Third culture parenting

Parenting is hard enough at the best of times. Yet add into the mix the psychological development of intercultural, cross-cultural and international children and the challenges increase.

Ask any so-called third culture kid and the question they hate most is where are you from? Tough, when mum is Brazilian, dad is from Sweden and the last three homes you had were in Asia! In the 1950’s, the term third culture denoted a non-nationality specific and parallel culture that embraces all, yet is defined by none.

We help our children to handle questions like where is home, what’s your culture, by not expecting a place or a national identity to be the answer. Theirs is the fastest growing tribe on earth. So support them in being home to themselves to help them deal being part of a culture of non-belonging. And most of all let them tell you who they are and/or what they’re becoming. They might still love the Empadão you serve them or the fermented herring. They may love the fireworks, be it on the 4th or the 14th July, or even NY eve! But these are ingredients, they are not the main meal!

And watch out for ‘cultural competition’ in the hope of strengthening their ties to home. It’s your home, not theirs! It often causes them to split, rather than to integrate their cultural identities.

Another TCK-parenting blind spot is grief. Child international nomads need to be allowed to express their feelings of grief and anger, be they big or small. Otherwise they become adults who carry a deep disavowed sadness. They have had to say multiple goodbyes to friends, bedrooms, school projects and special places and yet were constantly told how lucky they were! We parents might fail to acknowledge out child’s grief out of guilt and helplessness perhaps and then ‘talk up’ the experience. But the result is that young globals carry the guilt forward and can’t look at their grief because it would be ungrateful.

We need to sit on our guilt and allow our youngsters to say how hard it is for them, even how much they hate their new school, friends. Once expressed, fears and feelings often disappear. Children are resilient and what they hate today, they may love tomorrow. By not forcing them to bury their ‘negative’ feelings and allowing them to say the worst, we help them to stay integrated and whole.

And yes, that’s hard. But sitting with your helplessness to solve the unsolvable is a good mental health lesson for us all! And a big part of being a parent!

So make time to listen to your young globals and allow them to express their feelings of grief. Put in the extra work that allows them to build an identity from the inside out. That way the international experience will truly enrich them. Not because you say so, but because you allowed it to be.

Lysanne Sizoo

Member of the Access Counselling Network