In an increasingly globalized world, cross-cultural kids regularly experience change, transition, different languages, cultures and traditions. While generally positive and exciting, being a global kid is not without its challenges, particularly during adolescence. Dr. Anisha Abraham offers parents guidance to understand and help their global kids thrive within all the changes.

My husband is German and I am Indian-American. We have had seven moves over three continents in the last ten years. My kids hear Russian when they play Fortnite, speak English (with a bit of Dutch and French) at school and some German at home. A few years back, it was English and Mandarin at school and Cantonese on the streets. My kids, like many, frequently travel to other parts of the world both physically and virtually via the internet, YouTube and gaming. What effect does being a global kid have on them as they develop?  

Being a Global Kid

Being a global kid has unique strengths and benefits: adaptability, acquisition of languages and of course, a more global perspective. Inevitablity, it has challenges as well. Studies show that cross cultural teens may experience delayed adolescence, difficulty with conflict resolution and unresolved grief. My experience with teens who come from mixed backgrounds, or are immigrants/expatriates is that their struggle with identity and belonging is heightened; during a time when they should be developing a clearer sense of who they are, global kids are adjusting to different norms and expectations as they move from culture to culture. All while still trying to figure out their true self!

Additionally, global kids tend to grow up with less extended family or identifiable communities who can offer support, a sense of identity, mentorship, and role modeling. As such, it is even more vital that we, as their primary caregivers and advocates, promote healthy behaviors during childhood and adolescence, and take steps to better protect them from health risks and thrive.

How? How do we get global children and teens to become healthy and happy adults?  

Supporting Our Global Kids

First: We need to have regular conversations with them about identity and belonging. The teen years are an important time of developing our personal and sexual selves. Many young people confide to me that they have questions about their sexual and gender orientation and don’t know how to navigate their emerging persona, particularly if it doesn’t conform to mainstream norms. The experience of being from a mixed-race background and living in different communities (take for example, my own kids) can add to the challenge in identifying who one truly is. The same for the constant barrage of messages and images from social media and internet sites which studies have shown can tremendously impact self-esteem and confidence. 

I have done several small focus groups in which these young people tell me they struggle with knowing where they belong, and who exactly their “tribe” is. For parents and caregivers, being able to discuss these issues openly may provide an important sense of support regardless of where their teen is in the process of identity formation. Also, we as cross-cultural parents need to address our own issues about transition, grief and belonging! For example, with each of my moves it took nearly three years to feel settled, to grieve the loss of friendships and relationships, and to form my new identity and sense of belonging in the next. No one completely prepared me for the grief and loss that can come with these transitions as an adult.  

As cross-cultural caregivers and parents, we need to ask ourselves whether we are modeling good behaviours – taking time for ourselves, exercising, eating well, putting down our phones and spending time connecting.

Second: We need to help young people identify their own strengths. In my practice, I ask kids to tell me what is unique about them, whether it is having an ability to connect with others, play music or write creatively. I build on these strengths when they bring up their own anxieties or challenges. I also discuss their strengths in the context of their goals for the future, and the high-risk behaviours they may be engaging in, like binge drinking or self-injury. Research supports the importance of using strength-based discussions in promoting resiliency and self-esteem. Not only do we need to ask teens about their strengths, but also ensure they continue to receive validation and develop self-esteem based on what they do best.

Third: We need to give young people the tools to manage stress and maintain balance in their lives. Most of my teen patients tell me that they experience stress on a daily basis. Increasingly, I see young people who feel anxious, depressed or unhappy with their body; some have tried self-injury such as cutting. I specifically ask young people if they are feeling stressed, depressed or have suicidal thoughts; I ask them about how they deal with stress in their daily lives.

Creating a personal toolbox including practices such as daily exercise, playing music, journaling, using mindfulness, speaking to a friend, parent or even a counsellor are important avenues of addressing stress. For many, my own boys included, gaming or using the internet is a top choice for relaxing–but as parents we need to redirect our kids to alternate techniques as well. As cross-cultural caregivers and parents, we need to ask ourselves whether we are modeling good behaviours–taking time for ourselves, exercising, eating well, putting down our phones, and spending time connecting.

Fourth: We need to help them become resilient. It is critical to learn to bounce back from failure; some universities now even offer courses on failure!  In my clinical work and in my workshops with adolescents, I ask young people

  • When was the last time you failed at something?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can they can apply this to challenges in the future?

Allowing a child to fail and try again is one of the hardest things for parents and caregivers to do, but perhaps one of the most important ways they learn to move forward confidently.

Being aware of these core issues–discussing identity and belonging; addressing stress; finding unique strengths; allowing kids to handle failure and build resilience–we can help global kids not only navigate a changing world successfully, but truly thrive in it.

Anisha Abraham

Dr. Anisha Abraham, MD, MPH is a pediatrician and teen health specialist on faculty at the University of Amsterdam and Georgetown University. Anisha leads workshops and seminars for teen, parents and schools using her 25 years of experience as a practicing physician, researcher, and educator. Anisha’s personal experience growing up as the daughter of immigrants and raising a cross-cultural family around the world is the basis for her strong interest in ensuring global kids thrive. Anisha is currently writing a book on Raising Global Teens.