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  • Eva Tarabichi

Expat parents: Raising third culture kids? How to give them some extra stability!

Something a bit different today, which I love working on with my international parent clients: Being somewhat of a third culture kid (TCK) myself and currently raising my two sons in neither their dad's nor my own home country, I have devoted a lot of time researching this topic.

What will the impact of our decision to move abroad be on our kids? How do we accompany them, so that they can get the most of these amazing opportunities but also overcome challenges like frequent moving, rebuilding of friendships, finding “home” in different places? If the parents are not TCKs themselves: How can we understand the identities that our children will end up having, how will they be different from ours?

One element – and this is really just one little element of this big topic – is the stability that parents can provide to their expat kids. As the authors of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds point out, the relation between children and parents becomes even more important in families that frequently move.

It is easy to understand: While teenagers usually work out their identity around their friends and peers, frequent good-byes and changing friendships make this harder for expat kids. Being able to “fall back” onto a stable family, can help through the experience of disrupted social lives.

"RAFT" - 4 active steps to steer your family through transition with stability

In times of transition, parents can take active steps to accompany their children, thus providing additional stability. I really like guiding parents who are about to move through the “building a RAFT” technique suggested in Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think destination.

Now what does that mean?

Reconciliation: As a first step of building your family’s raft for the transition, think of leaving in peace. Putting an end to any unresolved conflicts or insecurities will give your kids the peace of mind they need for a smooth transition. It will make the leaving process easier, as negative experiences will be able to stay in the past thus allowing for a clean and positive new start. To give you an example: When leaving Malaysia as a 15-year-old teenager, I had had a typical teenager fall out with my sports team, which up until then had meant everything to me. Sadly, I was not guided to resolve this conflict before leaving and so it travelled all the way around the globe with me to our new destination. The start in my new school would have been easier had I dared to get onto a new sports team again. However, with that unresolved conflict still very much alive in my memory, I did not and was therefore quite lost on how to find a new hobby and new friends.

Affirmation: This is the step that allows us to give recognition to those that are important to us, to say goodbye in a positive way and in some cases prepare the maintenance of the relationship once we have moved. It is about saying thank you to all those that helped you create your home and that have been a positive presence in this chapter of your life: teachers of your kids, friends, neighbours, people in charities or churches you were involved with etc. It can even be places that you hold dear: your family’s favourite restaurant, your kid’s sports club, a beautiful park that you would often go to… Affirming that you had a good time and that there are important people and places that you are leaving behind is the next step to helping your kids have a stable transition.

Farewells: Anyone who is important to you and your kids deserves a proper farewell. I would even add: anything. Leaving people and places behind is starting a grief process. Even if you and your kids are looking forward to your next destination: give them a chance to grieve properly! A healthy grief process acknowledges their loss, and that gives them the chance to then move on. By hosting farewell parties, collecting memorabilia (possibly a photo collection of all the aspects of your life in this place; a box full of memorabilia; an album with notes from friends etc), talking about what will be left behind and the sadness that may be connected to this and deciding together which things to take and which to leave, you give your kids the chance to say their goodbyes and take the time they need to grieve all while showing them that you are there and that you take their emotions seriously.

Think destination: Think about your destination together with your kids in a realistic way: Don’t try to manipulate them into looking forward to a new destination by exaggerating positive aspects and leaving out negative ones, to make your own life easier. It sounds a bit harsh, but I have seen it happen quite often. Parents try to outweigh the sadness of leaving by making up an idealised dream-destination. But: If you over-idealise your new home, think of the room for disappointment you are creating. Being as realistic as you can will help everyone, once you arrive! What will your kids’ life look like? Will they attend schools that are different from what they know? For example, switch from an international school to a local one or vice versa. Will they live in a similar house? Have their own rooms, or shared rooms? Live in the countryside or in a big city? And what are the implications of all of that?

A second aspect of thinking destination is engaging with the community in your destination even before your actual move: contacting schools, hobby clubs, other parents, the expat community… It will give you much needed information that you can then use to create – once again – stability for your children.

 Caring for yourself, so that you can provide stability

Besides the 4 steps of the RAFT framework, I have experienced through my clients that it helps tremendously when expat parents pay extra attention to themselves.

It is like the famous airplane-oxygen-mask analogy: You can’t provide stability for your kids if you aren’t in a very good place yourself.

So, introspect a little bit: Is there anything I feel unhappy about with this next move? Am I feeling like I am sacrificing something important (career, support network, comfort zone etc.) and do I feel equipped to handle this? Will the relationship-dynamics with my partner change, due to this move, and how do I feel about this?

Again, these are but a few examples, but you see my point. Taking the extra time to work these and similar issues out before the actual transition begins will make you a happier person and will furthermore give you everything you need to accompany your children in the best possible way. 

Are you interested in finding your very own way of providing stability for your family in your expat life? In need to re-align yourself with your next move abroad? Interested in being accompanied through the RAFT process? Or maybe you’d like to hear more about how to prepare kids for an international move?

You can reach me on +44 (0)74 868 57457 or via e-mail:

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