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.”