Raising Global and Mobile Children – Challenges and Solutions for International Families

Kristin-Duncombe-Therapist-Coach-GenevaWhen visiting The Hague, I had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of Kristin Duncombe, one of my global mobility heroes. You’ll see why when you read on.

 Kristin is highly qualified to talk about raising global and mobile children. Her passport says she is American but her life story would beg to differ. Kristin grew up travelling the world as part of a Foreign Service family, only returning to the USA to study at the age of 18. She is a parent to two Third Culture Kids (TCK), the wife of a patriotic Argentine, an author of two expatriate-focused books and a psychotherapist working with international and expatriate families. Currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, her life experience informs her work.

Kristin is a problem solver. “As a clinician, what I love even more than theory is what to do,” she said. The remainder of her presentation centered on the challenges, but more importantly the solutions, for raising global and mobile children in the 21st century.

Main Challenges for Global and Mobile Families

The globally mobile lifestyle is a unique experience. Opportunities afforded to global and mobile children are among the richest sources of learning and provide platforms for them to be a cultural bridge between and among worlds. With these unique experiences also come challenges for all family members, as Kristin identified.

  • Loss of social context and peer support every time they move
  • Integrating once they get to the new place
  • Discord and turmoil in the family – the not-so-happy emotions and trials are often not discussed. Mental health, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and addiction to sleeping pills are just some of the issues swept under the carpet.
  • The uncertainty of where to go for help – even in the international school system, parents don’t want to ask for help from the school counselor because it means they’re not perfect

Critical Tasks for Parents of Global and Mobile Kids

There are several things parents can do to help their children navigate the challenges in order to make the most of their global lifestyle:

  • Understand their culture(s) of origin: tell the stories of past generations and both parents’ developmental years
  • Get along in mainstream society: for when they return to their passport country but also in the host country, beyond the ‘expat bubble’. “We need to help our kids get in touch with a certain quality of life wherever they live. Quality comes from a sense of connection to local humans wherever ‘local’ happens to be,” Kristin explained.
  • Deal with the cultural disconnect (between both or all places that the family live/ have lived): keep the dialogue open and honest
  • Deal with the hidden immigrant: when returning to the passport country. TCKs may look and sound the same but can be so different from those who have grown up in the one culture.

Based on her experience of returning to the US for college, and that of many other TCKs with whom she has worked, Kristin highlighted the importance of working through these steps before the university transition. Describing her experience of arriving at her university in rural Massachusetts for the first time, Kristin said, “[I felt as] foreign as the international students.” She implored parents of TCKs to look carefully at international factors when searching for universities, including curriculum and student population.

Key factors impacting a kid’s reaction to a move or feeling different:

  • Age/ development stage
  • Personality/ temperament
  • Family dynamics – What is happening at home? If the adults are not doing well, it will have a major impact on how well the kids are doing. “When we are talking about TCKs and supporting them, we really need to think more holistically and look at the entire family,” said Kristin. Every family member needs support.
  • Outside support and structure – if they don’t know how to access services and/ or they’re too embarrassed to ask, they won’t get the services needed.

penguins-parenting

What Helps Children?

 Kristen provided a variety of tools and methods to help globally mobile children work through the challenges and thrive.

Healthy role models and coping strategies

Parents are the first role models for their children. Kristin encouraged the audience to reflect on the messages we are passing on to our children. For example, it is easy to say, “it’s been a really hard day, pour me a glass of wine please” then turn around and say to an adolescent child, “Don’t drink!” or “What! What do you mean there’s going to be alcohol at that party?”

Access to trusted adults outside the immediate family

The ‘expat bubble’ can be a very close-knit community but as part of that, sometimes families are not allowed or willing to talk about certain things that may be going on in their lives. “Kids can feel suffocated by not having someone trusted to talk to,” said Kristin. She reinforced the importance of building and maintaining linkages with other adults the children trust. This can include adults in other countries, thanks to video chat technology, and/ or therapists.

Clear family and school rules about expected behavior

This is the number one thing that arises when Kristin deals with families in crisis. From the parents’ perspective, they feel guilty because they have made their child move across the globe. She gave examples such as, “I don’t want to say no because my kid is so upset,” or “I don’t want to impose a curfew because my kid may feel like they don’t fit in,” or “I don’t want to say no to staying up all night communicating with friends in different time zones.” All kids need parents who are understanding but are still in charge. They need boundaries. 

Recognize your child’s identity may be different from your own

“This is one of the most important things parents of global and mobile kids need to get their heads around, because when you raise your kids in a way that is different from the way you have been raised, in a country that is different from the country you have been raised in, kids don’t turn out to be just little photocopies of yourself. They turn out to be people with different identities,” Kristin explained. Parents need to embrace and respect what, how and why they identify with their cultural identity. “It is not the parents’ decision. It’s the child’s decision,” she said, “and it takes on a whole other level when the children are from a cross-cultural marriage.” Parents must respect their children’s choices.

