Repatriating TCKs: It’s not all sunshine and lollipops

Repatriating TCKs: it's not all sunshine and lollipopsWhen it became apparent that our family would be moving back to Canada after five years abroad, I set out to prepare my daughters for yet another big change in their lives. I encouraged them to talk about their feelings, doing my best to address their concerns and assuring them that their conflicted feelings were entirely normal. Together, we visited the people and places we knew we’d miss, took lots of photos, and said our goodbyes.

To my delight, my girls handled repatriation with aplomb, segueing easily from a dynamic lifestyle to a decidedly more static one. I half expected as much — kids are so adaptable, right? — but I held my breath anyway, not daring to exhale until the six-month mark, by which time it was clear they were adjusting beautifully.

Turns out I was right to worry — it’s just my timing that was off. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the cracks started to appear on the surface of their “beautiful adjustment.”

My daughters are teenagers now. They careen wildly from elation to despair — often over the course of a single day — with precious few stops at the spaces in between. It’s not always easy to tease apart the different strands that contribute to the drama. How much of this emotional roller coaster is standard teenage angst? How much is related to the TCK experience? And most importantly, at what point should I sound the alarm?

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid has numerous benefits. I’ve already written about how Younger Daughter, whose extreme clinginess earned her the nickname Velcro Baby, blossomed overseas. Both kids exhibit remarkable maturity for their age, and have no trouble moving among cultures in our cosmopolitan city.

But being a TCK is not all sunshine and lollipops. In their book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Ruth Van Reken and the late David Pollock discuss some less positive outcomes of being a TCK. Here are a few that I’ve noticed in my own household:

Identity Crises. Nothing surprising here: adolescence is a time of trying on and discarding various personas as young people try to determine who they are. But many kids who have spent their formative years between cultures grapple with a profound sense of alienation: identifying with multiple cultures without necessarily belonging to any, they’re neither fish nor fowl. Repatriating can intensify this feeling, since society at large expects TCKs to reintegrate seamlessly into their home culture, fitting neatly into the slot they vacated when they moved abroad. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t even realized Elder Daughter was struggling with this issue until she described her Me-Collage project, in which she laid bare her uncertainties as part of a school assignment.

Trouble Fitting In. Norma McCaig, the founder of Global Nomads International, referred to repatriated TCKs as “hidden immigrants,” a term that beautifully captures the disconnect between their outward appearance and what goes on inside. One of my girls, for example, is drawn to the immigrant kids at school — people who don’t look like her, but share her sense of outsiderness. Long after returning TCKs have figured out how to look, sound, and act like their peer group (or fake it, something TCKs are particularly good at), they might still find themselves sticking out like a sore thumb. They can’t help it: all those diverse cultural inputs have rewired their brain in such a way that their values, attitudes — maybe even their thought processes — don’t always follow the curve.

Lack of Commitment. Expats are a nomadic bunch, and sometimes expatriate life feels like a never-ending series of goodbyes. TCKs become so used to friendships ending abruptly that they may eventually begin to protect themselves by holding back in their relationships, unwilling (or unable) to commit completely. Even planning for the future feels tentative for kids who are never sure where they’ll be six months from now. That gut feeling doesn’t magically disappear just because the passport’s been retired; it affects repatriated kids as well.

Unresolved Grief. With every move, the losses pile up. Repatriating is a 3-for-1 deal: losing not only the people, places, and experiences of the last location, but also an entire way of life and a part of one’s identity. Because grief is a complex emotion that presents in many different forms, parents aren’t always aware of the depth of their child’s suffering. The child may not even understand that the feelings she’s experiencing — anger, sadness, and helplessness, among others — stem from mourning what’s been lost and what might have been. That unresolved grief can develop into depression is something every expat parent should know and guard against.

It’s a rocky road from childhood to adulthood, and nobody gets a free pass. My kids have stumbled, it’s true. But they’ve picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and continued on their journey. I’m so proud to be their mom.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to Repatriating TCKs: It’s not all sunshine and lollipops

  1. Wonderful Maria, this post really gets to the heart of the matter. And people wonder why we’re all still quoting Pollock & Van Reken: they nailed it, and not only for TCKs. As the parent of two teens who also have had their sharing of stumbling (don’t we all??), I appreciate your writing about this.

