Being expat

How to help frequently moving TCKs and expat children

Many books, articles and posts give advice about what people can expect when starting a frequent moving life as adult expats.  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

An infographic about expats I lately discussed on this blog, points out that after a “honeymoon” phase of up to 6 weeks, expats (and TCKs and global nomads) go through a “culture shock” phase. This can be longer or shorter, depending on many 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 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 everyone experiences to some extent, we enter the “gradual adjustment” phase, 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 layed out; I’m still waiting for more details…).

It seems 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. I think it’s wrong. We can experience several “honeymoon” phases 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 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 accointances).

And one even more important aspect that is not illustrated or mentioned in this kind of infographic: every member of the family will go through these phases in his very personal way in his own pace. 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 his very personal way makes it so difficult to understand each others mood, enthusiasm or grief.

A recent post, “Moving abroad? 7 things your child needs to hear you say“, gives several hints about how parents can help their children while moving abroad. I’m not going to list them all up, but the main message was to listen to our children, really “listen” to what they say and what they are not able to put into words. Empathy and patience is what our children need from parents during that period. Most parents are so busy organising a move and everything that’s related with it, that they don’t have 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 pointed out in the post 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 very well after a loss, but assuming that grief in childhood is short-lived, is a major mistake. They 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 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.

“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.”

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 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)


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 childern 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 constant moves, after 10, 15, 20 years of their nomad life, struggle. 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 massive response from (A)TCKs and expats on a post about “TCK problems” where a mother describes anonymously the impact nomadic life had on her 14 year old daughter, made the author of the blog, Carole Hallett Mobbs, write a “Reaching out to help troubled TCKS“. – Many international schools are aware of the impact a nomadic life can have on children and young adults, but many of them still lack of a systematic and professional help for them and their families.


©expatsincebirth; Varese

21 replies »

  1. Though I didn’t live abroad as a young child, I think I moved 10+ times before I was 17. Even more afterwards:). There are definitely ages it is slightly easier, and ages where it is infinitely harder- though I didn’t have internet nor was I allowed to make long distance phone calls to friends, so it might as well have been another planet as far as I was concerned!

    • I couldn’t agree more, I’ve had a similar childhood and it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I realized people don’t usually move so much. It was kind of a little shock for me back then!

  2. Yes, Becky, times have changed and being TCK today is easier. Have you read Ruth van Rekens’ “Letters I’ve never sent”? There she describes her childhood as a TCK, attending boarding school in the fifties/sixties… She happened not to see her parents for 4 years (!). – All this doesn’t mean that being TCK today is easy, it still implies loss and grief, but it’s everyones decision to maintain a friendship. We don’t have any excuse now: with all the social media, we have plenty of choice about how to stay in touch 😉

  3. Your post struck a chord with me because my parents did exactly what you describe: as adults, they settled down in Poland. Maybe that was the reason? In fact, my parents mentioned more than once that they hated moving and that each move was like a fire- huge, chaotic and you end up losing stuff. Maybe that was the reason- that they moved too much as children? They even decided to stay in their tiny appartment instead of moving to a bigger house because they didn’t want to move anymore…Thanks for the great post!

  4. My parents moved 10 times when I was between the ages of (10 and 17). I remember coming home and hearing how we were moving to another continent! Not just to another neighborhood. We lived in different parts of Spain, mostly where the American military bases were. So glad you discussed repatriation cause that was sometimes one of the most difficult aspects of moving, coming home to the states. My brother and I would catch up on much missed American cereals and TV, but other than that, we were somehow social misfits till we readjusted.

    • Thank you Sara, for your very important comment! Repatriation is a major issue for children and young adults. This feeling of alienation is terrible and the expectations from family, friends etc. to adapt quickly is sometimes too much.
      May I ask how long this period lasted where you and your brother felt like “social misfits” and what made you realize that you “readjusted”? What were the signs that you were adjusting? Was it a feeling, a particular experience where you realized “now I’m here/home”? Sorry for all these questions, but I’m trying to understand the different layers of these stages (or phases).

  5. I’ve heard this very often from TCKs: some of them don’t want to move anymore when they’re adult (or when they have kids). It’s an interesting point. I haven’t read anything about this specificly related to TCKs or expats, but “was nicht ist, kann noch werden”.

