5 Questions to Ask (again) to your University-Aged Third Culture Kid (and the 1 to Ask as a Follow-Up to Each One)

They are grown and flown. But you will always be their parent/s. They have dabbled in decision-making and perhaps learned the consequences of some of those poorer life choices in their independent decisions. But this is a unique time and they may need a little extra guidance, financial support, and an active listening ear more than ever before in their “gone from the nest” adult status. Despite your being time zones away or in the other room, reach out to them. They are adults now, but they need you to play parent in this COVID-19 season more than you realize.

But as an important caveat before you read further. As their parent/s, hold yourself accountable for the safety, intention, and respect you are offering and exchanging with asking these questions. If you are not committed to the responsibility of creating psychological safety and trust between you and your child, and if you are not willing to make sacrifices to meet their needs, this article is not for you right now.

  1. Are you ok?

I remember whenever I had some “heavy” or potentially disappointing news to share with my mom over the phone, instead of her blaming or shaming me with words like “You should have studied harder” or “Why didn’t you go to office hours for help?” or “Did you really need to be out that late?” it was “Are you OK?” or “How do you feel?” She created a space to honor me as a human being rather than prioritize my role as a university student. And there was never an expectation for me to answer this question. If “fine” was my reply, then “fine” with her. She always had another way to get me to reveal my feelings anyhow. In that she probed gently with questions. And listened. She listened and didn’t lecture.

Whether your university-aged TCK is with you in person or if you are calling them in another time zone, ask this question. Even if they are a strong-willed, independent, fiercely report-facts-only young adult, they need to hear this question from you. Even if you didn’t have a family culture of discussing feelings while they were growing up, ask this question. Even if you’re not ok, ask them this question. Even if they don’t answer right away, trust that these three words frame the conversation in a way that they’ll know you’re there for them.

(and the 1 You Ask as a Follow-Up: What can I do?) In a season where there have been broken commitments because of lockdown and event cancelations, perhaps real or perceived mistrust between relationships, and maybe even some poor decision making on the part of your university-aged child (I mean the human brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25), your young adult child/ren need to know that they can count on you to play witness to their grief and hold space for their emotions. Keep asking. Keep waiting. Maybe it is in the asking and in the waiting that you are meeting their need of feeling heard and safe and known. And that will help them to be ok

2. Do you have enough money?

In emerging adulthood, the lessons in financial independence can be at times awkward and trying. Especially for TCKs who didn’t have the opportunity to manage their money as teens in the countries in which they grew up. Personally speaking, with currency exchange rates trying my math skills and credit card fees, the inconsistency of managing multiple currencies contributed to my not having a solid grasp on the value of money. This was (and still is) a growing pain when I try to stick to an “adult” budget. My “self-care” money column in my budget also seems a bit fatter than my “contribute more to the utilities” one. I can always justify it, too. With the added transitions of this season in moving out of residence halls or losing part-time student / service-sector jobs, many university-aged students are feeling the save/spend tension. I would not be offended if my parents asked me this question (and I’m not a university-aged student anymore). And so, particularly in this season, I don’t think yours will be either. 

This can be a telling question to ascertain your child’s access to essential resources, food stock, and self-care pleasantries. One way to gift them in this season is to call one of their local restaurants to order take-out for them. Even better: pay for the delivery of it to their house. Another way is to order some household essentials online to have it delivered to them. One other way is to get in touch with one of their community members to ask if they could check-in on them for you. If you can’t make your TCK a home-made meal, maybe you can ask one of their friends/community members to.

(and the 1 You Ask as a Follow-Up: What can I do?) Even if you don’t have the financial capability (or means) to Venmo, Paypal, Zelle, or direct deposit a double-digit figure to your child, I argue that any amount would be a fun and welcomed surprise. Frame the giving as an opportunity for them to buy a book or rent a movie or UberEATS a meal. Just do it.

3. Where are you spending the summer?

Be prepared not to be offended if it’s not with you. Or a relative. Or a trusted friend or community member. Be prepared to say, “tell me more.” As your child has developed connections with roommates, classmates, neighbors, etc., they have certainly come across unique opportunities to apply their knowledge, skills, and talents in some initiative, project, camp, start-up, internship, etc. this summer. Now more than ever, your child is networking to figure out what the summer looks like. And hey, if it is that they want to spend their summer on your couch, then kudos to that as well! Let them come “home.”

This question may also be important to extend into “the Fall.” Make sure your TCK university student knows if their campus will reopen for the Fall semester. If it isn’t, begin to think through where your child will stay. Think through if your child needs extra cash, a new laptop, and/or a visa for wherever they’re planning to be in the Fall.

(and the 1 You Ask as a Follow-Up: What can I do?) Do you have ideas about how your child can spend their summer near you? Do you have a contact they can reach out to to secure a summer job? Leave it in their court to connect. Are you in another country? Ensure that travel bans won’t inhibit the ability for your child to travel to you. In asking these questions, you are getting a fuller picture of what your child is dreaming about for their future and considering how you can come alongside to support it.

4. Who are you talking with these days?

This is a very open-ended question. It could lead to revealing they’re in touch with their professors, college advisor, former roommates, and friends. It could even be what the gen-z-ers are framing as “plot twist” relationships – also more commonly known as “significant others.” Who may be contributing to their attitudes, impressions, and perspectives of this time?

This question could also be an indicator about their daily routines. Are they maintaining communication with people across time zones? If so, it may mean they have a choppy sleep schedule. Are they sitting in front of Zoom all day? It could mean that they are not getting enough physical exercise. Are they missing their friends? Encourage them to write them an actual hand-written letter to them.

