As you may know, our two sons grew up, for more than half their childhood years, outside their home country. That makes them Third Culture Kids, or TCKs. Recently I have been thinking about how our sons react to their world. I wondered how much their experience as Third Culture Kids actually affects them today, now that they are adults. I was especially interested in how TCKs make friends, and how their experience differs from others in that area.
For a refresher, I looked at David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s textbook called, Third Culture Kids. The chapter on Relational Patterns discusses how Third Culture Kids (TCKs) make friendships and how that affects them later in life.
Their research can help parents of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) understand their children better. Here’s an excerpt:
“During childhood and beyond, all our experiences of mind, heart, body, and spirit–cultural, emotional, physical, geographical–all of the moves, the relationships, the places, the losses, the discoveries, the wonder of the world–are layered one upon another through time.”
You may have that noticed your TCK makes friends and maintains friendships in a much different way than you or your husband. Basic personality influences the way all of us relate to others. If your TCK is more extroverted, he can talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. He may have a huge list of friends, yet have no one he will turn to when he is troubled.
If your daughter is more introverted, she may be quite comfortable by herself, yet long and look for one special friend. This part is largely built into us from our genetic predisposition to personality type.
Then our experiences from youth onwards affect how we make friends. You may have several close friends you share intimately with. Some of these friends may date from as far back as primary school. Your husband, on the other hand, is able to form strong relational bonds for a period of time, and then go on to others in a different stage of life. Perhaps his experience of networking in the business world has taught him this skill.
However, you may see a totally different dynamic in your children’s relationships.
They are growing up between worlds. Because of that, they usually experience more losses than children in a more stable setting. Depending on how well they make the transitions, their ability to make and keep friends will be affected. Some transitions are like having their security blanket ripped to shreds before their eyes. Other transitions are easier, neater. In the best outcome, the transition adds color and vibrancy to their lives instead of deep pain. I suspect, though, that there may always be a little pain, no matter how sanguine our child appears.
TCKs usually live a mobile lifestyle. They may not be the ones moving a lot, but many of their friends are mobile. This adds up to a lot of friendships and a higher incidence of separations as well. They have friends on the field, perhaps in boarding schools, as well as friends and relatives in their homeland. This means many more meetings and farewells than is usual for the child back home.
How quickly they make friends, how deeply those friendships develop, and how they end seem to follow some discernible patterns for TCKs.
Pollock and Reken describe the various levels of communication as people get to know each other. While this happens in different ways in various cultures, here is one common pattern for how relationships are established.
1. Superficial level: This involves conversation generally referred to as “small talk”–How are you? Where are you from? The weather or today’s headlines.
2. “Still safe” level: This is an exchange of no-risk facts. Where did you go on vacation last year? What sights did you see?
3. Judgmental level: Here, we begin to risk a few statements about our opinions on politics, religion, or other matters about which our new friend might disagree with us.
4. Emotional level: We begin sharing how we feel about life, ourselves, and others (e.g., that we’re sad, happy, worried, or depressed).
5. Disclosure level: We reveal our most private thoughts and feelings to another person, confessing secret dreams as well as painful failures. This stage involves an honesty and vulnerability that leads to true intimacy. Most of us only have a few people in our lives with whom we share at this level. Some people have no one to share such a place.
Our TCKs respond in all of those levels, but here are some differences, too:
1. Because of the culture they have been living in, those levels of relationships may have been switched. Some cultures seem to skip from stranger to cousin very quickly. Other cultures seem to consider it rude to speak to your next door neighbor.
2. Because they fear or know that the relationship cannot be long-term, they skip quickly to the deeper levels.
3. Because they are more adept at building relationships they may move more quickly to deeper levels.
4. Because they know much more about their world, they may be ready to talk about religion, politics, and other hot topics with depth and maturity.
5. When they encounter other TCKs they form a much deeper relationship more quickly than with non-TCKs, because they feel understood.
Now let’s consider other effects of multiple losses on relationships:
1. They may struggle with a fear of intimacy because they fear loss.
2. They may erect walls to keep relationships from going to the third and fourth levels of communication, even without realizing it.
3. They may limit their vulnerability to impending grief by refusing to acknowledge they care for anyone or anything. This can cause the profound pain of isolation if not dealt with.
4. They may have a ‘quick release’ when separation is impending. They quit calling or getting together before it is actually necessary, so as to avoid pain. Then they may wonder why the other is upset for ‘abandoning’ them.
5. They may pick fights. To them it seems more comfortable to be angry than sad.
6. They may just completely refuse to say goodbye.
I think I have seen some of those effects with my own TCKs and those of friends. They find friends at home shallow and parochial in their thinking. Years as a TCK have made one a good communicator, able to capitalize on other’s needs and interests. For that skill, he is highly esteemed in his work. He can talk to anyone about almost anything they want to discuss, and do it well.
Others make lots of acquaintances, but have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships. They want friends, but it takes more time and work to develop them.
So what can you do to help your TCK?
Our children are a combination of genetics, family dynamics, and their experience of living outside their home culture. We can’t change their genetics, but we can help them see blind spots and learn to be thoughtful about how they relate to others. We can do much in our family dynamics to make our home a secure place for growth, a safe place to bring friends, and an anchor in a shifting worlds.
We can make many, if not all, our transitions less damaging to our kids if we prepare them well for the change. Give them plenty of time to adjust to the idea of a move and some voice in the arrangements. The family should focus on helping each member make a good transition and not get too caught up in the rush of details. Good community support, both in leaving and arriving, can help our kids deal with their sense of confusion. Being able to maintain some friendship from a previous posting when in the new place, makes the loss of other friendships less painful. Keeping some routines the same in the new place makes it feel more familiar, more quickly.
Remember too, your attitude of adventure in learning a new culture and making new friends will set an example for your children. If you dread the move and show your feelings too much, they could pick up the same negativity from you. Keep it real, but keep it positive.
Just being aware of how your lifestyle influences your children can help you raise confident, capable, happy adults. Most TCKs turn out great. Your children’s lives will be richer because they have experienced more of the world. Help them embrace the adventure.