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)