Living abroad with teenagers: opportunities and challenges

Living overseas, away from our familiar comforts, presents both opportunities and challenges, especially for children and adolescents, explains Gil Woodley, of the Inter-Community School Zurich.

Living abroad with teenagers: opportunities and challenges
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 Those of us who choose to live overseas often worry about how much of an impact raising our children away from their parents’ home culture will have on them and their future lives. However, Gil Woodley, of the Inter-Community school Zurich explains how a great deal of research into expatriate children has shown that there are many advantages to raising a child internationally.Children from expatriate families have been called ‘third-culture kids’. David C Pollock, one of the key researchers in this area, offers the following definition: “A third-culture kid is an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture other than that of the parents, resulting in integration of elements from both the host culture and parental culture into a third culture.”

Benefits and challenges of being a ‘third-culture kid’

Researchers have identified some important characteristics that third-culture kids share. For example, they are often able to develop friendships quickly and at a deeper level, because they have had to do so with each move.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsThey are self-confident, possessing flexibility, adaptability and often a high degree of independence. They often become innovators and leaders. In addition, teenagers may exhibit higher levels of maturity than their home-based counterparts.Importantly, they also develop the ability to move between cultures, through their linguistic skills and their cross-cultural awareness. They develop what David C Pollock calls a “three-dimensional world view” because it includes not only knowledge but also understanding and empathy.Pollock says, “The sense of security in getting around in the world and acting appropriately in it is significant preparation. The person can become a cultural bridge and an active, positive influence in an increasingly intercultural world.”So there are many powerful benefits that come from living internationally, but there are some challenges. For example, during the adolescent years, young people are working out their identities, distinct from their parents, and friends and peers become central to their lives.Since many teenagers at this stage of development feel emotions intensely, the kinds of disruption – to social life, sense of stability, and so on – that they experience during moving can put a great deal of stress on them and their families.The research into third-culture kids gives us some strategies for dealing with the impacts of such transitions. The first point to emphasise is how central the family is to the well-being and sense of stability of third-culture children. For third-culture kids, relationships are more important than geography, and their families become extremely important in providing a centre to their lives.

How can you help children to cope with change?

Bill and Ochan Powell, two experts in the area of third-culture children, affirm the importance of stable families and state that “children need parents to share a strong set of values and beliefs with them (and if they don’t have that framework of values, it is damaging). They don’t necessarily need to have their roots in their national culture.”David C Pollock and Ruth E Van Reken, in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, argue that the parent-to-child relationship is the most important factor in how international children face the challenges of living abroad. They argue that third-culture kids need to be valued, to be thought of as special, to be protected, and to be comforted.These factors are true for all children, but in the context of living far from home the need for this kind of care becomes acute. Pollock and Van Reken suggest some simple strategies that can help to meet the emotional needs of international children:
  • Parents can listen carefully to their children’s concerns and behaviour and try to understand the reasons for it
  • They can value children’s contributions to discussions of things that will affect them, such as a global move
  • They can also ensure that there is family time available for being emotionally (and physically) present

How can schools help to support children during the transition?

There are also a number of ways in which families can help their children to adjust when they relocate. The Powells suggest that parents should work with the school their child is leaving to support children in saying goodbye.Some international schools will also have programmes in place to assist both parents and children. Parents are well advised to take advantage of these and gain from the expertise available within the school community.For example, at the Inter-Community School (ICS) in Zurich, there is a well-established programme which has now been in place for several years to help with the transition into the new school and which can also assist families when they have to leave.After the move, parents can support children by helping them find new groups of friends and ways of connecting with others. Parents can also work to maintain bonds with family left behind at home, a process greatly assisted by current social-media technologies.Living abroad is a challenging, at times stressful, but ultimately rewarding experience for families who have the good fortune to do it voluntarily. As the Powells state, “In an increasingly interdependent world, we need people who are able to see things through the eyes of other cultures. That is a great opportunity for third-culture kids.“In many ways, children with an international education are at an advantage.”For further information about the Inter-Community School Zurich, visit 
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