(and the 1 You Ask as a Follow-Up: What can I do?) This is really asking yourself if you think there are people your child could do informational interviews with. Help them to make those connections. This can lean into understanding more deeply how they are dealing with this season both emotionally and physically. Do they have peer social support and accountability? This is an indicator about how they are managing their relationships from campus. Gently encourage them to maintain them.

5. What transition does this remind you of?

This question goes into reminiscing about how you have navigated as a family in other circumstances that required a “quick release” from place, people, and/or purpose. Without the ability to practice the RAFT (reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination) model in action, you and your TCK are uniquely equipped to navigate this season with added empathy and understanding because you have navigated transitions without enacting RAFT before. You may not realize how pro you are at maintaining relationships across time, space, and distance compared to your mono-place/mono-cultural peers and community. As expats, there have been variations of “social distancing” when your globally mobile community has changed frequently. It may be interesting to reminisce about these instances with your TCK university student.

Perhaps your TCK university student will be able to help their roommates, classmates, and greater campus community to heal from the unsaid goodbyes and unframed closure, to move on with new and relevant connection opportunities, and to look to the future with hope and purpose. Your TCK has gone through multiple transitions before and is navigating it now with grit and grace. Encourage them to model this leadership to their peers who are struggling with all this transition.

(and the 1 You Ask as a Follow-Up: What can I do?) This may be a triggering question. If you as a family had some choppy transitions, it may unearth some trauma or unresolved grief from a previous situation. Ask this question if you are emotionally, mentally, and even financially equipped to provide support for your TCK college student navigating through this season. It’s a time of radical transition on multiple levels, so be prepared to have a support network to come along beside you in hearing their answer to this question.

As your TCK university student is “adulting” in new and often time challenging ways, it can be helpful for them to hear how you are navigating this season. Comments like “I’m struggling this way” or “I came across this helpful/funny/informative/etc article” or “is it ok to …..” can ease your young adult’s concerns if they are “adulting” wisely. Continue to be their parent/s in your vulnerability, authenticity, care, and love.

“All of these are invitation questions”

All of these are invitation questions. Questions for dialogue and that will assess the trust and safety you have with one another. What are the psychological consequences if you don’t show up for your TCK university-aged child during this time? Put aside your fears and insecurities to lean into the (dis)comfort of developing an adult-like relationship with your child. Take the pressure off yourself to “fix” or to “lead” the relationship with your child; rather, lean into the role to be a guide on the side, to connect, and to validate feelings. It’s a tension of independence and dependence but create and nurture the mindset shift that you are still needed and wanted. Even if your young adult child doesn’t engage with you in these questions, saying “I love you and I am proud of you” is the starting and ending point they need today and always.

Tell it.

“A story is never complete until it is told, heard, and understood.”

As an Adult Third Culture Kid, I have a lot of stories to tell of my global background. Of my safaris, my international school field trips, my advice on luggage, my speaking three languages in one sentence, my definition of home, my favorite restaurant in Tokyo, etc. When I was a K I D moving to another country, I found it a bit easier for others to understand me – and my story/stories. As just another foreigner in the foreign school, I had an understanding that most of my friends had just moved from another country as well…not their passport country necessarily.  We just got each other…as kids do. And we loved each other’s stories. [You bet ‘Show & Tell’ looked a bit different in the international school compared to a homogeneous one].

But now, as an A D U L T, I’m finding that my global stories are not as well received when I tell them to my coworkers, family, or even fellow adult friends.  The stories are considered, sometimes, as bragging and/or exaggerations. Too Exotic. Too unbelievable.  The (non)reaction I perceive and experience has silenced me on more than one occasion and I have downplayed – or even hid – my international upbringing. Sometimes, I don’t mention my TCKness identity in order to fit in with my new community. I don’t want to alienate myself because of jealousy or misunderstanding.  But this is a T R A G E D Y.  People need to hear my stories. Stories of diversity. Stories of adventure. Stories of what has (re)shaped who I am today.  But it takes an effort on my part to (re)frame these stories so they are heard and understood. I can try to link them to a frame of reference or compare them to someone else’s story.  

But not be silent.  

In telling my story, perhaps I can discover someone else who has struggled with reentry into their passport country and we can tell our stories together, or someone else who has felt marginalized as a minority, or someone who has even used a wooden toboggan to sled down a Swiss alp at 10 years old. 

Hey fellow travelers, TCKs, wanderers, nomads, friends: tell your story so it’s heard and understood.

Post 1: This Adult Third Culture Kid “Non-Blog”

A couple months ago in Western Michigan, I had coffee with Michael Pollock (son of David Pollock, co-author of “Growing Up Among Worlds”) (and by the way the newest edition is hot off the press: “Third Culture Kids”).  We talked about our (non)writing thoughts and discussed the posts we have in our (non)existent blogs and what a (non)blog might look like. Months later…this is my attempt at a (non)blog.  

My non-blog looks like this (right now): the majority of the blurbs are short, most of the posts are succinct, but all of the thoughts produce additional ones.

Perhaps, as this venture proceeds, I’ll have longer posts. Perhaps, I’ll have a lot to say about something. Perhaps, I’ll want to get back into writing more after recovering fully from my second master’s degree academic papers. But for the beginning, expect short.  I have the ATCK change mentality, so expect a mixture of both long and short posts long-term.

I am excited to share with you my

Adult

T H I R D CULTURE KID

thoughts, inspirations, and questions.

To be clear, I’m going with the classic definition of an “Adult Third Culture Kid” : an individual who has spent his/her developmental years living outside of his/her passport country………..And is now grown up.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, inspirations, and questions on this ATCK identity!

Yours,

Megan