The Impact of International Moves on Children – and what Parents can do to Support their Children: Part 1

Advantages of Growing up in a different Country

Children that grow up in different countries can benefit hugely from the experience. They are often more adaptable and resilient, have greater confidence and unflappability than their peers. Their language skills usually far exceed those of others and the advantages of going to diverse international schools cannot be neglected. Their curiosity and openness to other cultures, an acceptance of different ways of doing things and innovative ways of solving problems are second to none and are all skills that set them apart.

Risks of Growing up Abroad

These benefits can come with tradeoffs though. Children that move country for their parent’s work are called Third Culture Kids (TCKs for short). They may grow up to never feel like they truly belong anywhere, are never sure of their identity, and may carry a large weight of unresolved grief with them. The source of this grief is multifaceted but it often boils down to frequent good-byes and transitions. When they are not given the chance to process their losses (such as leaving behind a whole life and switching to another within a few hours) these accumulate as toxic stress and trauma

There are, unfortunately, many other factors that can also lead to trauma for these children, such as experiences of xenophobia or violence in host countries, frequent neglect of their needs over parents’ work expectations, and feeling disconnected from their intergenerational family, to name a few.

Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Toxic stress or trauma experienced as a child or adolescent is termed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). From many studies worldwide we know that ACEs lead to a host of mental, physical and social health problems in adulthood. There is a direct link between the number of ACEs experienced and these issues; for example, just 1 ACE doubles the likelihood of alcoholism in adulthood compared to children with zero ACEs ( Attempted suicide rates, poor job performance, chronic liver & heart health issues, the list is long. But it doesn’t always take until adulthood. Because trauma affects the regulatory parts of brain development children may start to exhibit effects of ACEs by being unable to regulate their behaviour, sometimes being misdiagnosed as having ADHD.

What Parents Can Do

While we cannot avoid moving if that is part of our work or because we truly want our children to reap all the aforementioned benefits, there are things we can do to reduce ACEs and their frightening effects. Positive Childhood Experiences can mitigate the impact of ACEs but they must be experienced consistently, not just sporadically.

Some ways to positively impact your child’s development are:

  • Be consistently present, interested, and supportive of your children and all of their needs. Part 2 of this series will discuss this aspect in more depth.
  • Put children’s needs above work. Come home for dinner. Show an interest in their lives. Regularly spend time together doing things you all enjoy.
  • Take care of yourself and your needs.
  • Create a sense of belonging within your family. This will be a source of stability and consistency even when you move and can work towards fulfilling a need for community and connection.
  • Learn what it means to be a TCK, how this effects their personality and identity.
  • Educate your children about this key aspect of who they are.

Because their environment changes so much when moving having a stable, safe and reliable family unit is critical to TCKs healthy development and growth. Only when they are seen, supported and understood will children be able to take advantage of all those amazing benefits and be ready to fully bring their gifts to the world.

Now more than ever the world needs people with innovative ways of solving problems, curiosity, fearlessness, and a love of diversity. The world needs healthy, strong Third Culture Kids.

About the author: Anna Seidel – As a TCK herself, Anna works as a Global Mobility trainer and supports families living an international life and is fiercely passionate about promoting awareness of the challenges & opportunities children face growing up abroad and helping parents to raise their children with confidence and ease.

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