Bringing home the TCKs

Bringing home the TCKs

Photo: iStockphoto.com/ivanushka

Third Culture Kids are resilient creatures, but like adults, many find the move back to their passport country especially difficult. As parents, it’s our job to help them readjust. It takes preparation, patience and sensitivity, and I know from experience that it’s not always easy.

(While it’s normal for children to struggle with this final relocation, kids who have a worrying amount of trouble adjusting might benefit from professional counselling, preferably with a therapist familiar with Third Culture Kids.)

Grief is common among repatriating TCKs

Children aren’t always able to express their grief in ways that adults understand — they may not understand it themselves — but they have a right to mourn the end of the familiar. By not acknowledging children’s grief, parents send the message that their feelings aren’t important.

Sixteen-year-old Tarek has experienced eight international moves in the past decade. He fought bitterly with his mother when she announced they were moving back “home” to Egypt. “My home is Canada,” he told me emphatically. “I was angry that she was willing to let me be stranded where I didn’t want to be.”

In “Growing Up with a World View,” TCK expert Norma McCaig advises parents to deal with TCKs’ sadness and anger as it unfolds; allowing it to fester may lead to bitterness and depression down the road. Simply validating their feelings and allowing them to talk about the hurt is often enough.

Megan, a thirteen-year-old TCK, was initially distraught about her upcoming re-entry. “I felt that France was becoming my home instead of Canada, and it felt difficult to leave,” she says. “My parents let me be sad, but when we talked about it they reminded me we were moving back to where I spent the first six years of my life. And that made me feel better.”

Saying goodbye is crucial

McCaig writes about the significance of closure, calling it “a critical part of the journey” that many parents, caught up in their own emotions about leaving, fail to fully appreciate. The simple act of saying goodbye is a powerful first step toward healing. Allowing TCKs a final visit to take photos of beloved restaurants, parks, and other meaningful places is just as important as letting them say goodbye to cherished friends.

Megan produces a scrapbook bulging with photos, explaining, “My parents took us to the places we loved so we’d always have memories.” Tarek, however, defiantly rejected any such rituals before leaving Canada, because “there was no need to say goodbye — I knew I’d be coming back.”

As necessary as it is to discuss the pain of leaving, emotions can run high in the weeks leading up to the move. Taking part in a favourite family activity provides a welcome respite from pre-departure stress. Many parents plan a holiday as a bridge between the old life and the new: a time to relax and process all that’s happened before plunging into life as a repatriate.

It’s in the final days of expatriate life that “differences in cultures and expectations between parent and child become most apparent,” writes McCaig. “Parents returning to their country of origin are coming home; their children are leaving home.” Whatever parents are experiencing — happiness, dread, or a mixture of the two — they must recognize that it’s unlikely their children’s feelings will be an exact match.

Fitting in after moving back home isn’t easy

Once TCKs are back “home,” it soon becomes apparent they’re not like the other kids. McCaig refers to them as “hidden immigrants,” because although they look like their peers, their thought processes and values are often different. They don’t dress the “right” way, or pepper their speech with the “right” slang. They don’t understand pop culture references. Teenagers are particularly harsh judges, and for these failings, TCKs may be ridiculed or ostracized.

This is what happened to Tarek. “I got hassled a lot because I didn’t think like an Egyptian. They thought I’d been brainwashed and wanted to sort me out,” he says. “If I talked to a girl, her brother would give me a hard time. In Canada I have lots of friends who are girls, and it’s no big deal.”

Megan’s problems fitting in centred mostly around language usage. “I forgot some of the words we use here,” she confesses. “When I talked about getting my fringe cut, everyone asked ‘what’s that?’ because I didn’t use the word bangs. When I asked for a rubber in class, everyone was kind of puzzled because they say eraser.”

Repatriation is a difficult process, especially for teenagers. Living overseas changes their values and behaviours, and marks them as “different” when they return home. Parents can help by giving them time to integrate at their own pace, and by accepting that adjustment struggles and reverse culture shock are normal, especially in the early days.

Tarek wasn’t able to readjust to Egyptian life, and is happily living in Canada again. Megan, on the other hand, reacculturated with ease. “Now I’m glad I’m back,” she smiles, “because this is my home.”

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on July 2, 2010 © Maria Foley.
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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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19 Responses to Bringing home the TCKs

  1. Janet says:

    Thank you so much for writing another great article on repatriation. There isn’t enough out there on the net to help out with this difficult transition. We are on our third and last time back home. It’s been almost 8 months since we moved back from two years in Denmark. Just today my 13-yr old son is complaining about not fitting in and missing having good friends (a common complaint of his). We have talked about moving our two kids to an international school but they won’t really fit in there either. They are from here but have various international experiences so they would be more like the expats living here than in the local schools but not quite like them. Or is it just a matter of time? Sometimes I wonder if the expat life experience sets us on a path that then requires us to continue down because changing to a path closer to home doesn’t seem like the right one any longer.

