Third Culture Kids. Living an international life, you are, most likely, very familiar with what that means. Third culture kids (TCKs or Global Nomads) are children who grow up in another country than their parents’ or other than the country they are legally considered a native of. Whether it is the mix of languages they communicate in or the unique way they have constructed their self-image, you know, and they know, that they feel different from children and adults who did not have the same experiences as they had.
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WHO AM I AND WHERE IS MY HOME?
When asked where they are from, TCKs almost always have some sort of confused expression on their face before they answer the question, because really, to them it is a complex one. They consider themselves to be of different places and are not sure if the question refers to what their passport says, or how they have come to think about themselves during the course of their lives.
It reminds me of an interview I once had with a German friend who lives in Lebanon like I do. We were talking about identity, for an article I was writing at the time, and she was explaining how moving from Germany to Ghana as a young adult and later to Lebanon, had influenced her self-perception. Her daughter, who is German and Lebanese by nationality, walked in and I asked her how she looks at herself: German or Lebanese? She thought for a second and said, “Actually, I know my mom is from Germany and I feel parts of me are German, and the same goes for my dad’s Lebanese side. But I was born and raised in Ghana before I came here. I think I feel more Ghanaian”. Third culture kids often times struggle to explain where they are from and the question usually leads to an answer that covers a short life history of places they’ve lived in.
But answering the question on where they are from, just scratches the surface of something much deeper: Belonging. If there is one thing TCKs battle with, it is trying to figure out where they belong and while searching for the answer, often come to realize that they probably never really will belong anywhere. But then again, they kind of do, everywhere. Their experiences have been spread out between places across borders, and those places became connected to stories, life phases, friends in particular places, and their emotional connection to it all. Ultimately, they make up their own thread of life, laced with the pearls of their unique TCK memories, which they carry with them everywhere they go. And maybe that’s exactly where their belonging starts to manifest: the space where they meet others who carry the same beads, who have gone through the same experiences and with whom they feel a little bit more at home, because none of them really do, and paradoxically, that’s where home is.
BEING A PARENT OF TCKs
For parents of TCKs, the search for identity and belonging highlights an important parental task in the life of traveling children: building self-esteem and resilience in a world of constant adaptation. Children with high self-esteem generally develop a resilience that is highly desirable for TCKs, as it makes them feel valued and accepted, something they can deeply struggle with, and able to think positively about themselves and their achievements and feel prepared for every day challenges.To support that development, there are very practical things parents can do:
- Teach children to do things. This is especially relevant for TCKs as they often move around in a world where help at home, nannies or drivers take care of many things they could learn to do themselves. Learning to do things supports children in feeling they are capable human beings who can deal with real-world problems.
- Show children how to do things. When children are given the opportunity to learn from your experiences and knowledge, they not only have a role model to learn from, but they also learn how to do things most effectively. This supports them in knowing that effort pays off and that their actions matter.
- Compliment children, but do so, wisely. Children know when they did well and when they didn’t. Choose wisely to praise them when they did and to support them when they didn’t. Compliment effort and not simply characteristics or results. It is the encouragement of engagement and effort that will teach them how to move forward in life.
- Help them identify & develop their strengths. Rather than focusing on their weaknesses, focus on the strengths of children. They will absolutely benefit from knowing what they can trust themselves for when they move into adulthood and the world at large.
High self-esteem and resilience are thus highly important to be nurtured and encouraged in TCKs, helping them feel prepared and equipped to deal with the world they live in and envision and materialize their dreams and ambitions in it. It is only when our children embrace their unique TCK identity, that they can find belonging in the beautifully challenging world to which they belong.
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