Being a kid can be tough anywhere you live in the world, but being a third culture kid in Mexico or another country can be even more challenging for expat families, especially corporate expat families.
What is a third culture kid? In expatland, it is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside of the home country culture of the parents. Third culture kids frequently build relationships with all of the cultures they experience, while not having full ownership in any. If you are an expat family in Mexico with kids, you know what we are talking about.
Lois Bushong knows all about third culture kids, or as she refers to them: TCKs. Lois was a TCK in Latin America for many years, but now works with many expats through her firm Quiet Streams Counseling in Fishers, Indiana, which is just outside of Indianapolis. She also is the author of the book “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile.”
We asked Bushong to tell us about some of the problems expat kids face when their family moves to Mexico or another country abroad.
“Several things can happen, although they do not all happen to everybody,” Bushong said. “Everybody’s different, but the main problem many experience is repeated grief. Kids are constantly saying goodbye, so the grief cycle just keeps going over and over. I think one of the biggest challenges children have that can come back and haunt them as adults is unresolved grief. Many have not processed the grief that often comes with moving abroad.”
Bushong said unresolved grief might lead to feelings of continual rootlessness later in life. Third culture kids who do not or cannot deal with the grief often suffer from long-term depression.
“TCKs often do not know where they belong and feel out of sync with the world,” Bushong explained. “Most often it is unresolved grief from all the transitioning and moving they have been through. The best way to deal with this is to have them talk about friends they have lost and create understanding by having them discuss what they are feeling and why.”
Bushong believes that addressing this issue head-on when the family first moves to Mexico can lessen problems TCKs may experience later in life.
“Parents should talk about the move with their children far enough in advance to give everyone time to adjust,” Bushong said. “Too often I will ask a child how they found out about the move and they will say they were told about it on the way to the airport. No chance to say goodbye to their friends.”
Parents, Bushong said, need to bring kids into the planning process early. She recommended parents talk about Mexico, find it on the map and provide coloring books of the country to get younger kids involved. For older kids, let them do some of the country research, see a movie about the country and, if possible, do a family field trip to the country.
“I think parents set the tone by their words and actions,” Bushong said. “If mom and dad are moaning and groaning about the move, that has to have a negative effect on the kids. But, if you can tell them it is going to be an adventure that we are all going to do together, that is a big help.”
Of equal help, Bushong said, is facilitating a way for kids to say goodbye to friends and family, which allows them to grieve.
“Having a going away party that allows kids to exchange tokens of remembrance with their friends, exchange email and Skype addresses and say goodbye helps them process the grief and stay connected,” she said.
Bushong also recommended parents pack favorite toys, photos and other treasured items in carryon luggage when moving. “Try to maintain as much as possible the same schedule, structure, rules and traditions so there is consistency in the lives of the kids,” she said. “This helps TCKs manage the stress of moving abroad.”
But even with inclusive planning, some kids still may regress developmentally, Bushong said. “A child that may be potty trained may start wetting the bed, but just be patient, they will come around.”
We also asked Bushong how crucial school selection is in the process of ensuring a smooth adjustment for expat kids in Mexico.
“Very crucial,” she said. “As a parent, you need to figure out what the learning style is for each one of your kids. Do not make a global decision for all of your kids because each child might be different. There are many options to choose from, such as international schools, homeschooling, online schools, private boarding schools and local schools. Make sure you match the child with the school.”
She thinks it is especially important to investigate the school’s philosophy and discipline procedures. “I know of a little boy who had regular panic attacks,” she said, “that were caused by the high school he attended. That school used ‘shaming’ as a motivation to learn. It went on for two years before the parents even realized what was going on. Ask other expats about the school. Do your homework.”
If parents get it right from the planning stage, the benefits of being a TCK are numerous, according to Bushong.
“First and foremost, third world kids are truly global citizens,” Bushong said. “They have a world view that they just could not have gotten growing up in their home country. When you see the world close up, you have a three-dimensional view of the world instead of a one-sided, country-centric view.”
She also believes the enrichment that comes with immersion in a new cultural environment helps expat kids understand themselves and the world much better, as well as providing them with the social skills to adapt to almost any situation.
Fluency in other languages is another major benefit of being a TCK. “I was listening to a panel of third world kids who were all in high school,” Bushong said, “and was amazed at how many languages they could speak fluently. Some of them knew as many as five languages.”
Finally, we asked Bushong to offer a few pieces of advice for both expat kids in Mexico and their parents.
“Well, for the kids, I would definitely say just go have a blast,” she said. “You are going to build memories that you will carry for life. Just enjoy it. For parents, remember to bring kids in at the beginning of the planning process and plan for an event that helps them make the break with friends and family. It helps the grieving process and will make all the difference in the world.”