How to Support Expat Kids' Attachments

So far this year, we have explored the monthly themes of mindfulness, empathyand stress,and this month’s theme – attachment – relates closely to all three.


“Mother-love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health” (John Bowlby)

Attachment theory was developed in late 1960’s by a British psychologist John Bowlby. He described how a child and his caretaker(s) form an attachment relationship. It's this relationship which supports a child’s development by offering a safe base from where a child can explore his surroundings, and a safe haven, where the child can return to cope with his emotions (e.g. comfort if distressed, protection if in danger). Being securely attached positively influences our emotional, social, and cognitive skills.

We know that in many cases, parents who have self been securely attached with their own parents tend to build secure attachment relationships with their children in turn. In other words, secure attachment in childhood supports building secure attachments in future relationships (e.g. partner, own children). However, attachment style is not something unchangeable and only inherited from our childhood; rather it is constantly influenced by our life-events and current relationships (e.g. grandparents, romantic relationships).

Third culture kids’ attachment

‘Whenever under stress, our attachment styles activate’, is a quote that poignantly describes how important attachment is in our everyday-life. Considering the high mobility of many third culture kids (TCK), it is obvious that experiencing stress is an inevitable part of a TCK’s life. Hence, attachment plays an important role when departing and arriving again and again. 

Several books and scientific articles have noted that third culture kids might be prone to have insecure attachment styles. This doesn’t imply that parents of TCKs aren’t safe attachment figures to their children, or that they have themselves been insecurely attached in their childhood. Rather, many TCKs go through several goodbyes, which may teach them to anticipate a time for departure. This kind of ‘always on the go’ mentality may become a learned-habit, influencing a TCK’s way to be in relationships (i.e., attachment). In addition, if a TCK has experienced multiple transitions, the related chronic losses may have stayed unprocessed, or ‘unresolved’ and these can also impact a TCK’s attachment style.

So, what to do?

Many scientific studies show that one important aspect in supporting a child’s secure attachment is sensitive parenting. This refers to a parent’s ability to be mindfully present and in-tune with a child’s cues, and to empathically respond to them (e.g. providing comfort and care when distressed). When applying this to TCKs, we should focus especially on the moments of transitions. Here a few tips how to support your child’s ability to safely attach – now and in the future:

Mindful curiosity about your child’s needs – being interested and ‘in-tune’ with your child’s emotions, and what they may need from you (e.g. comfort in distress, encouragement in social situations)

Empathic responding to these needs – being there for your child so that you can respond to these needs. When a child’s needs are met, they can further explore the surroundings (e.g. start building peer relationships). For more information about curiosity for your child’s needs and empathic responding to them, you may also want to check out our blog from February, where we talked about how to practice empathy with your child.

Modeling how to process grief of goodbyes / losses – there are so many great resources we suggest you look into that give tips for the transition process – for example, in Third Culture Kids David Pullock, Ruth van Reken, and Michael Pullock talk about ‘building R.A.F.T.’, which is definitely a must read! Most importantly, we need to remember that some family members may be rather fast in this process, while for others it might take much longer.

More to consider

Lastly, although attachment theory has the potential to explain many aspects of our behavior, it cannot explain everything and it’s important to recognize that it is not a means to blame parents for a child’s emotional difficulties! There are many other factors that weigh in - for example, genes and neuro-developmental differences also play also a very important role in our development and behavior and we must take this into consideration as well when looking at how to support any child who may be struggling. 

If you are looking for parenting support regarding forming secure attachments with you children, or you're concerned about your child's ability to form healthy attachments with friends and loved ones, please get in touch. We have a multidisciplinary team ready to support your family through the all the challenges of relocation (and life!).