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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

TCK and ECS - what are they?

Third culture kids and expat child syndrome!

Raising children abroad means for them to be different, being the odd ones out. And not just in their expat country; in their home country too – that’s if they even have such a country.

Perhaps they look the part, perhaps not. Perhaps they sound the part, perhaps not. All combinations of these come with a layer of not fitting in: Looking and sounding the part, but not feeling, being or behaving the part can be as painful as looking and sounding different.

With the latter, there’s an expectation from locals that you perhaps don’t understand the local culture and language; whereas when looking and sounding the part, people are baffled to notice that you may not fully understand a certain situation.

Between my children, amongst other things, they experienced teachers forgetting that English wasn't their first language, their mum initially not understanding the importance of wearing a red poppy in school and neglecting to provide party bags ready for their birthday parties. They didn't understand the custom of not inviting all children to said parties, nor the stranger danger alerts or calling their teachers by their last name.

They felt out of sorts with their peers back home as schooling, language use, work ethics, and respect for authorities were so different as was the approach to going out, partying and drinking alcohol when they returned as teenagers. An interesting, and at times steep learning curve for us all.

The term Third Culture Kid was coined in The States in the 1950s: A TCK is a child spending their formative years in cultures/places which are not those of their parents. So, if you are a foreigner living and raising your children in Denmark, your children are TCKs.

Advantages & challenges of Third Culture Kids

Being a TCK comes with a set of advantages and well as a set of challenges; and some children even develop what is called Expat Child Syndrome:

  • TCKs are multi-cultural, their upbringing influenced by many different cultures; and they often develop a unique cultural adaptability meaning they navigate well across national and ethnic cultures. They often grow up to have great diplomatic skills. The span of different cultures, however, often means they grow up feeling rootless and lack a sense of belonging.

  • TCKs are often masters of change. Their worldview is expanded, and they have a clear understanding that a problem can be viewed from many different angles. In addition, they also gain an ability to adapt to various cultural, religious and societal norms – and as such, they become more flexible and resilient than most mono-cultural kids. The downside of this is a potential lack of cultural belonging and identification; their chosen lifestyle becomes dependent on their host culture and it can be difficult to develop a grounded sense of cultural identity.

  • Often, their identity is anchored in people rather than places: They become the people, they have met. The world becomes their playground and neighbourhood; and they struggle pinning down where “home” is. Their friends might be scattered around the world; and is home the name of the country of my passport, where I was born, or where I have lived the longest or currently live? Their parents’ home country often has status of a holiday destination; and even if it’s their birthplace, they often have only a vague concept of the place – perhaps they don’t even speak the language, and most certainly they don’t understand the culture amongst their peers.

  • More often than not, TCKs are bi-or multilingual. Amongst the advantages of this is academic advantages, it becomes easier to pick up a third language, increased competitiveness in the job marked; and research even shows cognitive advantages in relation to some diseases.

  • One of the biggest challenges for TCKs is repatriation. They move from an international environment to a national environment where they are unlikely to befriend other children, adolescents or even adult students with a similar background. Whereas the parents may still have an idea of their home country and definitely understand the culture better having grown up there, TCKs returning to their passport country often feel out of sorts and have difficulty fitting in. They may look, even sound the part, but they are anything but.

Expat Child Syndrome, ECS

If your expat child, most often teenagers as they rely on being able to mirror themselves in and take support from their peers, suffers emotional distress from international moves and life, it’s call Expat Child Syndrome. This can occur at all stages of a foreign assignment as well as after repatriation.

Symptoms of ECS

As all children and teenagers are different, they might react differently to their circumstances, but some of the most common signs of ECS are behavioural changes such as

  • Seclusion and feelings of isolation

  • Sleep issues: excessive sleeping or lack of sleep

  • Mood swings: prone to tears, irritation and anger

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Different eating patterns: lack of eating or overeating

  • They express themselves differently emotionally

  • Disruptive behaviour

  • Friends: Have they made friends whom they feel comfortable with, have they lost contact with good friends or have they started mixing with people different from those they normally would?

If your child shows any of the above or other behavioural changes, they may suffer from ECS. As their parent, you might feel at loss about how to handle this, but there are plenty of things you can do to support your child.

How to support your child if you think they suffer from ECS

  • Be curious about their new life: school, extra-curricular activities, friends, difficulties, advantages and excitements.

  • Ask open questions about their life – the old and new.

  • Accept that they may be grieving the loss of their usual environment and circle of friends. You may feel that you brought this upon them, but support them in their thoughts and feelings; let them know they aren't alone.

  • Support them in creating a new life and in keeping up with the old new. A fine balance!

  • Accept that it may take some time for them to settle in and feel confident again.

  • Seek professional help if you feel it's out of your depth.

You can read more about supporting your expat children in Denmark here.

If you are struggling to support your expat child and would like my support, you can contact me on e-mail or tel 0045 5188 6187.

Two kids with Converse sneakers sitting on a graffitied wall


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