    • Thank you for stopping by! I’m glad you liked the post. I just found your blog and read your last post. When talking about expats we often forget to talk about the people they meet and how they affect their lives and perspectives on everything. Keep up your excellent work! I’ll follow you on your blog 😉

      • Thanks! We are also talking three languages at home. I do miss the excellent German education system here in Africa and I am not a full-time mom, so homeschooling is out of the question. I was today so proud of my 4 year old son when he completed a whole stage performance in English. People judge him by his slight accent, but it is his third language and he did real good! 😉

      • Congratulations for your son’s performance! I know, it’s hard to see our kids judged by their accent. But you know have the perfect answer: your child is multilingual and doing an excellent job! – Sometimes people who judge others by their accent (or whatever…) are very insecure about their own. Enjoy the success of your son and be super proud of him! ;-)- I’m always amazed when I see my children on stage. It’s like if they were showing me a part of them that I usually don’t get to see (and appreciate).

      • Thank you! I believe our kids do have an advantage, although they get frustrated sometimes when they talk about an event in another nation (watched Stoertebeker at the island of Rugen) and their friends have no idea what they are talking about!

  6. I enjoyed reading your post, and can relate much. The fear of having my kids feel this big cultural shock is what have stopped us from moving back to the country we came from (Brazil) with our daughters, especially now that they are teenagers. Yet I feel that once we move abroad, we don’t belong to a specific place anymore, there will always be that feeling of something missing.
    -Thereza Howling

    • Hi Thereza, I’m glad you enjoyed reading this post. I think that a good preparation for all the members of the family is crucial to live this kind of transition in a healthy way. Of course, moving back (would it be a re-patriation for your daughters too?) is sometimes an even bigger challenge because everyone expects you to fit in and adapt quickly. As “hidden immigrant” you would look like locals, talk like them (even if not using the local slang (yet?)) and still feel so different… I think it pretty much depends where exactly you will end up living. Will it be in a monocultural context? Will there be other expats or families with a similar more international background as yours? Going “back” and finding like-minded people, people who had similar experiences will help to feel “at home” or to belong easier.
      My personal opinion about the sense of belonging is that we all first of all belong to people: to our family, our extended family, our friends, the groups we’re in etc. Of course, we feel “home” in certain places. In some more than in others.
      Everyone goes through transition stages, even staying in one place for a long time: there are always friends or family members leaving. Maybe you even have to move house in the same location. Life changes constantly. We change for jobs, studies. Changing from one class to the other at school can sometimes have a strong impact on our children too.
      Of course, an international move is more than that: it’s changing house, friends, language, food, all kind of habits etc. in one. But it can also be seen and lived as an exciting adventure and somehow have a cathartic effect if planned and prepared in advance.
      You probably have the choice weather to embrace the new life or not. We all have the “tools” to do so. It’s the fear not to find friends, not to find a nice home, a good school, not to be happy in the end, that stops many people to move abroad. But nothing tells us that we’ll be “always” happy if we stay either…
      You say that there will always be the feeling of something missing: do you have something specific in mind? A place? Friends? I would love to know more about what is holding you back from moving to Brazil.

      • You know, Ute, answering all your questions and elaborating about them sound like a blogpost itself. 🙂 Some quick answers for your questions: No, it would not be re-patriation for my daughters, just me and my husband. One specific person I miss very much every day is my mother. I am an only child and she is divorced, living by herself. She does not like the place where I live, which I totally understand, so she won’t move in with us, and I try to help her all the way form here, doing what I can. And I believe what holds me the most form moving back is safety; the feeling of being safe where you live is priceless. I used to live in a violent city and the suburbs seemed to be a much safer place to raise my kids.
        Thank you for your insights.

      • Ha, Thereza, I know. I like to get to know others better and am really interested in these topics I’m writing about, so… sorry, I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable with all my questions.
        You mention a very important aspect that makes it very difficult living far away from family: when one family member suffers. And it can be a family member of the family living abroad, or one of the family that stayed… And the safety aspect is very important too, especially when you have children, right?
        I hope you’ll find a way to combine the needs of all your family members and, of course, your own ones (!) because these worries can be very daunting on the long run and hinder you to enjoy your life abroad.
        I wish you all the best. xxx Ute

      • Thanks, Ute. You did not make me feel uncomfortable at all; it’s all about time crunching. To answer your questions well, it would have taken more time, but I know you got the picture from what I said. I’ve been living here for 15years now… I figured out a bunch of things, but now my mom’s health is not the same as it used to be until a few years ago; that’s what changed lately.
        I wish all of us expats wise and enjoyable solutions to figure those situations out!

  7. Kids are the most resilient creature in this world. We moved around quite a bit for a period of 2 years, from language to culture to living conditions, the young ones adjusted beautifully.

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