Raising Empathic Third Culture Kids

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something that many parents hope to teach their children. Empathic skills have been shown to be important – not only for social relationships – but also for academic achievements and professional success. If you are living abroad with your family, you are in unique position in regard to supporting your child in developing empathic skills because, as David Pollock and Ruth van Reken wrote in their book Third Culture Kids, 

“The high mobility of a TCK’s life often results in special relationships with people throughout the world, but it also creates sadness at the chronic loss of these relationships. That very pain, however, provides the opportunity to develop a greater empathy for others.”

So how can you support your kids to turn the challenges of a TCK life into a unique opportunity to enhance their empathic skills? I am going to share some ideas here, but first let’s take a quick look at the different aspects and developmental stages of empathy. 

How does empathy develop?

Depending on which source you happen to read, empathy can be divided into two, three or even six different aspects. The most common definition talks about cognitive empathy (the ability to understand the feelings of another) and affective empathy (the ability to share the feelings of another). However, before a child is able to understand and feel which emotion someone else may have, he needs to understand his own emotions.

For babies, there is no separation between them and others, or their emotion and someone else’s emotion (e.g. when another baby cries, for a baby it feels like crying themselves). Experiencing unconditional love and care – having someone to recognize and regulate your emotions, when you are still unable to do it – enables children to learn later how to be empathic towards themselves and towards others. 

Emotion recognition and regulation play, indeed, a very crucial part in empathic development. By learning these skills, TCK’s can better handle the sadness and pain that comes from the chronic losses and turn those experiences into a capability to understand (and share) another people’s emotions.

What can parents do?

Taking all of the above into consideration, here are a few important things that parents can do - together with your child - to support your TCK’s empathic development:

  • Get to know emotions 
    • Talk about emotions when reading a book, watching tv, etc.
    • Ask which emotions your child is feeling (by asking – not telling – you give your child the possibility to own his own emotions, simultaneously still teaching him emotion-related vocabulary)
    • Tell your child by example - explaining your own emotions in different situations
  • Practice coping with emotion 
    • Talk about coping with emotions when reading books, watching tv, etc.
    • Talk about the things that help your child to calm down when experiencing big emotions
    • Tell your child examples of how you cope with your own emotions 
  • Model empathy 
    • Be empathic towards you child, especially when he cannot yet regulate his emotions
    • Talk about another people’s perspective (this is also called ‘Theory of Mind’)
    • Use pretend play to practice empathy
    • Model empathy in social situations (e.g. when your child is playing with his peers)
    • Be empathic towards yourself and in your social relationships
  • Practice mindfulness 
    • Practice being present with whatever emotion comes up (and try to do so without judgement)
    • Take an attitude of gratitude and compassion (towards yourself and others)

Do you have some questions or hope to get more individualized support for your child’s emotional development and wellbeing? Please don't hesitate to get in touch! We offer in-person and online consultation, and our experienced team is here to answer your questions and provide support.