    • Maria says:

      It’s hard enough just being 13, without adding repatriation to the mix. My oldest daughter was that age when we moved back to Canada, and I remember how awful it was. Time certainly helped, but I think the turning point comes when they make one good friend. My daughter hung out with immigrant kids, and they all figured out Canadian culture together. If your son is just finishing his first academic year back home, it’s not surprising things are still unsettled for him. It’s usually somewhere around the one-year mark, when the cycle of events starts to repeat, that people begin to feel more at home in their repatriate skin. Probably by the time the new school year rolls around, he’ll have more confidence that he’s doing things “right” (so important for teens!) and things will go easier. In the meantime, all you can do is be supportive, listen, empathize, and make sure you find the time to take care of your own re-entry needs as well.

      • Janet says:

        Thanks for the encouraging words! Your personal experience gives me hope. 13 is a hard age even if you haven’t moved anywhere! And a good reminder for me to also take care of my own re-entry needs. I tend to put my needs last like most women in the world. Thanks again! I love your blog!!!

      • Maria says:

        Thanks Janet! I’m glad you’re finding my posts helpful. You’re right that there’s just not enough information about repatriation out there, so if there’s anything specific you’d like to read about, please let me know. And yes, we moms don’t always remember to take care of ourselves, but you know what they say on airplanes: take care of your own needs first, and you’ll be better able to look after your kids!

  2. Dounia says:

    As a lifelong TCK, I agree with everything written in this post, and I’m so grateful that my parents did all of the things you mentioned. They always gave us time to say goodbye and helped us through every transition. They made sure we could talk openly about how we were feeling and they never dismissed our emotions about the entire process. The way they handled things, involved us in everything and reassured us along the way made all the difference.

    I actually returned to my passport country as an adult, and it’s probably been the most difficult transition ever. The lack of a TCK routine (international school, etc) and other TCKs makes it a very tough experience, on top of the culture shock. Thankfully my husband is also a TCK, so I have at least one person here who understands me fully!!

    Thanks for this post!

    • Maria says:

      I’ve never been a TCK so everything I know about them comes from watching my daughters navigate this territory. It’s not always easy, but as you know, there are lots of benefits as well. They seem to have come through the other side relatively unscathed, so there’s hope! Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. crunch says:

    So well written. I feel like every post of yours takes me back to a post of my own. For my girl (2.8 .. turning 3 this summer), it wan’t mourning as much as anger and aggression. Boy oh Boy there was no anticipating that. We dragged her across the globe back to India, a place she’s visited once before. While adjusting and finding friends are not necessarily her problems, they come in a whole other set of shades. She can’t explain why she’s so out of control and screaming sometimes. It’s so random. She closes her ears, her eyes and I can tell she can’t handle the sensory overload. Poor thing is finding it so hard to explain herself. It’s getting better for sure. She’s made way more friends than she had in the US but you can tell she’s going through hell every now and then and she’s so confused about it that all she can do is scream. We’ve had a ton of issues including developing night terrors, new behavioral issues, the list is never ending. The lovely new moments in between make it all worth it. I practically made a plea with this post
    http://arushofbloodtotheheadnow.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/the-toddler-saga-episode-2-night-terrors/
    .. not sure to whom but it was scary while it lasted. But more than the issues she had these past few weeks .. for me it was my own identity crisis that got in the way as well. How do I want to raise the child given the different societies is one that I constantly struggle with. I wanted her to have Indian values while growing up in California, and now I want to embrace many wonderful American things I learnt .. it’s confusing all the time! http://arushofbloodtotheheadnow.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/this-blogs-subtitle-should-have-read-in-search-of-self-identity-crisis-part-1/

    I love your posts. Keep them coming. 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Your daughter is having such a hard time. 😦 Even though she’s lashing out instead of moping, she could still be mourning the life she had before. At that age, it’s so hard for kids to articulate (or even understand) what they’re feeling and sometimes their emotions come out in bizarre ways. Now that I think of it, that’s true for adults as well, especially if they’re trying to repress negative feelings — those feelings have a way of expressing themselves in ways we don’t expect. As for your identity crisis, I feel your pain. This was one of the hardest aspects of repatriation for me, and it took me a long time to reconcile the various parts of myself in a way that made sense and felt comfortable. Some days it feels like it’s still an ongoing battle! I think blogging about it is one way of coming to terms with your new status, so please keep on writing.

