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The challenge of raising healthy children abroad

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

It is often a challenge being a parent whilst raising children. We all try our best to do a great job. Living abroad and bringing up children must be even more difficult. As Anna Seidel contacted me, I was fascinated to learn about her and her work. It was a bit of an eye opener, learning what expat life does to you and your family. This is the reason why I asked Anna to answer some question for my blog about her work with expat families all over the world. Here's what she said:

Dear Anna – who are you and what do you do?

First of all, thank you for the opportunity to highlight something I am very passionate about: raising healthy children abroad. We call them Third Culture Kids (TCKs). I’m a mother of three and a lifelong expat with a US-American passport. A TCK myself I’ve lived on four continents and am currently in Germany with my family. As an expat coach and trainer I support parents to raise mighty & strong kids abroad while also not neglecting their own needs, passions and dreams.

What are Third Culture Kids (TCKs)?

TCKs are children that have spent a significant part of their childhood outside of their parent’s culture, usually with the intention of returning to that culture after a few years. They are a subset of a much larger group called Cross Cultural Kids (CCKs), defined as a child that has meaningfully interacted with two or more cultural environments during their developmental years. For example:

  • the children of a Canadian couple living in Germany on an assignment for three years are TCKs.

  • The children of a German mother and a Danish dad living in Germany are CCKs (meaningfully interacting with two cultures). If this family moves to China for a few years they are also TCKs (living outside of their parent’s culture).

What should parents of TCKs be aware of?

First of all I’d like to highlight some of the wonderful skills and abilities TCKs may develop. According to my experience and a recent survey of TCK parents these include: acceptance of diversity, resilience, flexibility, confidence, and a tightknit family unit – just to name a few.

What parents caught up in the midst of raising kids and adjusting to life in a foreign country don’t always realize is the flip side. TCKs often struggle with identity issues (Who am I?), a lack of belonging (Where do I belong? Where do I feel “at home”?) and grief, brought about by the many ways in which they have to say good-bye to people, places and things in their lives.

These issues usually don’t manifest until they are adults. Then they may have difficulties committing to anything or anyone, tend to change jobs often and break off relationships.

Mental health issues are not uncommon in TCKs that haven’t processed their experiences and haven’t developed a strong sense of self or belonging.

How do you help parents and children?

The first step is for parents to understand and acknowledge that their children’s childhood experiences are fundamentally different from their own. Parents can actively support their children by being curious about the TCK experience, gathering information and being open to learning more.

A strong identity and sense of belonging is THE key to raising resilient, happy TCKs. What stays the same, when everything changes? The family unit. Parents must create a safe, stable environment for their children to be able to thrive, wherever they are.

I offer workshops for parents to develop an understanding of the challenges their children may face and how they can support them. But I also run courses for families to develop stronger bonds and a greater cohesiveness, to identify what makes them “them”, what rituals they have and want to maintain, wherever life takes them. These are fun, creative bonding experiences for everyone.

Additionally, I offer individual coaching for parents to support them on their expat journey. This has been especially helpful for accompanying partners that often struggle after a move.

What are your tips for parents and children arriving in a new place?

Be curious! Be adventurous! But develop routines as quickly as possible and mirror them as closely as you can to what you were doing in your last location. Children of all ages love routines because they are predictable and comforting. When everything around you is changing it’s good to know that every morning starts the same – maybe bring a favorite cereal bowl along in your suitcase – and every day winds down with bathtime and reading.

Maintaining routines as much as possible will help the entire family adjust more quickly. We have a Friday movie night ritual which we’ve been able to continue everywhere – from hotel rooms, Granny’s house, temporary housing, to our living room – and that is very important to our children (Ok, to me too. I love watching movies).

I like to gather as much information about a new place as I can before arriving. I share photos with my children, listen to the new language (YouTube!) and talk about what we might expect. Especially if we know things already, eg. how the school day will be different or where we’ll be living.

Our children are very involved in sports and music so I try to find out ahead of time how we can continue these lessons. The Internet is helpful but it has its limitations, which is why it can be so helpful to have someone “on the ground” to support you. This could definately be someone like Sandra and her family agency.

For myself as the accompanying partner I research volunteering opportunities, running clubs, and expat support groups. Facebook has become invaluable for finding these types of connections and information pre- and post arrival. It’s often the seemingly little things that help us feel more like ourselves that these groups are perfect for, too e.g. “Where can I get my hair cut by a stylist that speaks English?”

What were the biggest challenges for you and your kids, arriving in Germany?

It was funny to watch our children adjust to life here. They weren’t used to the independence so the first time we sent them off to a explore the playgrounds on their own they came back after 5 minutes, unsure of the new freedoms.

The challenges were often small things relating to daily life at school. For example, figuring out what supplies were needed or learning to write down your own homework assignments and when the tests would be given. We learned that the hard way…

Bigger challenges were finding all the extracurricular activities and getting into them. These things are important for continuity but even more critical to start finding connections, making friends and – ultimately – building a sense of belonging within the community. Going into lockdown just a few months after we arrived has dramatically slowed down all of these things but we are doing our best.

For myself it has also been difficult to build a network. I’m fortunate to have friendly neighbors but I did “help” things along a little by delivering bags of cookies along with a note and my phone number. One of my mantras is to “use whatever resources you have”. Sometimes that’s a friendly puppy, a cute child, baking skills, a friendly smile, helping out where you see a need or asking for help – you’d be amazed. It takes time but will eventually pay off.

Did you get help? If yes, from whom?

It would’ve been wonderful to have help finding all the classes I needed for the kids and a place for me to make friends but there’s nothing like that and like Main(e) Familienagentur here. I got help from other parents but only because I asked. Every day at school drop-off I would ask someone a question – Where is a good trail run route? Do you know any Kung Fu schools? Can you recommend a piano teacher?

Sometimes these were burning questions I needed answers to, sometimes I used them as ice breakers. When you and your children are trying to break into an established community, to find connections, you have to put in the work. You have to show up and eke out a space for yourself. Be open and curious about local culture and customs.

Anything else you want to add?

If you’ve read this far, you’re a curious, interested parent and definitely on the right track to supporting your children as they grow to be powerful global citizens. Remember to look after yourself, too. Only when we are healthy and strong, can we be fully present and supportive of our children.

If you would like to participate to my research on parenting TCKs or to stay up to date please sign up for my newsletter . There is a freebie (Top 10 Tips for moving with Kids) for all new subscribers. And please reach out out with any questions and comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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