A Unique Child: Inclusion - Identity crisis?

Moving from country to country can be glamorous and exciting, but life is not always easy for the children involved. Ruth Beattie finds out how early years professionals can help smooth the way

Where do you come from? A simple question, but one the growing number of ‘TCKs’, or third culture kids, find hard to answer. These are children who grow up in a different culture from that of their parents but who also don’t identify with the country they live in. Often attending international schools, they inhabit a third culture, which is a mix of influences.

Amelie, aged eight, is a classic example. ‘She was born in Boston, where we went with my husband’s job,’ says her mother, Kerry Rees. ‘Then we moved to Shanghai and now live in Zurich, where she goes to an international school. If you asked her where she comes from, she would say Wales, as that’s where my husband and I are from – although she’s never lived there.’

Amelie has travelled due to her father’s background in finance. However, other common jobs for TCK families are military, missionary and diplomatic, with many postings lasting just a year or two. And with increased globalisation, the number of TCKs is rising.


There’s no doubt that an expat lifestyle can be exotic – Amelie and her family love their adventurous life. However, for children, it also brings unusual challenges. TCK expert Ruth Van Reken explains, ‘One of the classic traits these children often share is a deep sense of loss. They can spend childhoods in many different countries, always moving on, saying goodbye, leaving friends and homes.’ She experienced this herself, as an American brought up in Nigeria. When, as an adult, she tried to return to the country she saw as a homeland, she was refused a visa. ‘It broke my heart. My childhood, family and memories were there.’

For Amelie, the most profound loss was her friends. ‘She missed little things like Chinese food, but mainly, her friends – she needed a few months to get over that,’ says her mother. For other families, different factors play a part. On the other side of the world, in Sydney, Elizabeth May tells her story.

‘We moved our family from Belgium to New Zealand and then Australia,’ she explains. ‘The hardest was the last move… as a family that loves rugby and sport, Australia was always our rival. The three children felt we were going over to the Dark Side! They also miss our previous house, which we owned, unlike our current rented house. I tell the kids the grass isn’t greener in another country – it’s just a different shade of green. But they don’t always swallow it.’


On top of feelings of loss comes confusion about identity. ‘My children cling to New Zealand,’ says Elizabeth. ‘They feel Kiwi and don’t identify with Australia at all.’ Another, anonymous, mother, based in Switzerland, says, ‘We live here but my children don’t speak German and people often think they are stupid. But when we visit my family in England, people assume they are Swiss or label them as American because of the accent they’ve picked up at international school. They also lack the playground language and cultural knowledge of their UK peers. I sometimes feel they are “neither/nor” children.’

Ms Van Reken sees this cultural confusion as a key TCK characteristic. ‘Often these children don’t know where they are from,’ she explains. ‘In many cases, they don’t speak the language of the country they are in because they attend international schools, but they don’t speak their parents’ language either or know the culture.

‘To form their identity, children need anchors and mirrors. The anchors are the steadiness of community, family and place, which make them feel safe. The mirrors are the people around them, who reflect back the sort of person they might become. TCKs sometimes don’t have these things. Like the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, they aren’t sure who they really are.’


But is it all bad? Take a look at the papers and the answer is clear. TCKs often end up in the news for all the right reasons, with famous TCKs including former US president Barack Obama, who has Kenyan and American parents and spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Ms Van Reken explains, ‘These children are often very open-minded and can think outside the box. They have a 3D view of the world. They don’t just learn from newspapers or television. They’ve visited the countries, they go to foreign friends’ houses and see them talk.’

Other common positives are an ability to make friends fast. They might develop an ability to pick up languages and are often adaptable and culturally aware – cultural chameleons, in fact. ‘These children should be aware of their pluses,’ stresses Ms Van Reken. ‘The fact that they can cross borders and still communicate is a huge advantage.’


Early years teacher Claire Lillywhite has worked in international schools for the past 20 years and currently teaches in Reception at the International School Zurich North. Like any early years teacher, her main job is to help a child feel welcome and create a relaxed, safe environment.

‘We give warmth and stability and we try to give a sense of belonging,’ she says. For children who have just arrived, little things like bringing their own special teddy or comfort blanket make a big difference, because often their own belongings are still in transit.’

A big focus is on making friends, but it is not always easy. ‘We buddy them up with a child who has been at the school for some time,’ Ms Lillywhite says, ‘arrange group activities, suggest parents make play dates and encourage games in the playground involving other students.

‘Young children are quite open to making new friends; however, as they get older, they can become wary of putting in the effort, becoming more cynical, often asking new children how long they are staying. If it is just a year or two, they won’t make the investment because it’s too hard to make friends and then say goodbye.’

Over the years, she has also noticed the value of extracurricular activities. ‘It often helps to keep going with activities they enjoyed in their previous country. Children also enjoy being affiliated to something and have a sense of familiarity – something like boy scouts, with a uniform, gives them a real sense of pride and belonging.’


Along with dealing with transition, celebrating children’s cultural backgrounds is a vital part of working with TCKs. ‘We celebrate cultural, religious and personal festivals with activities, food and crafts,’ says Ms Lillywhite. ‘We try to sing songs in the children’s home languages and invite mothers in to read stories in their mother tongue.’

Being aware of cultural norms is also crucial. She adds, ‘Some parents have expected me to spoon-feed their child at lunch, as that is what is normal for them. I have taught Japanese children who wouldn’t make eye contact with me because they are being polite. Other parents are surprised when we go outside in all weather, and I know Nepalese students who wouldn’t dream of asking questions in class as they feel it is rude.’

This resonates with Ms Van Reken. ‘I visited a school in Korea recently, where parents had called a meeting because they were worried the teachers didn’t know what they were talking about. In fact, during lessons, the teachers had asked the children, “What do you think?” to open discussion. The parents had misinterpreted this as the teachers not being sure about the facts.’

It is vital to support these children’s unique needs. ‘We need to tell them it’s OK to be from different complex cultures, and to give them the words to explain who they are,’ says Ms Van Reken. If we can support them through these extra challenges, surely their unique cross-cultural viewpoints can benefit today’s fractured world.


Acting president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, Lisa O’ Connor, explains moving affects children depending on their age. ‘Younger children without language have no concept of loss and might know something has changed but not what,’ she says. ‘They could cry, change feeding patterns, be irritable and have no interest in toys around them. Older children, on the other hand, can show a range of behaviours when confronted by change, from increased aggression or angry outbursts, separation anxiety and clinginess, to headaches and mood swings.’

She has the following tips for early years professionals:

Children absorb emotion around them, so stay calm and cool in the face of change.

Be tolerant of difficult behaviour while providing secure boundaries.

Liaise with and involve parents, ensuring everyone is giving the same message.

Explain what’s going on with age-appropriate and factual information – don’t use euphemisms.

Put in place supportive measures such as a key worker system.


The term TCK was first coined in the 1950s by American sociologist Dr Ruth Useem.

Ruth Van Reken is a speaker, consultant and co-author with David Pollock of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds(Nicholas Brealey Publishing US). The revised edition is available on Amazon (http://amzn.to/1ElsMOP) from September.

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