  4. Even as I enjoy our time in Copenhagen, I worry for my daughter when it’s time to move back to our home country India or anywhere else. Right now, she is a ‘I love life, I’ll do what I want” care-free three year old who seems to adjust to new situations and places with an ease I wish I had.

    • Maria says:

      Some people are just born with the knack of blooming where they’re planted. If you’re daughter is one of them, she’s a lucky girl! I agree with you — I wish I had that ease, too.

  5. Pingback: Part I ~ Re – Entry: Oh the Stories We Tell Ourselves | communicating.across.boundaries

  6. aboucat says:

    I’m so happy there are people like you talking about Third Culture Kids. I’m one, 47 years old, with still one foot in New York and the other in France, still so confused about who I am, where I belong, what people think of me, and so much more. It didn’t help that my parents got divorced and the family split up at age 12, but my very French parents, from an older generation, didn’t think it was necessary to consult therapists. In fact my father was totally against it! They believed children could adjust to everything by themselves. It was many years later with many years of therapy that I realized how much moving from one country to another can affect a person’s well being. If it is not handled with love and care, it can hurt, a lot. I still sometimes feel very lonely and “different” because I feel I don’t really fit in with any group. But I have found people like me and that helps. I love France but married an American husband. I love the USA but miss France when I’m there. I’m completely bi-cultural. If you ask where I’m from, I hesitate to respond. It’s a long answer! This a fascinating subject to write about. And it will help many people and children. Thank you and keep up the good work!

    • Maria says:

      I learn so much from comments like this. I was never a TCK and everything I know comes from watching my children as they make their way through life. Im fascinated by stories like yours. Thank you for commenting.

  7. Debora says:

    We’re in the first few months back home in the US after 7 years in Dubai. We chose to move back, but I’ve been blindsided by the emotional difficulties. Our 3 kids (boy 10 and girls 13 and 15) miss their school and friends, and are doing ok, but I don’t feel they are really happy. Nothing can compare to the school they left, and I’m regretting our decision. Just looking for any help I can find to get through this process….thank you for writing about it.

    • Maria says:

      It’s even harder when the move back is your choice, because of course you think that’ll make a difference. I went through the same thing, expecting that everything would immediately fall into place because I wanted to return home. My kids were pretty unhappy the first few months back, but once they started making new friends things picked up a lot. They’re completely happy now and I can honestly say that I no longer regret moving back. Finding someone to talk to, someone who gets it, was huge for me. Time also helps. Good luck.

    • Rachel says:

      I know exactly what you mean. It’s not a matter of making friends at school, it’s the quality of the school. We lived in Egypt and went to an amazing school. Then my parents decided to move us “home” to America, and we went from doing college level work in high school to elementary/middle school level work in high school. We went from a school with a three story state-of-the-art building devoted solely to music, to a school that had an old trailer with a hole in the floor for marching band. We went from an academics-oriented school to one that was all about football. I didn’t speak the same English as my classmates, I didn’t understand their cultural references, they were as foreign to me as Martians. That was 18 years ago and I’m still trying to recover from having my life destroyed. The pieces that were shattered are FINALLY starting to reassemble, but this country is still not my home. My home is an ocean away and two decades in the past. I hope your kids have a better transition than I did. Even if they repatriate well, they will never get that school in Dubai back. I never knew how awful American schools were until I had to attend one.

  8. Janet says:

    We are now just over a year into our repatriation home. I’m happy to say that what Maria says does happen… in time and with a friend or two things do get better and we do feel more settled. The second year of school back home feels just a bit easier and more familiar. It helps that we have enjoyed spending time back with my extended family. That gives us roots and a feeling that we do belong even if we still don’t quite feel like we belong everywhere else. Our kids have not found that perfectly special friend like they had overseas. I’m sure that will happen in time. I have looked back over our last year and see the good as well as the hurdles we have overcome. It’s not all wonderful but then neither were our expat adventures. It’s easy to romanticize that green grass on the other side of the fence. Taking each day as it comes, taking care of myself and my family, and looking at things in a positive way have gone a long way to make me feel like home is home. Thanks for having this outlet Maria! It’s so wonderful to hear what others are experiencing. It’s a reminder for me to remember the wonderful times and give myself and my family comfort and encouragement so we can get over life’s hurdles.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Janet. Those first few months home are so difficult, it’s hard to see beyond the pain and accept that things will get better. We need to spread the word so newly-returned repats don’t sink into despair. I’m glad you brought up the idea that we sometimes romanticize our expats lives. I was guilty of that myself, but it does us no favours. In fact, honestly confronting those bad experiences is a good thing, because if we can overcome tough times as expats, what’s to keep us from overcoming them once we’re back home?

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