Why is understanding familial relationships so important when relocating?

Moving to a new country and a new culture is to make the decision to raise your child/ren as Cross Cultural Children (CCK) / Third Culture Kids (TCK). This is widely considered an amazing opportunity, even a gift if the parents get it right, or nearly right. To make the most of the experience, however, there is a responsibility for the parents to do what they can to help the child not just survive, but to thrive in this cross-cultural existence. A child, irrespective of where they are raised, needs a consistent, nurturing, and loving environment. There are a few building blocks that can help secure a stronger foundation for the child and are considered vital when being raised across cultures. Here are a few pertinent ones from Pollock and Van Reken to get started.

The Parents’ Relationship

Commitment – Parents need to be committed to each other, their relationship, and the family and most importantly share a collective goal. They may need to be willing to make some personal sacrifices to achieve this goal.

Support and Respect – If the parents’ relationship is strong – showing clear signals to the child that they support each other and help each other get through the difficult days – this reassures to the child that everything is ok, that we are ‘strong together’. In turn this creates a sense of security. This is one less worry that the child needs to carry.

Desire to Nurture Relationships – A cross-cultural move can instantly disrupt the status quo of a relationship. It is important that parents recognise that with the move, aspects of the new culture will intrude on their private time. A mixture of willingness and creative thinking may be required to keep the relationship alive and growing for everyone’s sake.

The Parent / Child Relationship

The parent to child relationship is the most important one in any child’s life. This is where children start to form their identity, their sense of belonging, and feel that they are believed in and are valued. This is the parents’ job. It is ‘an intentional job’ and especially so if raising children across cultures.

Children need to be valued – Children feel valued when they know that what they think and feel matters and that they makes a difference to the people around them. This means that parents/ caregivers need to be tuned in and sensitive to their thoughts and feelings. Showing interest by asking questions, wanting to understand why the child acts in a certain way, and listening not just hearing are examples of healthy parenting. When the child has been moved out of a familiar environment, it is important that the parents try to see their child’s new reality through the child’s eyes, not from an adult perspective. For example, it could be that the adults are excited about the new environment, whereas the child may be absolutely terrified. It is vital that parents become increasingly more sensitive to their children’s behaviour and feedback, all the while listening deeply and never brushing off their fears or concerns.

It is common for parents not to involve children in making big decisions in order to protect them. Even though this may seem the right choice at the time, it does not help the child feel valued; indeed it sends  the opposite message to them. For parents to determine how well they have actually listened to their children, cross -cultural educator Shirley Torstrick suggests that the parents can ask themselves a number of questions, such as: When does your child prefer to do their homework? What makes your child sad? What is your child’s biggest fear? What embarrasses your child the most? The more the parent is able to answer these questions correctly determines how well they know their children and in return how valued their children feel.

Children need to be special – A child needs to feel special, that nothing could replace them, that they are unconditionally loved and accepted for who they are and have a solid place within the family. This needs to be demonstrated in actions, for example, if the parents are involved in highly demanding jobs, it is important to find time dedicated to spending quality time with the family. Children invariably need their parents to be more physically and emotionally present than the pressure of work allows, and parents need to be sensitive to this.

Children need to be protected – Everyone needs a sense of safety; children rely on their parents to give them this. Knowing that their parents will protect them whatever happens can be more complicated than usual in an unfamiliar environment. Levels of safety differ from country to country as do cultural norms and their do’s and don’ts. Sadly, there are many unfortunate stories about TCKs not getting the protection that they needed at a critical time. Parents can help protect their children by preparing them for the new environment, for example, learning some basic words in the host language, explaining cultural differences, or letting them be the individual that they are and not necessarily expecting them to follow their parents’ footsteps as little missionaries, military brats, little ambassadors etc. Maintaining regular contact and communication between child and parent is essential to develop a feeling of protection. Parents are also responsible to teach their children personal safety and privacy. Children need to know that they will always be protected and that the parent is ready to step in and protect them unconditionally.

Children need to be comforted – All children need to be comforted and this shows them that they are cared for, are important, and are understood. Transitions can be very difficult times for children and comforting them through them is paramount, even if the child seems to be coping just fine and presents as their usual self.

The Importance of the TCK’s View of their Parents’ Work

It is believed that a TCK can and is willing to address more of the obstacles they face when their parents are obviously happy with their current circumstances (career/location etc). If parents are experiencing dissatisfaction on any level with a relocation and/or job, this sentiment will in time permeate into the family circle. Examples of this are parents openly complaining about an employer, being intolerant with the local culture and people or critical of the host country. These behaviours and attitudes encourage children to adopt the same or similar attitudes. However, if the parents are content with the relocation this equally will filter down to their children. It is natural that children internalise their parent’s behaviours and attitudes and it is advisable that parents are acutely aware of this. For children to have a solid foundation, the parents must create a stable and constant existence through a strong core belief and value system that can be relied upon and resorted to irrespective of what country or situation they find themselves in. This strong foundational pillar of stability will remain with them throughout the TCK’s life.