Frequently moving TCKs and expat children

Many books, articles and posts give advice about what people can expect when starting a mobile life as adult expats: but what about frequently moving expat children or TCKs?

From an adult point of view, the benefits of a frequently moving lifestyle are the “priceless life experience, unique cultural insights and precious skills“. The excitement of a life full of changes and constant travels seems to prevail and I’m sure it’s what grown ups find the most attractive. All these positive aspects can have a cathartic effect on everyone on the move. But people needs to be aware of the long term side effects such a life can have on themselves and their children, in order to make the best out of this kind of life.

The phases of an expat life:  HoneymoonCulture ShockGradual AdjustmentCompetenceMastery

After a honeymoon phase of up to 6 weeks (sometimes it lasts longer), expats (and TCKs and global nomads) go through a culture shock phase which’s length depends on several factors:

  • Is the new destination culturally similar to one we’ve experienced before?
  • Is the language different or similar to one we already know?
  • Will we learn the local language?
  • Will we need to learn the language / will our children need to learn the local language to attend school?
  • Will we be able to adapt during our stay?
  • Is the health care system meeting our needs?
  • Do we and our family feel safe ? etc..

After this culture shock phase, that most expats experiences to some extent, follows a phase of gradual adjustment, which, again, depends on several factors and can take two or more years. – This applies to the “average” expat (unfortunately, the data on the infographic was not laid out).

Many people assume that these phases are linear and once you’ve passed one, you won’t experience it anymore; at least not in the place of your new location.

Fact is, that we can experience one phase several times during one relocation, one for each aspect of our new life related to: the social environment, the location itself (countryside, city etc.), the community, the school (and its community) our children are attending, our job, the relationship with our partner etc.

And the different phases can overlap. We can be in a honeymoon phase regarding the new community but experiencing culture shock for our work life (job hunting is more difficult) and already be in the adjustment phase in what concerns our new location (we like it better than the one before and we already made some friends or acquaintances).

And one even more important aspect that needs to be mentioned: every member of the family will go through these phases in his very personal way in his own paste.

While we feel already adjusting, our children or partner might still be struggling with culture shock and other phases that can overlap. The fact that every member of the family gets to experience these phases in their very personal way makes it so difficult to understand each others mood, enthusiasm or grief.

How can parents help their children while moving abroad?

It surely depends on the relationship parents have with their children, but the main message is to listen to our children, really “listen” to what they say and what they are not able to put into words.

Most parents are so busy organizing the move or a major change (it can also be moving house in the same country or even city) and everything that’s related with it, that they don’t take the time and energy to sit down and listen to their children or observe them during the last months “in the old place” and the first ones in the new location.

Maintaining dialogue is key, especially with teenagers who could have a tendency

to withdraw in their bedrooms.

The grief of an expat child

One very important aspect is that “moving abroad triggers a form of grief”. This expat grief does not only affect adults but also children. It is a myth that “children don’t grieve like adults”. Children might live more in the present than their parents and seem to cope “better” after a loss, but assuming that grief in childhood is short-lived, is a major mistake. Children don’t “exhibit the stigma of sadness or despair, but they grieve”, often in silent because they’ve learned to be resilient.

John Bowlby  who did pioneering work in attachment theory says that from 4 years onwards “children mourn in similar ways to adults”. This applies to every child that experiences a loss, the death of a family member or a friend, and it also applies to expat children and TCKs, who go through many kinds of losses – the many good-byes! – during their nomadic life.

The impacts that unresolved grief can have on TCKs are very well known. According to Ruth Van Reken, unresolved grief is the most urgent mental health issue TCKs and expat children are facing on a long term. Ruth Van Reken writes, advocates and teaches about the psychological impact of an internationally mobile childhood.

Children on constant move lose the worlds they love, over and over again. They go through the stages of grief each time they move and each time they say good bye to a friend. And if they don’t take the time to grieve, they push it down, submerge it: but it surely will bubble up later in life, unexplained.

Children do grieve in another way than adults. They often don’t know how to express what they are feeling, they even don’t know what exactly is what they are feeling and just feel sad or “not well”. – The grief of children is often invisible. They are told they will adapt so they become resilient. They are told they’ll get over missing that friend and they’ll get another pet, they’ll have a nicer room in the new house etc..