  2. Profound mix of good theory and real life angst. Glad your children have found themselves as emotionally honest and resilient TCK’s. Must get it from their Mum

  3. Judy says:

    I was in a card store today and saw the perfect one for a expat mother (and this post) “Pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip.” Motherhood is one long guilt trip at the best of times, but multiple relocations takes it to a whole new level. Fortunately most children grow up despite us. 😉

  4. I think about this a lot. I wonder how my girl will see herself and how she will form her identity as she grows. Already, her experience of culture is so different from my own; she speaks japanese better than I do (insofar as the sounds she utters can be termed speaking), she bows when saying good-bye, she clasps her hands together in a very Japanese gesture right before digging into a meal. Likely she’ll adjust just fine when we move next; but what of the move after, and the one after that, and then when / if we finally repatriate, what comes then? This post is food for though, and a very good example of thoughtful parenting – one I hope to emulate.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I am so glad the the amount of good information is increasing about third culture kids and the challenges they face. I was one too. I would encourage each expat parent to read the book you mention by van Reken and Pollock.
    TCKs are sometimes called chameleons because they can adapt so well, they become very good “observers”, watching what’s going on, what does everyone do. Sometimes in adapting so well, they lose a part of themselves, a part of their “overseas” identity. It’s good to talk about these things with kids. I like the collage your daughter made!

  6. Marilyn says:

    I linked to this article today through my post. This really resonated with me. I am a Third Culture Kid and like you – was an expatriate for 10 years raising third culture kids. I had almost the exact experience where initially my kids seemed to do well…and then a year or so after moving from Cairo all of the difficulties set in. Your description of this being a rocky road could not be more true , and yet I, like you, am so proud of my kids and how much they know about the world, how savvy they are. Right now my oldest is in Cairo navigating something similar to a war zone as she is in the heart of all the chaos and she is doing it well. Thanks so much for this. I look forward to reading more!

    • Maria says:

      There’s always a trade-off with these things, isn’t there? They get amazing experiences, but they lose a little something too. I know my kids will tell you it’s worth it, though. Thanks for commenting, Marilyn.

  7. expatlogue says:

    I’m glad you covered this topic. It’s something I still watch for almost two years after moving to Canada. My husband thinks if any cracks were going to show they would have done by now, but I know from experience how good children are at presenting the front they think is expected. Emotional difficulty isn’t always of the spectacular breakdown variety, it can be a gradual decay of resilience and ability.
    I suppose the best we can do is to keep the lines of communication open and make sure feelings are validated and recognised before we lay on the positivity spiel.

    • Maria says:

      Yes, exactly — problems sometimes sneak up on you so gradually, you don’t realize it’s happening. Communication is so important, but what I’ve recently learned is that even though I’ve always made a point of listening to my children, I don’t always hear them. Big failing on my part, and not one I’m anxious to repeat.

  8. Parvin says:

    Thanks for this. We’ve been in two different countries over the last 6 years and it looks like our next step is going home(who knows what after;-)). Anyway, my husband and I have just been discussing the issue of schools for our 9 and 5 years old boys. Of course it’s important to have continuity in terms of curriculum (they have been using British curriculum) but the other issue is actually the mix of kids at the school. Part of what has made their fitting in International schools easier is that these kids have a lot in common..travelling families, posted in different countries and also a sense of dynamism and easier acceptance of ‘new’ kids based on their own experience. As such, I am wondering if I should look for schools which include some expatriates (likely to be more expensive ) to make their transition easier (hopefully) or focus more on the long term and just put them in local schools (less diverse). What do you think?

    • Maria says:

      Tough decision. I’m a big fan of neighbourhood schools because I think they ground kids in their community, but in this case I’d probably go for the school that’s more accustomed to dealing with expat children. First, because your kids would likely be more readily accepted there, and the teachers would have some idea of the issues involved. But also because I think there would be more pressure in a monocultural school for them to conform and bury their expat experience in order to fit in. So much depends on the schools, though — they might surprise you. Good luck!

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