Lucille Abendanon

How your child could benefit from life abroad

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

In this article, we explore five ways in which your child will surprise you and exceed your expectations as they embrace life abroad.

As you embark on your life in a new country your children will encounter new cultures, new languages, and new attitudes, which will have a direct impact on their development, how they view the world and themselves in it. Your children will become Third Culture Kids (TCKs), the term used to describe people who have spent a portion of their formative childhood years (0-18) in a culture different to that of their parents.

You’ll see your children start new schools, make new friends, perhaps struggle to find their stride in the beginning. And then you’ll see them flourish. In this article we look at five things you’ll have to adjust to about your TCK.

1. Resilience

Your children will show you how incredibly resilient they are. They’ll start a new school, make new friends, and create a rich life. They’ll overcome obstacles, face their fears, stumble along the way, yet ultimately ride the ups and downs of expat life like pros.

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Tory Almond is the founder of The English Connection based in Amsterdam, an organisation that provides training for youth and families who will be or are dealing with culture and reverse culture shock. He especially helps TCKs adapt to life in Amsterdam and throughout Europe. “Kids are pretty resilient and adjust well to change” says Tory, “their lives are always in constant change and adjustment, and unlike their parents, who have formed their identity around a specific culture, they are not as connected to their old culture and can meld into their new one fairly quickly. They pick up on social cues easier, learn the language quicker, and connect with new friends faster. Ultimately they will process the whole change faster than their parents.”

Lucille has seen this with her own kids, the eldest of which had lived in three countries by the time he was seven. “Obviously the individual personality of the child plays an important role, but I’ve often realised that I was far more resistant to change than my children were” she says. “They are much braver than I am, and once the initial apprehension of starting a new school or making new friends has been overcome, they settle in no time.” 

2. Adaptability

TCKs are extremely adaptable. They can handle much more than you think. The saying ‘change is the only constant in life’ is their mantra. Jane Barron is a youth intercultural transition specialist, and the founder of Globally Grounded. She’s dedicated to equipping students crossing cultures, along with their families and those who educate them, as they navigate the triumphs and trials associated with cross-cultural domestic and/or international transitions. She believes in the importance of change management and supporting expat kids to cope with moving in a healthy and proactive way.

“Kids do amazing things with the right information,” Jane says. “Those whose parents have been intentional and authentic in managing mobility are the ones who exceed expectations. I am not talking about spoon-feeding or wrapping our children up in cotton wool. I really do mean manage, not taking over or helicopter parenting. This is about arming children with the right information and providing them with a nurturing and supportive training environment at home and school that places them in a position to succeed. What they do with that information will determine the level of success.”

Tips for adapting 

The key to successful transition lies in information, observation and communication.

  • At home, include your child as much as you can with regards to moving. Through information you can build inclusion which ultimately empowers a child. This is an important mindset to achieve.

  • Observe your child. Look out for behaviour patterns that are different as they may signal transition trauma. For example, younger children may become more needy, show separation anxiety or be more prone to tantrums. You know your child best, so be on the lookout for these changes (Further reading: Signs that your child is having difficulty adjusting to life abroad).

  • Communication is absolutely key. Talk to your child about the move, the future, the country and friends you’ll be leaving behind. An honest environment in which children feel able to express themselves is vital for successful transitions.

Jane Barron says “Schooling is such a big part of children’s lives. How they feel about school flows into every other facet of their being. I recently worked with a cross cultural family who had lived in Asia and Europe before arriving in Australia due to the relocation of their dad’s job. Having moved schools and countries a number of times before, both Tom and Alexander, aged 13 and 10, knew what it was like to be the new kid and to feel lonely. Through open communication, both boys came to realise their mixed emotions were normal which brought relief, created a home environment where each family member could communicate openly and honestly, and placed both boys in a position to engage in their learning activities. The time spent exploring social nuances and language colloquialisms allowed them to connect with their new peers and feel a sense of belonging. Also, examining their previous and new educational cultures resulted in them both feeling comfortable, valued and understood in their new classes from day one. The knowledge and understanding gained, removed the feelings of chaos and uncertainty and replaced them with calm and confidence, allowing them to get on with the process of learning, making new friends, engaging in their extra-curricular activities, creating a sense of belonging, feeling settled and adding to their cultural identity.” Knowledge is power!

