Thursday, 9 May 2013

Is There a Difference Between Adults and Kids Living Abroad?

Someone wrote to me this week that there is no difference between adults and children living abroad in different cultures. I am sorry but I cannot agree with this statement because it just is not true. There are many things that are the same:
  1. Both adults and children can experience a culture shock on transitioning to a new country.
  2. Both can struggle to learn the new language. Usually the kids win this one!
  3. Both need to discover what the rules and customs are in a country. The kids usually adapt quicker than the adults.
Madurodam, in the Netherlands
The difference is that the adults have formed their identity before moving to the new country. The child is still is still in the process of forming his or her identity. So the key word here is: identity. In my latest post I wrote about identity. Culture is linked to identity. Once you do know how a culture works it gives us a sense of belonging, identity and confidence. The problem with third culture kids is that they might think they know the culture and then suddenly they move to a new country and the culture is different. Our family, our community and the place we live in serve as mirrors to us. A child forms their own identity by using these mirrors. When the mirrors change the identity formation is much more of a challenge. This is the crucial difference between adults and children living and moving abroad.

I believe there are things that parents can do to help kids form their identity and to help third culture kids feel less of a victim of their circumstances. In the end no one grows up in perfect conditions. Maybe I will write about this in the future.

10 Things parents can do to help their children form their identity and thrive while growing up abroad:
  1. Regularly return to the passport country, for me that was the Netherlands.
  2. If possible return to the same place for a period of time in the passport country. We usually spent part of our leave on the family farm in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands. It helps kids bond with that place. Julia Munroe Martin writes about where she spent her summer vacations. "I had no place to call home. The closest I ever felt to home was with my grandmother at her house in Poland, Ohio, on the banks of Yellow Creek."
  3. Tell stories about your heritage. Tell stories about the grandparents. Research shows that children who know more about their family background are more resilient. Here's an article about it in the New York Times.
  4. Teach children their mother tongue. Speak it to them and encourage them to speak it. There is an interesting link between language and identity!
  5. Help the children to be in contact with their family abroad. Here are some great suggestions by Libby Stephens on grandparenting over the seas.
  6. Have your own family traditions. Develop your own way of celebrating birthdays or special days. While I grew up in Africa we celebrated Sinterklaas every year.
  7. Encourage children to have a treasure box, with special small items from the countries they have lived in.
  8. Help children say goodbye well when they leave a country, so that they can start anew in a healthy way.
  9. Help children when they transition back to their passport country. If possible let them have their own debriefing*. The transition back is very challenging.
  10. If children are transitioning back for college or university you can consider getting a mentor to mentor them during the transition period. There is a new mentoring program for expat teens done by Sea Change Mentoring.
Do you have any suggestions how we can help our kids? Do you agree that there is a difference between adults and children living and moving abroad?

* Debriefing is telling our story, complete with experiences and feelings, from our point of view. It is a verbal processing of past events. Debriefing includes both facts and emotional responses, and invites feedback.

Related posts:
Third culture kids self-identity books
Sharing our Roots Interview (on Life with a Double Buggy)
Learning to Grieve well (on Communicating across Boundaries)
The discomfort of re-entry back home (on Sara Taber's blog)

22 comments:

  1. Hi Janneke, great post! I am writing a post about saying goodbye, and would love to link back to thhis post.Some thoughts, though. You say that adults have formed their identity before coming to a new country. This is not entirely true: identity- or I should say identities are fluid and change all the time, even though you never leave your country. Some new moms struggle with motherhood the same way expats struggle with transitions to a new country. We already have multiple identities, and cultural/national one is only one of them- and even that constantly changes! So, even adults are always forming their identities! But I agree with you: identity (or identites) is something we can work on. We can consciously assume new identites or stick to our old ones, and teach our children to do the same.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Olga, I agree that even as an adult you are influenced by the culture or cultures you live in but I think the effect is less in adults compared with kids. In kids these cultures influence the core of their identity, their being.
      I would love you to link back to this post, please do!

      Delete
  2. I am stunned and amazed that someone would think that there is no difference between growing up abroad or moving abroad as an adult!! No question, it's a whole different issue.
    I like the points you've made, will send them on to my sister, who is raising her own little Third Culture Kid. She and her husband are Adult Third Culture Kids, they are raising a new generation! Which also raises the difficulty, she being from Holland, and he being from Australia, which country is "home" to my little niece?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Marit, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. The person who said that there is no difference probably has not been raised in other cultures I guess.
    You are speaking from experience, just as I am. I wonder what it is like for adult third culture kids to raise their own TCKs, like your sister.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is another great post. This blog is such a fantastic resource! Thank you for mentioning Sea Change Mentoring.

