International Parenting: 5 Things You Need to Know When Moving Kids Abroad
As I talk with individuals who move all over the world, I am amazed at the fact children can grow up in the same country, attend the same school and have many of the same experiences, YET be so different. When I carefully listen to their stories, I pick up on some important points that could be very useful for parents. You have the opportunity to raise children who have a better than average odds of entering adulthood with emotional resilience skills and thrive in their heritage of overseas living. I have heard these basic principles over and over, yet they bear repeating, as they seem to be crucial in raising children anywhere in our world.
First though, let me introduce you to the term Third Culture Kid.
I see the results in adult TCKs who grew up in homes where these tips are not taken into consideration along with their globe trotting lifestyle, I see them struggle with anxiety, behavior issues, physical ailments or poor social skills. I am sure you are aware of these top five tips, but it is good to once again review them.
1. Your attitude will impact your children.
Wherever you live in this world, your own attitude as a parent, will impact your children. If you dislike a country, a food, a climate or a people group, your children will resent them as well. If you love a neighborhood, a school and your new home, your children will see it as a good experience. If you are anxious, your children will feel it and often internalize the message they should also be anxious. If you have the attitude that a situation is tough, but you have the internal resources to conquer it, your children will relax in your confidence and conquer the challenges set before them.
In talking with TCKs who have gone through civil unrest while living overseas, they talk about how they react with fear many years later to loud noises or the threat of war. In exploring their stories, I often discover their parents were very fearful and instilled in them rigid rules with threats regarding the safety of the family. The message was either stated or implied that “We will all die if you are not really careful”.
While working in Central America, our family experienced a number of civil uprisings or full out war with neighboring countries. But my experiences and current reactions are very different from some of these, highly anxious TCKs.. Why did I not internalize my dangerous environment like my peers?
When an uprising would occur, and we certainly had our share of them in Central America, my parents would tell us there was a war going on and we needed to play inside that day. That was it! We were obedient children, so did not question this simple declaration. This announcement carried the same level of emotional intensity of “It is raining really hard outside today, you will need to play inside today.” We knew there was shooting or bombing outside, yet we felt safe in our home with our parents. It was always a day of table games, making fudge, reading together or some adventure cooked up by me and my brothers. My parents did not seem worried, even though the radio was on at a low volume throughout the day so they knew when it was safe to go outside again, so we weren’t worried. We saw it as being similar to our cousins’ description of a “snow day”.
2. Each of your children will respond in their own unique manner.
This takes place whether your children are raised in rural Kansas or travel the world with their family. It is not unique to the TCK. But it is something that each parent needs to keep in mind. Each of your children have their own individual personalities, and resilience skills, the ways they respond to others, and the way they interact with their surrounding environment. Because they each respond differently, their emotional needs are unique. Parenting skills must be tailored to meet the needs of each child. Even if they are twins, they are each individual in what they need from you and how they will react to change or stressful situations. Spend alone time with each child so you get to know them and their uniqueness and giftedness. My favorite days were when I got to run all over Tegucigalpa, Honduras with my Dad, just doing errands with him. We always ended the day drinking Cokes in some small local shop, just chatting about everything and anything. This leads me to the next tip.
3. Talk, talk, talk
Let your children know you are moving before they find out from their friends, Facebook overhear a phone call, or see a letter carelessly left on the kitchen counter. I didn’t make up these examples, but they are all ways TCKs have told me they learned of an upcoming move. Because their world is so much out of their control i.e. some move from country to country every two years so their entire world regularly turns upside down, it is important to include them in as many plans for their future as is age appropriate so they feel a sense of control of their lives. Let them know you are considering a move, talk about it with them, discuss the pros and cons of the move. Talk about what you will miss and what you are looking forward to seeing and doing with the move. This gives them the permission to share with you their feelings as well. But don’t put the weight of the final decision of moving on their young shoulders. It is an adult decision, yet take their opinions into consideration. As soon as the decision has been made, tell your children first.