With help, children can learn adaptability and in future moves they will have an ever-greater arsenal of tools to use to adapt to their new surroundings. Erika Robertson is a teacher at an international school in Amsterdam and has lived in seven countries so is all too familiar with moving with a family. Her twelve-year-old daughter has lived in six countries, her nine-year-old son, in five. “Even at a young age kids are able to draw lessons from previous moves” she says. “We talk about feeling worried and nervous in new environments, and also about the importance of baby steps. Settling in is a process that happens gradually.” She continues, “it’s really helpful for my kids to know that everyone in their class at school has also been new at some point, and that they also move around as my kids do.”

3. Cultural sensitivity

Your expat kids will grow up between worlds. They’ll have friends from all walks of life. Their worldview will not be insular. They’ll be curious about people, cultures and places. Countries that seem obscure to you will be quite familiar to them because of the cultural melting pot of most international schools. They’ll know about different religious holidays, different social customs and cultural nuances that evade you. Expat kids generally have higher levels of empathy, and understand that different situations call for different behaviour depending on the culture.

They’ll move seamlessly between their Japanese and Spanish friends, will appreciate the directness of the Dutch and what saving face means in Asian cultures. They’ll be excellent at cross-cultural communication. This ability will be a joy to for you as a parent to watch, and will be one of the great gifts you’ll give your child by moving abroad. It’s also a highly sought after trait in our increasingly globalised world. 

4. Your child’s identity won’t mirror your own

You may have lived in the same country your whole life. Perhaps even the same town. Your identity is inextricably entwined with your home country. Taking your kids abroad for an extended period of time will mean that their identity will not mirror your own, and this is something you must be prepared for. Perhaps you grew up in the countryside with cows and sheep grazing quietly in lush green fields, with wide-open spaces all around you. Your kids may grow up in Dubai where farm animals are exotic, or Hong Kong where space is at a premium and there’s no countryside, only tropical jungle and beaches. You may move to Qatar but your TCKs will pick up an American accent from school. In some cases your child may prefer to converse with their friends in an adopted language, rather that their home language, and you probably won’t have a clue what they’re talking about!

Kristin Duncombe is a therapist, coach and author whose books Five Flights Up and Trailing: A Memoir detail the idiosyncrasies of expats and international people. “I do a lot of a therapy and coaching work via Skype with people all around the world” Kristin says. “Parents that raise their kids in an international context are being unrealistic if they think that their children will come out of it with an identical worldview and values from ‘their’ home culture,”

Kristin shares. “Kids generally will adopt and maintain their parent's mannerisms, accent (in their parental language) and tone while speaking, but the content of what they think and talk about may begin to seriously diverge from what their parents believe. Expat kids interact with so many different cultures in the course of their everyday that they develop a fine, nuanced understanding of how others that are different from them ‘are’ - and by how they ‘are,’ I mean how they are equally human and legitimate, even if not identical at a cultural level. This is an important part of what makes TCKs so able to move across cultural lines without fear.” 

5. Your kid will renegotiate what ‘home’ means to them

Your home country will always be home to you. But to your TCK the concept of home will become more complex. Depending on how many times you move, they’ll come to distinguish between their birth country, their passport country and their many home countries. Each place will add to their identity, inform who they are, imprint on their personalities. This is why many expat kids find it impossible to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ They need more precision: ‘where were you born?’ or ‘where do you live right now?’ or even, ‘where do you consider home?’ The answer to each of those questions may be different, and that’s OK.

This constant renegotiation of home and identity may be a lifelong journey for your child, but it’s a celebration of diversity not a loss to be mourned. Indeed TCKs often find they have much in common despite their different nationalities or experiences. They are instantly united by their experience of growing up between worlds.

Conclusion

Moving abroad will impact your child in many wonderful ways. You’ll watch with pride as your child grows, changes and adapts. The skills they learn as kids growing up abroad will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives as they’ll learn to move seamlessly between cultures, exhibit great cultural sensitivity and manage change effectively.

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.