One of the most common questions I get asked in my work is:
“What are we doing to our kids when we make them grow up abroad?”
The reality of raising your children away from their ‘home’ culture is that you make some things much harder for them and at the same time you give them some incredibly valuable experiences that fundamentally shape the adults they will become. One of the most challenging tasks that they have to accomplish is building their cultural identity.
A useful activity that you can do as a parent is to draw an iceberg picture. Like a real iceberg, what we see above the surface of the water is only a small part, we know there’s much more below the surface but much of that is hidden. Similarly, many people only know a little about us and make assumptions to fill in the gaps. There is so much more to us below the surface, created from: our family and it’s traditions; places we’ve lived; things we’ve learnt; people we know, etc.
Ask them to fill in the above the water line with the things that are obvious and below the water line with the things that they know about themselves that mostly others do not. Obvious or hidden, easy or difficult, happy or sad – it all goes into the pot that makes us unique and special. Encourage them to celebrate the good and learn from the hard.
In their book Third Culture Kids (TCKs), David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken state, that (57) “three common reactions are seen from TCK's as they try to sort out their identity issues:
#Chameleons - those who try to find a
‘same as’ identity.
They hide their time lived in other places and try to conform externally through clothes, language, or attitudes to whatever environment they are in.
#Screamers - those who try to find a
‘different from’ identity.
They will let other people around them know that they are not like them and don’t plan to be.
#Wallflowers - those who try to find a
‘non identity ’.
Rather than risk being exposed as someone who doesn’t know the local cultural rules, they prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch, rather than to engage in the activities at hand.
So what can you do if your child is showing signs of being a Chameleon, Screamer or Wallflower? For all of these, you can go back to their iceberg picture, reinforcing that not only are they unique but so is everyone else.
For the Chameleon, they specifically need encouragement that they are OK just the way they are. Just like the other kids they may be emulating they bring their own special mix of skills, experiences and ideas – they are just as valid. Don’t stop them from wanting to fit in but create activities where they can reveal their particular cultural strengths.
The Screamer needs to be encouraged to go with the flow more. Using the iceberg picture to think about the hidden depths and skills of others can be really helpful. Arranging activities that ‘show off’ the positive aspects of the host culture that connects to something your child likes: trying new food, visiting local places, researching a gruesome piece of history, finding out about inspiring people etc. You need to help them find good things in the host culture.
The Wallflower is harder to spot. Some kids will naturally be watchful and cautious when they first arrive, finding out how things work before joining in. This is very appropriate. You can speed this process up by giving them information about ‘how it really works here’ and reassure them that it’s OK not to get it right first time. When it lasts for more than 6 months, you need to encourage them to engage and give them plenty of opportunities to do so. This works best if you can link it to something they are good at and has a social aspect e.g. playing a team sport does this whereas practicing the guitar alone does not.
These parenting tips should help your child strengthen their own cultural identity and help them get more from their overseas adventure.
N.B. If you are worried about your child you should seek the advice of a professional. If you have difficulty finding a school counsellor, or child therapist please contact me and I will endeavour to help you find someone appropriate.