Third Culture Kids Face Unique Stresses and Unique Solutions

Distance can be stressful. Descriptions of -- and solutions to -- the stress of the international life were on full, candid display at last month's Sea Change Symposium on Global Youth in The Hague, Netherlands.

Sponsored by Sea Change Mentoring and led by founder Ellen Mahoney, the symposium was a half-day series of lectures and discussions by experts in the community of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). TCKs are a distinct, but often overlooked, subculture of children who are not quite expatriates but not quite natives of the countries in which they live. They often hold multiple passports and, because their families have moved or because they relate to different countries and cultures, they can't quite identify where their "home" is.

I was honored to speak on the unique challenges that these kids face when they approach the college application process. More on that in a moment.

As much as kids and parents get wrapped up in everyday affairs, including work, school, travel, errands, and all the rest, the symposium was a call to keep a broader perspective in mind. Those daily stresses are magnified when students don't have the anchor of a familiar culture, a comfortable place, and friends and neighbors with whom they can relate -- and not merely hang out with. Ellen told her own story of depression and substance abuse that resulted from her wobbly upbringing in Japan and Singapore; it made her transition to college in rural Ohio, of all places, that much harder.


Each speaker, including psychologists, teachers, and counselors, spoke of the often silent pain that afflicts TCKs. Even if they live someplace comfortable like The Hague, when their parents are diplomats, missionaries, or international businesspeople -- often with moms and dads from different countries -- kids are often along for the ride, and a bumpy one at that.

This is heavy stuff, needless to say. What Ellen and Sea Change Mentoring does is match up students with mentors, who meet with them online once a month. They go through exercises and discuss specific topics related to the TCK experience. The goal is to help kids articulate the problems they might be facing and, ideally, to help them address and avoid problems before they even happen. As I told the audience, the college application process presents an incredible juncture in which TCKs can take stock of their experience and explore their feelings about their jumbled upbringings. (They also need to take practical steps, like plan well in advance, and do extensive research on colleges.) What's more difficult is to ensure that students approach the applications process, and the college experience itself, with the right frame of mind.

Online mentoring makes sense for TCKs since, by definition, they might be living in random parts of the world, or even moving from place to place. Expertise might be hard to come by, and dependability and trust may be even harder.

What I loved about this discussion was that the power of the Internet was on full display. Amazingly, the same approach that ArborBridge uses to prepare students for standardized tests is, in many ways, the very same approach that Ellen uses to help TCKs conquer some of their biggest anxieties. The difference is that the SAT is as sterile and objective a challenge as you'll ever see; mentoring is as touchy-feely as it gets. And yet, kids can reach their academic goals and find emotional stability. What's the key? I think, clearly, it depends on the quality of the tutor and mentor, respectively.

Of course, not every TCK is going to work with Sea Change and ArborBridge, and that's OK. I think everyone who spoke and attended the symposium came away knowing that the TCK and expat communities are strong and warm, and just having these discussions makes parents, teachers, and other adults more aware of the challenges that kids face. That's a fantastic first step towards realizing the best parts of global citizenship and helping them grow into adults who can make equally deep connections with friends and colleagues both next door and around the world.

-Josh Stephens

Speakers at the Sea Change Symposium:

Ellen Mahoney, Founder, Sea Change Mentoring

Kate Berger, MSc Child & Adolescent Psychology, Expat Kids Club, Amsterdam

Killian Kroll, President of Third Culture Coach

Sara McMickle, Counselor at The American School of The Hague; Director of ASH's A Safe Harbour Program

Katherine Fortier, Child and Educational Psychologist, The Hague

Doug Ota, Author & Psychologist, The Hague


About ArborBridge

An elite full-service tutoring company, ArborBridge is a world leader in educational support services, both globally and in its home base of Los Angeles. ArborBridge has pioneered online tutoring for everything from the SAT, ACT, and ISEE exams to academic support for middle school and high school students. Through its innovative online tutoring platform, ArborBridge has reached students in over 40 countries worldwide. ArborBridge's in-person tutoring services begin in early childhood, with its exclusive Essential Skills Program and continues through high school with support in every academic discipline. ArborBridge also specializes in helping students with mild learning disabilities reach their full potential. ArborBridge's tutors and directors are worldly, dedicated educators who have graduated from some of the top universities in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, MIT, UC-Berkeley, and UCLA.

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