Category: For parents

Raising Expat Kids and Third Culture Kids: Is It a Privilege or a Challenge?

Published : Jun 12, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

This is the time of the year when many families, be it for work or personal reasons, are preparing to move abroad. Let’s explore common issues faced by families when they move and strategies to deal with them. 

Leaving Right Is the Key to Entering Right

When preparing your move, it is important for children to be allowed to say goodbye: to their friends, their school, their house, the city, their routine… They must be allowed to grieve. 

Remember that although as parents, we hate to see our child suffer, grief is not a problem. At a time of loss and change, grief is an adaptive emotion. It’s what children are meant to be experiencing. We must allow them to deal with their grief.

Strategies:

1. Explain well in time that you are leaving and the reasons why. Even if they don’t agree with the move, feeling that they are part of the process will help them. 

2. Let them participate in the process: Let them have a say when choosing the new house, the school, how to decorate their bedrooms. This is important because most kids feel that they have lost control over their life when they have to move. Allowing them to make some decisions (even if small) will help them regain some sense of control. 

3. Don’t dismiss their grief as something unimportant. Make them feel heard and understood. 

4. Don’t lie to them. Don’t promise that you will go back often to visit their friends if you know that it’s never going to happen. 

5. Give them the chance to hold a good-bye party or gathering with their friends. 

Once We Leave Right, How Do We Enter Right?

Strategies:

1. Move to your new destination before school starts. Use this time to organize the new house, explore the neighbourhood, or practice going to and from school. 

2. If you have the chance, organize a few playdates with classmates so when the first day of school arrives, your child sees some familiar faces.

3. Make sure that you buy the right kit for school and if you can find out the unspoken rules (e.g., what kind of shoes kids wear, what kind of school material they use…). The more your child fits in the first few days of school, the easier it will for them to adapt. I still remember when my mum sent me to a new school aged 9, with the school uniform on but with red socks instead of green. I was mortified! 

4. Keep your old routines and traditions. At a time of change, children need more than ever to have a consistent routine and structure. It gives them a sense of security and stability. Your location has changed but your family stays the same. So, if you used to have movie night on Fridays and birthday cake and candles at breakfast, keep doing it! 

Next Step: Focus on Your Child’s Socioemotional Wellbeing and then on Academics

When a child moves schools, and even more, when they change cities or countries, their academic achievement may be disrupted. This is especially the case for children who move on a regular (1) basis. 

Whereas this is a concern for parents, it is very important to remember that children must feel settled before they are able to focus on academics. So, focus first on your child’s emotional wellbeing and then on academics. 

Strategies:

1. Consider that your child will probably be tired and even overwhelmed during the first few weeks of nursery or school. Think of everything they must take in and get used to: a new school, friends, teachers, social norms, routine, maybe a new language and a new education system. It’s a lot! Allow them to rest and decompress. Don’t pack too much in those first few months. Unless your child asks to do them, it may be a good idea to wait a bit before enrolling them in any extracurricular activities and clubs. 

2. Talk to your child’s teacher on a regular basis until they are settled. The more aligned the family and the school are, the better for the child. 

3. If you child attends an international school, it’s worth asking if they have a transition program. The whole family may find it useful. 

Moving Will Be Tough for my Child but What About Me?

1. Very often when a move happens, parents (especially mothers) make sure that everyone is organized and settled to then take care of themselves. Although this is “normal”, try to get yourself sorted as well. Otherwise, you may start to struggle. Whether you enjoy going to the gym, reading, visiting museums, or whatever it is you enjoy doing, try to find time for yourself even if the situation at home is a not 100% under control. 

2. Making connections is also so very important. Try to meet people at the nursery or school gates, playgroups, the school’s PTA, get involved in volunteer work, be active at your place of worship, local Facebook groups, or meet people through work. If you struggle making new friends, I highly recommend this book“Platonic: How Understanding Your Attachment Style can Help You Make and Keep Friends” by Marisa G. Franco, PhD. It will help you understand the science behind friendship and is full of practical tips. 

3. You play a key role in how your child manages the move. If you have a negative view of the move and of your new country, that will influence your child. I am not saying that you must be always happy and say that you love everything about the move. On the contrary, it is good for your child to see that you are finding some aspects of the move tough. But one thing is to find some aspects tough and something different is to constantly complain about it and have a very negative view about it. Remember that you set the emotional tone of the family. 

I Know that Moving Is Difficult, But We Are Coming Home: It Should Be Easy, Right?

Moving back (2) ‘home’ (also known as re-entering) is considered a non-issue but very often it’s the move that families find harder. Why is it hard? Aren’t you coming home? Consider that for expat children, and especially for Third Culture Kids (3) (TCK; children who spent a significant part of their childhood in a country other than their passport country), what is considered ‘home’ is not ‘home’ for them. For TCKs, their passport country is just that, the country where they are legally from, but it’s not their home. This can make re-entry difficult. 

Re-entering can also be difficult for adults. They usually go through a process that contains three steps:

1. Beginning: this is the exciting part. Everyone is excited about you being back and they make an effort to be around you and your family.

2. Novelty wears off: This is when the reverse cultural shock usually takes place. The excitement begins to wear off, you start to realise all the things you may not like about your country or city. Everyone goes back to their routine, and you may feel left out. Also, everyone expects you to settle back in just fine. There is not much room for you to say that you are struggling. Why would you struggle if you are finally where you belong?  In general, people report that the second and third months are the toughest. 

3. Stabilization: this usually happens six months after the move. 

Becoming an expat with kids is challenging but it has also plenty of benefits. Your children may learn different languages, gain a very good understanding of the world, learn that we are all different, and have different perspectives. They will develop their resilience, their social skills, and they will learn to adapt and be flexible. 

Expat families, especially those with TCKs often worry about their children not having a sense of belonging and struggling to develop a sense of identity (4). This is true for many TCKs. Just a note about TCKs. The term ‘third culture’ is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean the combination of two cultures (the passport culture and the culture of residence to form a third). The term ‘third culture’ refers to the culture that is shared by all children who have lived a significant part of their lives outside their passport country. 

If you worry about your child’s sense of belonging and identity, remember that home is wherever the family is. Family is what gives us our sense of belonging. 

If you want to learn more about this topic, we have a masterclass in our website. Also, if you are in the process of moving, about to come back ‘home’, or a long-time expat, in need of 1-2-1 support, get in touch with me. We are here to support you. 

Love,

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

References

(1) Temple, J. A., & Reynolds, A. J. (1999). School mobility and achievement: Longitudinal findings from an urban cohort. Journal of School Psychology37(4), 355-377. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-4405(99)00026-6

(2) Pollock, D. C., Van Reken, R. E., & Pollock, M. V. (2010). Third Culture Kids: The experience of growing up among worlds: The original, classic book on TCKs. Hachette UK.

(3) Tan, E. C., Wang, K. T., & Cottrell, A. B. (2021). A systematic review of third culture kids empirical research. International Journal of Intercultural Relations82, 81-98. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2021.03.002

(4) Gilbert, K. R. (2008). Loss and grief between and among cultures: The experience of third culture kids. Illness, crisis & loss16(2), 93-109. https://doi.org/10.2190/IL.16.2.a

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Dr. Ana Aznar
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We are glad you found the content useful! Many thanks for being here.
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