4. Let them explore the culture and learn the local language.
It is sad when I encounter young adults, who were raised outside of their passport country, and yet cannot tell me anything about these countries, nor can they speak the local language of that country, or name one friend. After asking more questions, I discover most of them grew up very isolated. Most were home schooled, and their only travel was between their passport country and the country where their parents were assigned by an international agency. They did not explore the sites and wonders of the country where they were stationed. They did not sample the food and were fearful to interact with the locals, so stayed within the confines of their own home. As a result, they often have very limited social and resiliency skills.
It is a joy to talk to young adults whose parents took full advantage of their many travels throughout the world. These TCKs talk about all of the historical sites many of us have just read about or seen on television. They marvel at the geography and the lands they traveled. They tell me the back stories of cultures, countries and locals. I am enthralled with their stories. They often can cook a variety of foods from around the world and are fluent, or at least can get along, in several languages. They grieve the loss of several close relationships they experienced and all they have learned from those friends. They possess great social skills as they can freely interact with either the rich, the poor, the young and the old and they adapt quickly to change. These TCKs often take on leadership roles in their workplace. The world is their playground.
Because their parents allowed them the freedom to give input into the decision making process, they learned good decision making skills and as adult TCKs feel more responsible and secure their own lives. Even young children can decide what they want to put into their backpack for the airplane ride to their next assignment, what they want to give away or keep before they move, how they want to decorate their new bedroom, and how they can say goodbye to their local friends.
5. Your children will have their own viewpoints which may differ from your own.
This is true because they did not grow up in your world. You, unless you are also a TCK, were probably raised in one country in the same town or state. I know some individuals who grew up in one neighborhood and the first time they moved was when they went off to college or got married. As a TCK, I can’t begin to imagine what that was like for you. You had the consistency of one culture, one support system, and fewer moves. Your TCKs are experiencing many cultures, support systems that come in and out of their lives for a limited period, several languages, and a highly mobile life to different worlds.
This highly mobile life will impact your child. This bumping up against cultures and societies of all levels will change them. Their having friends who live in extreme poverty and hardship as well as friends in palaces, will influence their political views today. Their lens on the world is not the same as yours. Even siblings can be vastly different from one another because of how they processed their mobile lifestyle.
I had the joy of growing up with locals who lived in lean to shacks with no running water, electricity, and beans and rice for every meal. I also, had the joy of growing up with locals who had mansions, numerous maids, men who cared for the yard, limousine drivers and private schools. I had friends who were members of the Communist Party as well as friends who were very Western in their beliefs. All of this influences my circle of friends today and how I am not like my cousins who spent all of their childhood and adulthood in the same, small town in the Midwest of the United States. And I have had to learn the skill of getting along with them as well.
These tips work in creating a framework around your TCK. They can give your child a sense of safety as they grow and explore and eventually launch out into their own world. Hopefully, they will look back on those years of high mobility and be so thankful for the rich, history you provided for them.
My Go-To Books
Books to read with your younger TCK
- Slurping Soup and other Confusions by Tonges, Menezes and Gemmer Emigh (2013). United Kingdom, Summertime Publishing.
- B at Home: Emma Moves Again by Valerie Besanceney (2014). United Kingdom, Summertime Publishing.
- Sammy’s Next Move: Sammy the Snail Is a Traveling Snail Who Lives in Different Countries, by Helen Maffini (2011). CreateSpace Independent Publishing. Resources
- When Abroad Do as the Local Children Do, by Hilly Van Swol-Ulbrich and Bettina Kaltenhauser (2002). The Netherlands: X-Pat Media.
- The Kids’ Guide to Living Abroad, by Martine Zoer (2007). Washington, DC: Foreign Service Youth Foundation.
Books on older TCKs
- Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents and Professionals Offer Support, Advice and Solutions in Response to Expat Life Challenges as Shared by Expat Teens, by Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit (2012). Great Britain: Summertime.
- The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, by Tina Quick (2010). Great Britain: Summertime. Strangers at Home, by Carolyn Smith (1996). Bayside, NY: Aletheia.
Books for Parents
- Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World, by Robin Pascoe (2006). Vancouver, Canada: Expatriate Press.
- Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child by Julia Simens (2011). Summertime Publishing