Contributed by Kate S. Berger, MSc, Child & Adolescent Psychologist

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “How do you spend your time?” “What are you passionate about?” “What’s important to you?” and my personal favorite – “Where do you see yourself in five years?” are questions that take some understanding of personal identity in order to answer. I am an expat – or a “culturally diverse individual” – and know first hand that answering these questions is not always easy because it depends who is asking, where I am when answering, and what I am doing when being asked.

Having a sense of self is supposedly grounding because it is the platform from which we step off of to interact with, and impact the world. For culturally diverse individuals, expats or third culture kids (“TCK’s” including intercultural and “global nomads”), this sense of self may not be formed as easily when the context(s) in which they live are changing. Why is this intercultural lifestyle a challenge to identity, and how can we support TCK’s to develop a (more stable) sense of self?

How is identity formed?

Having a sense of self is an individual putting meaning to their existence in a contextual manner. From very early on in development until middle age, an individuals’ brain tries to make sense of all of the information coming in from the outside world. It does this through a process called mylenation, in which basically the brain sorts a whole bunch of input, and the most important/useful/meaningful/relevant information is turned into knowledge that can be applied in a practical way. This process is the mechanism behind language acquisition or learning how to hit a baseball, and also what drives development of sense of self. Many things, including security, environment and stress, can impact it.

What influences identity?

The mylenation process in TCK’s gets the added bonus of complexity due to moving (changing environments). So any sort of habitual processing of information – e.g., developing an understanding of “Who am I” – actually becomes impacted by the relocation. What are the compounding factors?

Security.

Security is obtained in different ways at different points in our lives – studies show that babies will feel more secure when basic needs (like food, warmth, protection) are met; older kids and teenagers feel more secure when reciprocal communication needs are met (e.g., they need to feel like others are listening, and care about what they have to say). A sense of security seems to be pretty important when looking at how an individual is motivated to try new things and take risks, which are characteristics that can define one from the group (e.g., “Am I a risk-taker?” “How do I handle conflict?”).

For TCK’s, a sense of security is often at risk when they are in a new setting because they don’t necessarily know what their support system looks like, and they have new friendships that may not be completely reciprocal, at least initially (kids need to get to know one another first!).

I remember feeling pretty alone in the early days of living in Holland. My friends didn’t know me well enough to know that when I say, “I’m fine” what I really mean is, “Come over right away and cheer me up!” It has taken years (and even more effort!) to be able to explain that I’m this way, and feel that I have a real support system that is responsive to my needs. One can imagine how this sort of scenario would be challenging for a child with perhaps less verbal repertoire to even acknowledge and describe his/her needs in the first place. It can feel like the new environment is not responsive and as a result can affect the way a child engages with his/her surroundings.

Stress.

You can’t have a conversation about identity in changing contexts for TCK’s without looking at how stress is involved. Things like saying goodbye to friends and family, starting at a new school, and having to adapt and re-learn cultural norms are stressful processes that these kids go through. The way in which an individual deals with the stressors is a factor in defining a sense of self – e.g., I am resilient, flexible, anxious, avoidant, etc. General perception equates being able to effectively handle stress with capability, but kids don’t come prepackaged with EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and coping skills, and need to develop these over time with support. So for a TCK that gets the message that he/she may not be adequately dealing, it can have a pretty negative impact on sense of self (e.g., “I can’t handle this” “I am not capable”).

Mindsets.

Research is pointing to another compounding factor in this sense of self-discussion. Mindsets are the various perspectives and attitudes that an individual can operate from. Humans have the unique ability to make use of more than one, however research is showing that switching mindsets actually taxes executive functioning skills. What the heck does that mean?

It means, let’s say you spend a year in a monastery. Can you imagine the mindset – or state of mind – you’re in? Relaxed, few distractions, an internal focus perhaps. Now imagine you decide to relocate to New York City and BAM! there’s another sort of mindset needed (Sounds! Movement! People all around!). Through brain imaging studies and personal account we actually now know that switching mindsets effects the way an individual is able to deal with life: things like staying calm under pressure, making decisions, and even concentration abilities. So some of the ways in which this manifests, for example, is that individuals have big temper tantrums or emotional outbursts, they are unable to make choices, and have difficulties in academic settings. For TCK’s these executive functioning deficits can have a very big impact on day-to-day existence, and again can lead to an individual understanding of who he/she is in various contexts.

How can we support TCK’s so that they are able to gain a more stable sense of self?

  1. Create an enhanced sense of security. One of the most effective ways to do this is by giving TCK’s a platform or voice to share their experiences and express any frustrations (and accomplishments!) that they are dealing with. Being a good listener, asking questions and trying to take perspective are great ways to be supportive in this regard. Families and schools can make sure there is a structure to the support provided by having time set aside to address challenges.
  2. Teach kids skills to effectively deal with stress, because stress isn’t going away any time soon! Mindfulness based stress reduction is becoming a popular way to teach kids how to have present moment awareness to be able to effectively decide how to react in stressful situations. Research shows that this type of awareness not only enhances and an individual’s ability to react in the best possible way (to achieve most desirable outcomes, rather than acting on “auto-pilot” or in defense, for example) but also changes the way the brain engages and responds to stressful circumstances. It is as simple as taking a moment to turn the focus inward (asking yourself, “What am I thinking?” How am I feeling”) and the impact is great. Kids who have learned these types of techniques report feeling more relaxed, more empathic (towards themselves and others); and in a school setting there have been dramatic improvements seen in concentration and creativity skills – these kids actually perform better (as measured by standardized test scores).
  3. Limit the need to switch mindsets throughout the day. Schools can do this by effectively grouping certain activities/classes, and providing “switching space” where executive functioning skills are supported, e.g., take a 10-minute break in between study blocks to do something relaxing – research has long-supported this type of idea in the workplace (think about how business have allowed for exercise time, employees can bring pets into the workplace, etc.).

Finally, an important – if not the most important – thing to consider is that in this process of understanding a sense of self we need to remember that we are all individuals. Rather than trying to group others and ourselves inside our defined boxes of what’s “normal,” let’s make perspective-taking our goal in each and every interaction. By walking a mile in another man’s shoes we will be able to learn more about who we really are.

Author: Kate S. Berger, MSc, Child & Adolescent Psychologist

Child Psychologist Kate Berger, MSc, founded the Expat Kids Club, a private psychology/consulting practice that aims to help young people in the midst of transition. Typical areas that are addressed in practice include challenges relating to relocation, difficulties “growing up,” changes in family dynamics/relationships, confidence and cultural identity, as well as behavioral difficulties. In addition to standardized therapeutic models, Kate incorporates mindfulness-based cognitive therapy into practice. While assisting young people in their expatriate lifestyles, Kate intends improve the quality of life for the entire expatriate family, thereby increasing positive interactions with Dutch society and promoting successful international relations.