TCK Children: Third Culture Kids

Children from Europe, the US and Canada can spend part of their school years in International Schools in SE Asia. Mostly the schools are very good, and those of us who grew up monoculturally can envy them their broader experiences, their bilingualism, their citizenship of the world. But it’s not always easy for them.

I’ve only just come across the term TCK’s. A moving account of them is given in Nina Sichel’s collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011). TCK’s often feel powerless as their families decide to relocate, and they lose their sense of belonging, recognition and connection. In spite of the high quality of their new schools, they may experience loss, which may be hard for their parents and teachers to recognize.

They may not readily come to the attention of the school counsellor; they may appear to be adjusting to their new school world, or be struggling to make friends and join the peers, or be angry and disruptive. I realized met a few: one boy couldn’t express himself aloud for months and even after 2 years was still struggling to maintain focus in some classes, after arriving from London at 5½. Another extremely bright boy from Korea missed his home culture so much it was worth failing in Singapore to be allowed to return home.

International schools are used to the problems of relocation their kids experience and many prepare them well for change and can recognize the problems. But schools in the home country may be clueless. They are just not aware of what the child may be struggling with and have no experience of helping. I have heard of one of two like that, too.

If a TCK comes your way, maybe besides checking out any problems, you can encourage him just to talk, and share his story. She may need time just to open up and then perhaps to mourn the losses she hasn’t been allowed to acknowledge. Singapore is a wonderful place but its not somewhere everyone can easily feel at home.

Written by:
Dr. Tim Bunn
EdD, MSc, BA (Hons), PGCE
Consultant Educational Psychologist

Kids on the Move: Maintaining Psychological Wellbeing for Expat Children

Yana's Blog Pic 31st Aug


By Yana Ricart

There is one constant in expat children’s lives: Movement. Whether it is relocating to a new country, moving houses within the country they live in or coming back from long holidays (“home leave”), expat children are frequently experiencing some kind of change in their lives.

These movements and changes produce contradictory feelings. The loss of familiar situations and the excitement of new adventures coexist during these periods of change. Both children and adults need time to process and make sense of these feelings.

At school, children eventually adjust and make new friends. Since they attend international schools, their close friends also go through many of these changes as well. All of a sudden, their close friends leave the country or neighbourhood, and their daily routine is changed again. They experience movement even when their own family is not going through it.

At home, when the whole family goes through such a period, each person processes the stress in their own individual way. Depending on age and personality, children might display different behaviours (eg. acting out, withdrawing), although the root cause is the same: trying to cope with the stress of moving. Adding all up, it comes as no surprise that levels of stress for the family as a group escalate during these times.

Tips to deal with children’s psychological wellbeing during any kind of Move:

  • Pay attention to your own levels of stress. By paying attention to how you are coping with your own stress, you can demonstrate healthy ways of dealing with stress (eg. taking time to relax or have fun together) and become a role model for other family members. You can also be more emotionally present for the children when they need you, or you can explain to them why you might not be as available at certain moments.
  • Create Familiarity. As soon as you arrive (anywhere), strive to create some sense of routine either through nutrition or activities scheduled throughout the day. You can bring a toy or something they like to the room where they are staying (eg. depending on age, it can be a book, phone). Familiarity helps to create feelings of safety. As they feel safer, children can cope better and start to venture out.
  • Listen to Children’s Concerns. It is very important to listen to what is worrying or concerning the children during this process. When they feel heard and validated, they can process their feelings easier and they can start taking steps to go out and interact with their new surroundings. While you listen, you can also normalize the situation by explaining that these feelings are natural, using examples and books appropriate for each age.
  • Help them start tracing their own resilience stories. Even little children remember things that they’ve done well in the recent past, if you help them recall these situations. Focusing on those moments and how they managed to do well, will connect the children to a memory of success. From those memories, when they engage in other types of activities (eg. sports, arts) in their new environment that display their strengths, you can help your children start tracing and experiencing their own resilience stories.
  • Be patient and allow adjustment to unfold. During this transition period, be patient. Depending on the child and their own particular situation, adjustment can happen quickly in some areas and not so quickly in others. In the meantime, notice positive behaviour and praise children for their efforts. It will help in the adjustment process, teach children positive interaction and also make it more enjoyable for all in the family.

