Raising Resilient Third Culture Kids

Third culture kids have accompanied their parents for work or study overseas during their significant developmental years, before 18. They are often described as people who build relationships with all of the cultures they have lived in, but not having full ownership in any, so they have “the culture between cultures”. “To be special and confused” feeling influences the kids so much, that’s why attention to this problem is so important.

Children live internationally for many reasons, for example, as immigrants, refugees, or due to their parents being expatriates; although there are many similarities among these experiences, there are also differences. Emotional and relational aspects of being such a kid are needed to be explored.

Childhood plays a crucial role in shaping one’s identity formation and sense of belonging to cultural, ethnic, and racial groups. These experiences are instrumental in helping individuals navigate and comprehend the world, as well as acquire essential social norms and behaviors necessary for adaptation within their cultural context.

During the process of acculturation, whether it occurs at schools, playgrounds, or hobby centers when children from different cultural backgrounds come into contact with each other, conflicts can arise. Living in multiple cultures creates a unique emotional experience for third culture kids. They may struggle with a sense of not fully belonging to any one culture. This liminality is characterized by a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. They may experience grief as a normal response to their globally mobile childhood. They may face cultural homelessness, which can lead to lower self-esteem. However, affirmation, belonging, and commitment to any cross-cultural identity can buffer the negative effects of this process and contribute to higher self-esteem. The outcomes will be mutually beneficial for all involved.

The acculturation process varies greatly among individuals and groups, as they employ different strategies such as integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization. These strategies play a significant role in determining the level of stress experienced and the extent of psychological and sociocultural adaptation achieved.

In addition to cultural group and individual variation, there are variations within families: among family members, acculturation often proceeds at different rates, and with different goals, sometimes leading to an increase in conflict and stress and to more difficult adaptations. Also, a person’s desire to maintain positive connections with both cultures, known as an ‘integrative’ or bicultural acculturation strategy, may be hindered by psychosocial pressures such as assimilationist policies, multiculturalist policies, the racial and cultural composition of their community, and personal experiences of discrimination. Additionally, individual factors like personality traits can also impact their ability to fully embrace both cultures.

In general, individuals who pursue an integration strategy, which involves actively engaging with and embracing aspects of both their own culture and the new culture, tend to experience lower levels of stress and achieve better adaptation compared to those who choose other strategies. It is essential to recognize the value of supporting children in their bilingualism and encouraging the study of languages from multiple cultures as part of the acculturation process.

For parents, actively supporting their bilingual children in learning and maintaining languages from both their home culture and the new culture can be a beneficial strategy to help them navigate the third culture experience. By fostering proficiency in multiple languages, children gain a valuable tool for communication and understanding within diverse cultural contexts. This linguistic flexibility can enhance their ability to adapt and find their place within the third culture, facilitating smoother integration and a sense of belonging.

Moreover, being bilingual gives children a broader perspective and a deeper appreciation for different cultures. It allows them to bridge gaps between cultures and fosters empathy and cultural sensitivity. Language dominance and the number of languages known by third culture kids significantly affect their personality profiles. Multilingual individuals, who are proficient in their first language and one or two other languages, tend to score higher in open-mindedness and cultural empathy. Functional multilinguals, who know multiple languages, exhibit similar personality traits. This suggests that language proficiency and multicultural experiences can shape one’s personality. Learning each other’s languages is supported by sharing each other’s food preferences, and adopting forms of dress and social interactions that are characteristic of each group. Globally mobile individuals are often able to understand and appreciate more than one point of view, and such kids are more comfortable with ambiguity than most other people.

Growing up as a third culture kid presents a range of challenges and benefits. By equipping children with linguistic skills and cultural understanding, parents can help to facilitate their successful acculturation and promote their overall well-being in diverse cultural environments.

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