She sat across from me as we engaged in an earnest debate about life, philosophy, and the realities of marginalization that others seemed to ignore. I felt lost – I wasn’t a trained mentor, I was nearly twice her age, we were raised on different continents, and she was just exploring her boundaries while I had established mine, but in that moment I also felt a connection. She was a third-culture kid (TCK) and so was I, so we understood each other even if we didn’t always speak the same life language.
A third-culture kid is one who grows up in a different culture from the culture that his or her parents grew up in. Counseling, mentoring, and other support outside of the classroom is available to most students today. However, are the TCK’s particular needs being recognized and met? A TCK easily employs their adaptability to portray confidence. They often hesitate to ask for guidance even while they are questioning and searching for meaning. Their layered approach to life can complicate decisions such as which major to pursue, who to befriend, or how to establish their values. A TCK grows up believing their life is “normal” when it is anything but. Their experience with handling inordinate amounts of change in a short span of time, from schools to languages to cultures, may lead the TCK to feel they shouldn’t need mentors as they should already be equipped to handle life.
This is particularly seen in the struggle to maintain long-term relationships. The TCK learns to get close quickly and end things abruptly, rather than engage in the natural ebb and flow of bonding. Social media may keep the connection but doesn’t provide tools to handle conflict and be vulnerable without fear of rejection. Having a mentor who understands their particular set of challenges is important to help the TCK thrive emotionally.
There are a number of ways a mentor can address the particular needs of a TCK:
- Let them talk about their world in relation to the wider world. Their need to stretch intellectually and emotionally requires a mentor who acknowledges their inner tension to adapt to peers while living in a complex world.
- Get to know them with a sense of wonderment. Sit with them and listen to who they are. This is the greatest gift you can give a TCK, as they are so used to trying to fit in that they forget their special qualities.
- Let them explore. Encourage their self-awareness. The more they develop their understanding of themselves, the more they will understand the world around them.
- Affirm their ability to see gray in the black and white of monocultures. This perspective will help them build bridges between the worlds they understand fully.
- Work together to pull their identities into a beautifully complex mosaic. This will boost their self-confidence and help ground them.
- Above all—be present. This will invite their trust as they open up to you.
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