Putting it all together: Balance-on-the-Move.

When kids learn to ride a bicycle, they stumble, they fall, and they get back on the bicycle. Slowly they learn to balance and to realize that their centre of gravity moves with them as they ride their bicycle up and down different paths.

Maintaining psychological wellbeing during movement and transition requires a similar search for balance. As we try to understand what stresses and concerns us, we try to create feelings of safety. At the same time we remember our strengths and resilience, and how we have succeeded to adjust to new surroundings in the past. We practice patience and we finally realize that our centre moves with us as we move along a new path.

We learn to balance and we can help our kids discover their own balance-on-the-move!

Written by:                                                                                                               Yana Ricart                                                                                           Psychotherapist                                                                                                 SACAC Counselling

Challenges for Ex-patriate Couple Relationships

Anita's Blog Pic

People are disturbed not so much by events as by the view which they take of them` Epictus, first century AD.

So you’re here! You`ve successfully made all the necessary transitions to living abroad, however perhaps your mutual decision to relocate is proving to be more difficult than expected. The reality of living where practically everything is different in terms of your prior lived experience has dawned and perhaps you`re finding the relationship with your spouse/partner itself to be troublesome. You are not alone. Whilst every couple relationship is unique, most ex-pat couples have the additional challenge of adapting to ex-pat life.

An example of where a problem in the ex-pat couple relationship can occur is when the relocation is perceived by one partner/spouse as affirming and personally and professionally rewarding and by the other as personally and professionally challenging and unrewarding. This can create stress in the couple relationship. It is an example of how differing perspectives of the same situation can be problematic in ex-pat couple relationships, even though both partners welcomed the relocation initially.

When previously helpful support structures are no longer readily available to one or both partners, a sense of isolation can increase the stress within the couple relationship, which in turn can lead to an escalation in conflict. It is important to note however that it is not the amount of conflict in a couple relationship that determines the quality of the relationship, rather it is how the couple manages the conflict.

Assertive conflict management skills are necessary for both partners, to ‘weather the storm’ when problems occur. Good communication is essential. However, we often find it difficult to communicate verbally, reliant as we are to a large extent on non-verbal communication. Empathic listening is a key ingredient in good verbal communication as it ensures that both partners feel understood and heard. Fortunately it is something that can be learned.

Empathic listening is facilitated by an understanding of individual boundaries whereby each person assumes responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example instead of communicating to your spouse/partner “you make me feel” or “it makes me feel” (which is an example of not accepting responsibility for one`s own feelings), rather saying “I feel …. when you or” or “I feel ….when it ” (an example of accepting responsibility for one`s own feelings) is a more assertive style of communication. When each person accepts responsibility for their own feelings, situations whereby one spouse/partner feels blamed is averted and thus is less likely to respond defensively.

It is also important for both spouses/partners to treat the relationship itself as an `organic` entity, something to be mutually cherished and nourished. Making time for each other, in busy ex-pat lives, perhaps doing something enjoyable together is a helpful way to maintain a healthy and happy relationship. Even the simplest gestures like going for a walk together can make a positive difference.

Professional support is available for ex-pat couples and can be very helpful to provide a space for good communication.

Written by:                                                                                                          Dr. Anita Corfe                                                                                              Counselling Psychologist & Integrative Psychotherapist                          SACAC Counselling

Uncertainty – A Situation in Which Something is Unknown (Cambridge Dictionary)

Rachel's Blog Pic.

The term uncertainty defines the experience of many of my clients and many more who are living an expat experience, including myself. If we look at the synonyms of the term uncertain they include unpredictability, unreliability, riskiness, chanciness, precariousness and unsureness. Further to this, feelings of uncertainties include descriptives such as doubt, qualms, misgiving, apprehension, quandary, dilemma, niggle….. It is not surprising then that living with uncertainty can be very unsettling.