Unresolved grief “can result in behavioural problems ranging from anxiety, guilt, excessive anger to self-destructive patterns, substance abuse and school difficulties. Children may actually give up connecting with others. When they become adults and still haven’t solved their grief, they may face severe depression and/or relationships problems.” (ibidem)

The effect of Repatriation

When TCKs or expat children entry or re-entry their passport country to attend boarding schools or college, there are several aspects that can be difficult for them. Knowing them in advance, can help them (and their parents) to prevent several major problems.

In her post “Thoughts on entry from a third culture child“, Marilyn, a TCK (ATCK) herself, lists up 10 very important points children or young adults needs to consider when (re-)entering the passport country – independently if they ever lived there before or not. From “realistic time expectations” regarding the period of adjustment in the new/old place, to the acceptance that as a TCK (or expat child) they’re a “combination of worlds”. It is crucial to recognize and understand  “culture shock”:

“(…) while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.”

We need to “give voice to a longing”. The portuguese word saudade expresses that feeling we all have to voice out when we have times of longing or wistfulness for what no longer exists – in this case, the life we had before (please check out my posts about this topic here and here).

“Understanding the shaping of our worldview” and realizing that our worldview differs from the one our siblings and parents have, “helps us to not expect or demand that others understand”. I particularly like what she says about “finding cultural brokers”. A cultural broker is that person that probably doesn’t share our background but understands what we’re going through.

“This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.”

The need for time and place

I observe that many of my friends on struggle after spending 10, 15, 20 years or more abroad. They get really tired and long for some continuity in their lives.

Even if “home” and “belonging” are very difficult to define and find for TCKs, it is crucial for everyone to find a place and its significance. TCKs have a disruption of place. Everyone has his own interpretation of the notion or concept of “home” and “belonging”.

The late Paul Tournier, a very gifted Swiss psychologist, says that “to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to a place”.  We are “incarnate beings” and when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. And if the “disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology”, a “deprivation of place“.

Many global movers consider all the places they’ve lived “a source of pride, of identity. They are – but losing those places has a deep impact on our lives. And if not worked through, the “deprivation of place” gives way to profound grief and struggles with identity”.

People who are on constant moves during their adulthood might not consider the moving as something negative. A part from the stress caused by all the organisational aspects and the readjusting, it is a very attractive lifestyle. They probably had a less mobile childhood or they don’t need to call a place their “home”. Maybe they don’t feel the longing for a place. Or they don’t realize that their constant urge to move and to “go on” is, intrinsically, a way to express their itch to settle down. I did write about my urge to change something in my life every three years and many TCKs did confirm that they experienced the same.

Children who grow up in this situation will most probably not have a place they can call “home”, but they will long for it. Some will long for it for their whole life. – In a discussion among TCKs I noticed that ATCKs try to avoid a nomadic life once they have children mostly because they want them to have a place to call home and because they need this for themselves too. Some are (desperately?) looking for a place that meets their needs: it has to be a place which englobes all the aspects of the experiences they made during their life. – It’s not an easy task. For some it’s a task for a lifetime.

Time is necessary to adjust. In the infographic mentioned above, expats need about 7 years (!) to “master” their new life abroad. But this is unrealistic for many of them. Many companies ask to relocate every 2-3 years and sometimes more often. If we consider that it takes 6 months to make everything work in the new location, during a 2 years stay, people have only one year to “adjust” (subtracting also the 6 months at the end of the stay, when people is busy preparing the next moving). This incredible short time does not allow families to adjust. Children who grow up with such frequent moves will feel alienated and lonely, and most probably struggle sooner or later with the consequences of unresolved grief. – They would definitively need more time in one place to get somehow “rooted”, to build friendships, relationships in general and to become more balanced. Of course, 2-3 years in the life of an adult feels much shorter than in the life of a child. It surely depends also on the age of the child when these moves happen. But when children start going to school and feel the need to belong to a group of peers, this time is too short. – Companies should be aware of this and reconsider their policies about relocation.


“The issue is that transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be. Loss always engenders grief and the greater you have loved a situation or place or people, the greater the grief.”

“The layers of loss run deep:  Friends, community, pets.  Family, toys, language.  Weather, food, culture.  Loss of identity.  Loss of a place of comfort, stability, a safe and predictable world.  Home.”

One Comment

  1. This was very helpful for me as an expat with kids in thinking through their feelings and experience and how I can help as their parent. Thanks for sharing!

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