Third culture kids (TCKs) may need extra attention and help from their parents in making friends in a new country. Jinfeng Shen, Expat Nest’s Chinese-speaking counsellor, shares some useful tips for parents who want to support their kids to build strong friendships.
“My son, Henk, is five years old. Since our move to the Netherlands, he has attended an international primary school for six months. He has never been invited over to other classmates’ homes after school, and doesn’t want to invite any of his classmates to play at home either. When I encourage him to be more social, he refuses. When I invited the children of my friends over to play with him, he was unwilling to share and got angry easily when he didn’t get his way. What can I do to help my TCK make friends with other children?”
Stories like this are not uncommon among expat families. It’s a case of the third culture kid having difficulty making friends in a new environment. TCK for short, this term refers to children who spend a significant period of their developmental years in a culture outside that of their parents, and end up creating their own, unique ‘third’ culture.
As we know, childhood friendships are invaluable. Children acquire social skills through making friends, and these relationships foster a child’s sense of belonging and increase feelings of happiness. Since TCKs are living in a culture which is different from their parents’, it’s especially important for them to make friends so they can successfully adapt to a new culture and feel they belong.
Here are some ways you can support your third culture kid:
- Give it time. Though it can be upsetting to see your child struggling and/or feeling lonely or left out, be sure not to jump in too quickly and “solve” things. This very normal transition period offers the opportunity to really understand your child’s emotions and give them space to adjust to the new country and establish a new routine, friends included.
- Teach your child how to start a conversation and enter a group. One child may be very shy, while another barges into a group without waiting for an opening. Both will benefit from learning this important skill! You can teach your child a better way by role-playing: first you model these behaviours, then your child rehearses them. For example, try out this dialogue together: person A says: “Hey, that looks like an interesting game.” After person B responds, A asks: “Would you mind if I played with you?” If B refuses, A could say: “Okay, maybe next time. It could be fun if you want to come and make this puzzle with me.”
- Play with your child to model social skills. Some children may lack the necessary skills of cooperation needed to make friends. You can help teach these by playing with them daily using cooperative toys or games like blocks, Lego or drawing together, while modelling social skills like taking turns, sharing, waiting, and giving compliments. When your child shows any of these behaviours, describe the behaviour and praise it. For example, “You’re waiting so patiently for me to put this block on the tower! That’s very nice of you.”
- Help your child learn how to talk with a peer. Training in conversational skills can help children who are struggling to make friends. Through role playing and games, coach your child to learn skills like introducing oneself, listening and waiting to talk, asking other children about their feelings, taking turns in conversation, suggesting an idea, showing interest, praising others, saying thank you, apologising, and inviting someone to play. Practise only one or two of these skills at first, then prompt your child and give praise when you notice him/her doing them at home. For example, “It was very nice of you to show interest in your friend’s idea and follow her suggestion.”
- Set up play dates and monitor them carefully. Keep encouraging your child to invite classmates to play at home after school. At the start, you will probably need to help out by making arrangements with other parents. You could ask the teacher’s advice on which classmates would work well with your child’s temperament. When friends are visiting, engage them in cooperative activities like building a model, baking cookies and so on. Monitor the play closely and keep the first visits short and pleasant.
- Coach and praise social skills during peer play at home. Choose one or two behaviours you have practised alone with your child. Praise your child by describing these behaviours when you see them. For example, “I see you let Josh choose which of your trucks to play with. That was kind of you!” or, “You two are working very well together. I see you’re helping each other build that high tower.”
Keep the hope
It can be distressing for parents to see their kids struggling like this. Try to stay calm and compassionate when you speak to your child, and take heart from this: it takes time to settle into a new country and school and to make friends. During the transition period, which can take up to a year, be prepared to step in to help your child. If, despite all your efforts, your child is still unable to make new friends, consider seeking help from a professional counsellor.
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