Throughout life everyone will experience different periods of uncertainty, for example waiting for test results, job interviews, buying or selling houses. Often these periods of uncertainty are relatively short lived, some might find them exciting, others may find them highly stressful. However, living in a prolonged state of uncertainty can be mentally draining and place strain on families and relationships. Currently among my peers and clients there is a high degree of uncertainty with the highly volatile job market particularly in industries such as mining, resources and finance. Many families are unsure how long they will remain in Singapore. This makes it very difficult to plan ahead further than a few months. Living as an expat family can mean rapid and dramatic change of circumstances. Loss of employment in Singapore often results in cancelled permits whereby families are required to leave the country. Sometimes this means returning to country of origin and sometimes it means taking up an entirely new expat posting. Each scenario involves significant adjustment and many unknowns.

When living in a transient and uncertain state it is helpful to consider what you can do as an individual and a family to develop a greater sense of control.

Working Together As Team
First of all it is important to communicate effectively on decisions. Whilst one person’s job may be driving decisions, ultimately it will effect all members of the family. Therefore it is important as a couple to brainstorm all options and consider the pros and cons of any new move. Doing your research can allay some anxiety, this includes, researching schools, opportunities for work, living conditions, access to health care. Considering whether or not your families lifestyle is suited to the new environment. Also, put some plans in place in the event of a sudden move e.g. emergency saving fund, decluttering, staying on top of admin tasks and taxes. Being organised is a great way to reduce anxiety.

In addition it is important for both partners to be supportive and feel supported. Having empathy for the impact of expat life on each other is imperative. Whilst one partners career may be flourishing another’s may be suffering, this situation may pose challenges for both partners and must be treated with empathy and respect. Appreciation of the new experiences and acknowledgement of sacrifices are equally important and sustaining a cohesive relationship. Value each other’s contributions to the overall functioning of the family.

Build Transferable Skill and Activities
Wherever you are currently situated it can be helpful to invest time and energy into developing skills and activities that are transferable. If you are unable to work, engage in volunteer activities which develop new skills that can be used in different environments in the event of a move. Encourage this for your children as well, i.e. get them to pursue one activity consistently, even if they are trying out lots of other activities. This can provide a sense of stability and consistency in any environment and help develop a solid sense of self. The ability to continue with an enjoyed activity following a move can be a great way of becoming connected with like minded friends. This applies for both adults and children.

Strengthen the Family Unit
Focus on developing strong bonds as a family unit, creating comfort in the knowledge that you have each other wherever you go. This may mean that some of your holidays are just with your immediate family. Or that you have some family traditions that can be replicated anywhere. Weekly routines can also have a calming and bonding effect on families e.g. Sunday night board games, Saturday afternoon bike rides, Friday night movies. Choose something that fits with your family and try to make a point of doing it. If one partner travels a lot it may mean having something you do if they are in town, e.g. Sunday brunch, family pool time, dumpling night……

Focus on the Present Moment
Daily mindfulness check-ins are helpful. Creating some space each morning to check-in with how you are feeling can be great way of gauging how well you are coping. Ask yourself if there is anything that can be done to improve your feelings, e.g. talk to a friend, go for a run. Observe you body as well, noticing if you are tense or tired. Respond consciously to what you observe.

Lastly, enjoy the here and now. Try to avoid spending too much time focusing on the ifs, buts and maybes, if there is nothing you can do in the present moment to effect change. Connect with what you love today. Be kind to yourself and give yourself credit for managing the change and uncertainty.

Writing this made me think of the wisdom of the serenity prayer which can be comforting to bear in mind in uncertain times. Remember, if the uncertainty and change feels overwhelming, reach out for help.

Written by:                                                                                                                Dr Rachel Upperton                                                                                                Registered Psychologist                                                                                  SACAC Counselling