Third culture risk
Addressing the negative side of a globally mobile lifestyle
Despite the huge benefits of an international education, we know there can be a downside for ‘third culture kids’. Tanya Crossman looks at awareness and risk mitigation in schools.
Benefits and risks
There are many privileges and opportunities associated with life in the international school lane. Exposure to different languages and cultures, access to great resources, and a broad collection of enriching experiences. Sometimes, however, these genuinely wonderful opportunities hide some genuinely difficult things that globally mobile families experience.
In nearly two decades of work with international families, I have seen and heard these co-existing opportunities and difficulties innumerable times. In 2021 I had the opportunity to collaborate with TCK Training and conduct research on the difficult side of life for individuals raised with global mobility. I was so impressed by their work in providing preventive care for Third Culture Kids (including training and support for parents, educators, and other caregivers) that I joined the team. I now spend a lot of time analysing data we gather, and helping international communities apply our research into best practice for TCK care.
Benchmarking the TCK experience
We used the well-studied Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) framework to provide a basis of comparison. ACE studies have been conducted in numerous countries, and strong correlation has been shown between high ACE scores (reporting four or more types of Adverse Childhood Experience) and various negative outcomes in adulthood. Studies in five countries across four continents found 8%-13% of the population fell in this high-risk category.
In our survey of 1,904 TCKs, however, 21% were in the high-risk category. Of those who identified international school as their primary educational experience, 22% had four or more types of Adverse Childhood Experience. The main drivers of these high ACE scores were high rates of Emotional Abuse, Emotional Neglect, and Mental Illness experienced by adults in their household.
TCKs in our survey reported twice the rate of household mental illness than Americans in the CDC-Kaiser study. The high rate of household mental illness in our survey affirms the findings of a 2012 study which found that international workers were 2.5 times more at risk of mental illness such as anxiety and depression than their domestic counterparts. What does this mean for international schools, their students and educators?
Most international educators are under a lot of pressure, and it is vital to recognise this and create margin to compensate for it. That margin may involve showing self-compassion for the level of self-care we require to stay calm and balanced. It may mean needing more vacation time than whatever arbitrary amount we’ve deemed as “reasonable.” It is important to keep in mind that balance in life will look different in every situation.
Finding and maintaining a healthy balance is important not just for self, but for the children we care for – in our classrooms, our homes, or both.
Emotional abuse and neglect
I chose to talk about mental illness and healthy life balance before discussing emotional abuse and neglect because I believe they are connected. The mobility that stresses adults also stresses children – sometimes more so. Children are at their most emotionally needy when their parents have the least margin and emotional availability. In the context of ACEs, emotional abuse includes swearing, humiliating, putting down, shaming, manipulating a child; using their emotions to shame, manipulate or harm them; or acting in a way that makes them afraid they might be physically hurt.
Emotional neglect means that as a child, the person felt unloved or unimportant to their parents, or that their family was not close or supportive. TCKs in our survey reported experiencing both emotional abuse and emotional neglect at four times the rate of American individuals in the CDC-Kaiser study. This does not mean that expatriate parents are four times worse than American parents! But we do know that expatriates are, on average, twice as vulnerable to mental illness.
When your own internal resources are running low, and you have no margin, it is very difficult to fully meet your child’s emotional needs. It is easy to be emotionally absent without ever intending this, or even necessarily realising that it is happening. It is easy to snap at a child when you are stressed. Your child may become sensitive to your stress levels, and stay away to avoid ‘provoking’ you – meaning even when you want to meet their emotional needs, they choose not to go to you.
These ACEs are the easiest to resolve through preventive care – learning what children experience and how to proactively meet their needs, especially through times of global mobility.
The importance of teachers
In addition to preventive care, there is also research into protective factors that make individuals who experience multiple ACEs less likely to experience negative outcomes in adulthood. There are seven Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) derived from this research, half located within the home, and half located in the wider community. When all seven are present during childhood alongside multiple ACEs, the risk of developing depression in adulthood drops 72%.
One PCE is a sense of belonging at school, and another is having two non-parent adults take a genuine interest. This means international teachers have a huge capacity to positively influence the long-term trajectory of their students. Having the emotional energy to invest in students, however, requires maintaining our own mental health and margin – bringing us full circle.
International work creates vulnerability to stress and mental health struggles. When there is awareness of this, self-care and self-compassion can be prioritised so we can best serve the young people we care for. This also means that international schools who genuinely care about student welfare and long-term thriving for their students will invest in margin/mental health support for their staff, and preventive care resourcing for their parent community.
Tanya Crossman is Director of Research and Education Services, TCK Training
Learn more about the data discussed at tcktraining.com/research