    I LOVE the treasure chest idea, by the way!!

    And as far as the comment about identity and adults, it IS true that identity is fluid and that identity develops all the way through adulthood into old age. However, our childhood years are the most formative since our brain is still growing quite rapidly. In our teens, we go through a period of rapid brain growth. During this time, our frontal lobe is developing and will be the last part of our brains to develop. It holds our capacity for insight, judgement, impulse control and emotion control. Over the last ten years, we have figured out through magnetic resonance imaging that our brains do continue to grow through our twenties. So, this may help to explain why moving in between countries, cultural norms and the emotions that are associated with moving are particularly significant for kids, compared to adults whose brains are less elastic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your compliments! I'm enthusiastic about the mentoring idea because it can be of a great help for teens. In hindsight I wish I had had a mentor when I transitioned from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands on my own at 19 years of age.

      I must admit the treasure chest idea is not my own idea but I heard someone speaking on this topic and I liked the idea too!

      Thanks for explaining the brain development, that could be the explanation.

      Delete
  5. Hi Janneke, this is a great post about this subject! I have to say good-bye so often wvery year, and my children too... Thanks for the hints about how to help our children to for their identity. It worked for me as a ATCK or expat-since-birth and I'm doing the same with my children too. I love this idea about the mirrors: you're so right!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Janneke, this is a great post about this subject! I have to say good-bye so often wvery year, and my children too... Thanks for the hints about how to help our children to for their identity. It worked for me as a ATCK or expat-since-birth and I'm doing the same with my children too. I love this idea about the mirrors: you're so right!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I'am glad it worked for you, just like it did for me and hopefully for many other kids. Did I miss any thing? Other tips?

      Delete
  7. Great list of ideas. Love the treasure box idea. I have made the kids individual photo albums of each city that we lived in with pictures of their favorite people and places. They were younger, so I made it more like an ABC book or other "learning" type book.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Janneke,
    Loved the treasure box idea. Our last move was about 7 years ago, so the kids were younger. I made them each photo albums with pictures of their favorite places, things, and people. I made it more of an "ABC" type of book. The kids still like to go through them to see where they've been.
    Also, we just had my in-laws here. We talked about the days when they first moved overseas and what life was like. It was great for my kids to hear their grandparents talk about living in the same place years ago and what it was like for them....part of their heritage. That article was really good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes I like that idea of making a photo album that's a really good idea to help kids remember people, things and places. It also helps them to tell other people their story: powerful!
      Great to hear you are talking about their heritage.

      Delete
  9. Very effective things and essential idea you shared with us. I also like to read valuable article to get better knowledge, your article is one of them. Who provide us a some great information.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the compliment! I hope it is useful.

      Delete
  10. Great post - my mom had us keep treasure boxes and to this day I have wonderful memories of those. I wish I had done this with my own kids while in Pakistan and Egypt. As a third culture kid raising third culture kids there are so many things that I didn't do because being overseas felt like home to me. When we moved to our passport country it was more of a struggle as I realized some of their losses and some of their insecurities that are directly related to me not feeling secure or rooted in our passport country.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Marilyn for sharing your experiences as a child and as a mum raising TCKs. I have seen people asking questions about what it is like to have grown up as a TCK and then raise your own kids abroad again. I really like the treasure box idea too, I don't think I really had a treasure box, but to this day I have small things (that remind me of my childhood abroad), that I cannot part with.

      Delete
  11. Fabulous, just fabulous. So glad you wrote this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your ever encouraging words Linda!

      Delete
  12. I can't beleive that somebody actually tried to say that there is no difference between adults and children living abroad!
    My family is good at preserving traditions, and I agree that it's great to have a few... :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. It's precious to have those family traditions, keep celebrating them and the next generation will pass them on too :).
    Glad you agree with me about there being a difference!

    ReplyDelete
  14. It’s a given fact that kids are the ones who are most affected by a move, especially something as big as moving to a different country. Putting down roots in a new country is never easy for anyone, children and adults alike. The only difference between children and adults is that we are better at coping with the change, more emotionally mature to be able to let go of attachments easier, in a relative sense. Given that, children look to us to be their emotional rock, to point them in the right direction. I guess the best thing that we can teach is to never forget who they are and where they came from. Though they may move around a lot, their roots is the one thing that will never change.

    Rachal Dworkin @BestLawAssociates.com

    ReplyDelete