Practical suggestions

In line with her problem solving approach, Kristin provided four practical suggestions every globally mobile family can embed into their daily routine.

  • Create opportunities to discuss
  • Jump at every teachable moment
  • Talk about yourself, your thinking patterns and all your emotions
  • Strategize using a solutions-focused approach

Solutions Focused Approach

solution puzzle piecesThis approach looks at what is already working in a problem-saturated situation and builds on that. “Even if it’s just a tiny piece,” said Kristin, “connect with the one thing that is okay.” A solutions-focused approach helps people realize they are already connected to solutions and they are not drowning in their own problems. The remainder of Kristin’s presentation focused on specific solutions for global and mobile kids dealing with loss, being a new student, and thinking erroneously before introducing her MERCI Model to help them move forward.

Dealing with loss

What to do if the loss is:

  • Attachment: respond with rituals and ceremonies that work for your family members. Acknowledge the passages of time, for example, a goodbye party, write letters, a ‘hello we’re here’ party or letters. “Closure is essential for new beginnings,” said Kristin.
  • Competence or how to get along in a new place: acknowledge successes and acts of reliance. Develop self-efficacy by providing opportunities where you know they will succeed then really celebrate that success. For example, sending your child on a task to buy a loaf of bread at the corner store or find the yoghurt in the large supermarket, bearing in mind cultural appropriateness.
  • Meaning: encourage insight and understanding to help your kids explore the meaning of their life.
  • Control: use involvement to restore control. “Don’t let kids take over but invite them into the house hunting or school hunting process,” said Kristin.

Being a new student

Advice gathered by Kristin from former new students: 

  • Make the first move
    • Ask the question – why should people like me?
    • Bring up everyone’s favorite topic – themselves. Ask or tell them something about themselves.
    • Remember quality not quantity – find one person with whom you feel okay.
  • Have boundaries
    • Learn how to say no in the quest for approval and trying to fit in.
    • Don’t just take anyone on as a friend. Say to yourself, “I decide with whom and how I’m going to spend my time,” said Kristin.
  • Get enough rest
    • Do not stay up all night talking with friends in different time zones.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day
    • Decide what feels most important to work towards socially
    • Break your goals down into bite sized chunks
    • Take one step at a time and one day at a time
    • Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – practical strategies to change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking patterns, feelings and behaviors.  What we think has a direct impact on how we feel which impacts what we do which then impacts what we think. It’s a cycle. “We as adults know how to break things down but our kids need to learn how to do this,” said Kristin. We need to help them.

Thinking errors

If appropriate, Kristin suggested using humor to turn erroneous patterns of thinking around, such as:

  • Negative glasses: when speaking negatively about everything, respond with, “wow, you are really wearing the antithesis of rose-colored glasses. Let’s try to take off those negative glasses and look at this from another angle.”
  • All or nothing thinking: “Everyone is horrible, nobody is going to like me.” Respond by helping them to close the gap so they can see they are not usually in that extreme territory of everyone or nobody.
  • Mind reading: when you hear a phrase such as, “no one’s going to like me,” respond with “wow, I didn’t know you had learned how to read minds.”
  • Fortune Telling: when your child thinks they know what is going to happen, reply with “wow, I didn’t realize you were clairvoyant. You know and you haven’t even been there yet.”

Kristin reminded us to be culturally responsive when dealing with thinking errors and to remember the key actions of paying attention to the thinking patterns, seeking healthy alternatives and asking for help if needed.

Merci blocks 2MERCI Model

Kristin’s final solutions-focused approach was her own MERCI Model. Informed by her life experience and work, she firmly believes young people should be thinking about the following five things as they move forward in their life.

  • Mentors: do you have a mentor in your life? If not, who can you find to mentor you?
  • Expectations: what are your expectations for yourself? Are you meeting these? Whose expectations are they? Are they your parents’/ school’s expectations? Are your parents’/ school’s expectations reasonable? Is there room for dialogue?
  • Relationships: who are you in relationship with? Family? Friends? Do you have quality relationships with these people?
  • Choices: what choices are you making in your own life? Are those choices advancing you towards the quality of life you’re hoping to build for yourself?
  • Identity: who are you? Where are you from? Do you have a vocabulary to articulate this because knowing who you are, positively impacts mental health?

It is clear, from Kristin’s presentation, the family unit is crucial. As parents, we have a responsibility to support and guide our global and mobile children through the challenges and triumphs of living between and among cultures. Looking at what is already working, even if it’s just one thing, and building on that, is a great place to start. Kristin’s practical, straightforward strategies can be implemented into any family, any time. It’s never too late.

This article was written by Jane Barron and originally published in Insights and Interviews from the 2017 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference – Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on The Move

Further Reading Resources

Websites

www.kristinduncombe.com

Books

Trailing: A Memoir, Kristin Louise Duncombe, CreateSpace, 2012

Five Flights Up: Sex, Love and Family from Paris to Lyon, Kristin Louise Duncombe, CreateSpace, 2016

Image Credits

Kristin Duncombe

Pixabay

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