A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a young person who has spent a sufficient period of time in a culture other than his/her own, resulting in the integration of elements from both the host culture and his/her own culture into a third culture.
Growing up outside the United States, a child in an expatriate family can develop many positive characteristics which can contribute greatly to his/her education and social/emotional development. These include linguistic ability, cross-cultural skills, a three-dimensional world view, and increased maturity for dealing with everyday encounters with people.
Unfortunately, children, especially teenagers may also experience lingering, unresolved grief or sadness caused by the loss of relationships when they leave the US for a life in a strange land. Adjustment issues are common and must be dealt with, not treated as a mood that will go away.
It is not unusual for TCK teens to experience delayed adolescence lasting into their early twenties. Third Culture Kids often seem to lack problem solving skills in their personal relationships since many have moved frequently and learned to leave a problem behind rather than deal with it.
A new culture will offer exciting opportunities to explore and learn. While the child's education may be enhanced by international experiences, it can also be threatened if parents and child are unprepared to help the family make a strong transition. Planning an expat move with children takes preparation and resources.
Preparing for the move by talking to other people who have lived in the chosen country and reading as much as possible about the culture will help the whole family adjust better. Participating as a family on expat internet forums prior to departure will allow family members to gain invaluable insights into what they are about to experience, as well as establishing relationships with people who know they are coming and can help smooth the transition once they arrive.
Once in place overseas, regular discussions of feelings and reactions with family members and with other expats helps facilitate the adjustment. Whether they admit it to their parents or not, expat children often feel that they are able to experience first-hand a world that many Americans only read about or see on a special television program, and this contributes to a very positive self-image.
The value that new teen expats place on keeping in touch with life in the United States via music, fashions, trends, and language, cannot be overemphasized. Social networking is an invaluable tool for this.
However, during the first 6 months or so overseas, you want your children to get out and make new friends and begin adapting to their new life. It will not be helpful if they spend a lot of time on Facebook or the equivalent playing “ain't it awful” with their friends back home, many of whom will be only too happy to reinforce this negativity by emphasizing how much fun they are all having and how much they miss your child.
Your children have to come to accept that this is their new home, and that they need to make new friends. It's best to avoid any reference to “if things don't work out we'll go home”, since this not only raises false hopes, it also interferes with your child's adjustment to their new life.
It is probably a good idea to put a limit on your children's participation in social networking for the first few months, and to encourage them to do things like start a blog where they post all the new and exciting things they are doing in their new home with their new friends.
Other ways to maintain contact include visiting American friends and schools when in the US, sending children to summer camp in the US, inviting American friends for a visit overseas, and encouraging them to download popular music, videos and books over the internet.
TCKs may, over time, develop more camaraderie and comfort with each other, or with other foreign nationals who have also grown up in a cross-cultural environment, than they had with their former American friends. Perhaps there is no time they feel this more strongly than when they return to the United States, as many expat kids eventually do, after living overseas during part or all of their childhood. Claiming identity as Americans overseas, they can feel confused or challenged by the actual America they return to, with or without their parents.
TCK's moving back to a US city where they have lived before often anticipate being able to resume friendships from the old days, but find that long separation and different experiences can devastate what used to be a timeless bond, in spite of their efforts to stay in touch..
They may have a hard time seeing that it is their growth which has changed things most, or that they have gained a truly wider world view.
It is common for a teenager who has grown up overseas as a child to think about returning to the United States, whether or not the parents are having the same thoughts. Relatively few families that make the expat decision actually stay overseas the rest of their lives.
Certainly, living abroad offers many advantages to children as well as adults. Planning ahead helps to make the move both ways meet everyone's expectations, and involves each child in the process from the beginning. Being aware of the special issues facing Third Culture Kids enables parents and the community to provide the support they need to make a successful transition.