Third culture kids and transition

By Sherill Hostetter, former co-director of Human Resources at EMM

Third culture kids are a mixture of the cultures they have experienced in their growing up years. Your children may experience transition and cultural stress in different ways than you do. Children are flexible and adaptable, but they will need acceptance and support during the “flexing” time of transitions as they experience struggles with new experiences.

Signs and symptoms of stress in your children:

  1. Acting out their frustrations and anger
  2. Happy children may become sullen and quiet
  3. Even-keeled children may become moody and unpredictable
  4. Children can either cling to parents or refuse expressions of affection
  5. Children may become manipulative to gain attention or seek control if they feel out of control
  6. Day-dreaming and a look of disorientation
Physical and social:
  1. Nightmares
  2. Bed wetting
  3. Stomach aches or headaches
  4. Nervous tics
  5. Household arguments increased
  6. Breaking of household rules increased
  7. Grades may drop
  8. Anti-social behavior to gain attention
How to be helpful to your children:
  1. Give generous doses of affection!
  2. Affirm each child in their identity and skills!
  3. Select family traditions to carry on no matter where you are in the world.
  4. Create an environment of trust that will help your children verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Practice helping them identify what they are feeling day by day. Count it a privilege to hear your children’s emotions. Treasure their honesty and openness.
  5. Plan fun and games regularly to relieve stress.
  6. Plan regular family times of sharing and praying for one another.
  7. Help them choose some special keepsakes that will give them a sense of their former identity as they develop a new one.
  8. Help them understand the culture from your perspective and learn about the culture from their perspective; respect the things they are learning.
  9. If children are old enough, around 6 and older, try to find peers who understands missionary kids that they can regularly be in touch with in person and/or by email.
Ages of children and their ability to express their dis-stress:

Ages 0 to 1: Will continue on normally through transition, but will pick up signals of stress from their primary caregivers.

Ages 1-5: Children notice changes in environment, food, temperature, language, travel and differences in people. They need the security of as much time as possible with the same care givers. Most feelings will be expressed in “acting out” behavior or crying for no known reason.

Ages 6-12: Give them assurances that everything is fine by parental time and attention. Favorite toys, extra hugs and affirmations of love and affection are vital. Discipline for inappropriate or unacceptable behavior should continue as a stabilizing effect. They can handle knowing exactly what is happening and when it will happen. Usually their level of enthusiasm for change will match that of their parents.

Ages 12-14: Usually have a difficult time making transitions because they are in the midst of a great deal of personal growth and change. It is important to give them room to have swings of emotions from childish responses to very adult insights into their feelings. Time invested talking with young adolescents before transitions happen as well as during and afterwards can prevent a lot of stress. Allow them to participate in some decisions.

Ages 15-18: They will struggle with losses. They need to be able to see positives in the transition. If it is possible for them to verbalize these positives they may gradually come to peace with the transition. When they are expressing feelings either negatively or positively at home, it is a sign of a sense of security in the family relationships. Accept and appreciate the depth of their feelings and treat them with respect.

(“Third Culture Kids and Transitions Between Cultures” by Lynn Kuitems, Heartstream Resources)

  1. Raising Global Nomads by Robin Pascoe
  2. Raising Resilient MKs, Joyce M. Bowers, editor
  3. Families on the Move; Growing up overseas and loving it by Marion Knell
  4. Third Culture Kid Experience by David Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken
  10. Among World’s magazine    contains encouraging articles for TCKs; it is geared toward older children and adult TCKs.