therefore be a place where all the sources of an individual TCK’s linguistic and cultural adaptations are known.
An example of this is the phenomenon of sibling languages. 40% of TCKs born after 1985* reported sharing a unique dialect with their siblings, made up from the mix of different languages they had been exposed to. For one family, it was a mix of their native Finnish, the English they spoke at school, and the local language of the country they lived in. For others, it was favourite phrases picked up in five or more countries that peppered their speech.
The one place these TCKs could speak freely, knowing their words would be accepted and understood without question, was with their siblings.
A place to simply be themselves – and learn who that is
Daily life for most TCKs involves navigating two, three or even more different sets of cultural expectations as they move between home, school, and their host country. That’s in addition to any picked up in other locations. This means many TCKs grow up learning to adopt different cultural identities in different situations, shifting between them effortlessly as a natural life skill.
There are many advantages to this! A downside is identity confusion. Am I all of these pieces? One of them? Something completely separate? A 19 year old TCK from France explained it this way:*
“Because I always had to control what I said and what I talked about so I’d be accepted by kids my age, I still struggle to understand who I am. I have no clue what my true personality is and what is a habit I learned to fit in…I’m not sure how to untangle myself from years of camouflage, because I don’t have a clue where I end and the fake begins.”
Making your home an emotional oasis is about recognising this struggle, and creating a space in which your TCKs can remove their camouflage. It is about working to give them a place in which to work out who they are without it.
A place they can say anything
Almost everywhere TCKs go, there are opinions they can’t voice, languages they can’t speak, loves they can’t share. Making your home an emotional oasis means creating one safe place in which your TCKs can say all the things they must hold back elsewhere. It means letting them know that you, of all people in the world, will hear what their hearts are saying.
Making your home an emotional oasis means making a commitment to see life through your child’s eyes. To hear what they say, and ask questions about where they’re coming from.
To hear not “I hate this country” but rather “life here is hard for me”.
Not “I don’t like your language” but rather “I can’t express my whole self in any one language”.
Not “This move was a mistake” but rather “I am grieving what I have lost”.
Making your home an emotional oasis does not mean you can never gently correct a child’s negative attitude. It does not mean a child should be permitted to speak with wanton disrespect. But it does mean making your starting place an assumption that the difficult things your child says are meaningful, once you uncover the emotion behind them.
For one family I spent time with, this meant recognising their daughter’s uncharacteristic outbursts of anger as an expression of grief, as she struggled to adapt to life in a “homeland” she had no memories of. For these parents, creating safe space meant telling their daughter she was free to speak whatever language she wanted at home – in this case, the English she was more familiar with – rather than trying to help her practise the “mother tongue” she stumbled over everywhere else.
Now for the bad news…
While this sounds lovely, reality can be a challenge. This is because a true emotional oasis needs freedom.
Freedom to speak different languages.
Freedom to express opinions about different countries – both positive and negative.
Freedom to share emotional reactions to various events – or have no emotional reaction.
What if your child says they prefer the way things are done in your host country to your passport country? What if they prefer the language they speak at school to the language that is most familiar to you? What if they don’t enjoy your comfort foods and places? What if they don’t seem to appreciate the cultural values you grew up with? An 18 year old TCK from Zambia explained this struggle, saying:*
“I feel my passport country is my parents’ country, not mine. I refer to it as the ‘motherland’, not my homeland. My parents tried to make me eat traditional food and expected me to know the language, but it’s really hard.”
The cost of making your home an emotional oasis is that your children might use that freedom to say things you don’t like, things that highlight the gap between their experience of the world and your own. Even when parents are deeply committed to making safe space for their children, this can be hard. There’s a sacrifice involved. It’s painful.
It’s okay to be sad that your child doesn’t feel what you feel, that you can’t share everything with them. In fact, it’s really important to recognise that sadness. There’s a grief in not being able to share all your emotional connections to “home” with your children.
For one mother I know, this meant slowly coming to terms with this grief as one of the consequences of an international life. She realised that it wasn’t that her children “didn’t care” about her home country and home town, but that they didn’t have the same emotional attachments she did. She learned to allow herself to feel sad for their lack of shared connection, without trying to force her children to act out something they didn’t feel.
Making your home an emotional oasis means providing a space for your children to truly be themselves. When you as a parent are the one providing this space, it means you will get to know your children in a deeper and truer way than many people in their lives. This is a precious mutual gift – one you give to them, and one you receive from them.
* Statistics and quotes come from Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century
Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and occasionally at her website.