Tag Archives: Expatriate

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


Why expat life is not always a smooth ride: another infographic about expats

Expat Life: Not Always A Smooth Ride!

Expat Life: Not Always A Smooth Ride! – An infographic by the team at Overs

This is another infographic about expats (see the sources at the end of the infographic). I chose to post it here on my blog, right after the post about the Sea Change Mentoring symposium I attended last Saturday, because many issues listed in this infographic have a major impact on expact children, and Sea Change Mentoring is one place to contact when facing issues like these.

Expat life is not as easy and smooth as many people think. Especially the different stages of expatriate adjustment should be taken seriously. These stages affect parents and children, and often not simultaneously. This is exactly why parents and children should reach out for help.

Another point seems very important to me: that expats or people who envisage this kind of life, should consider longer stays in a new location in order to give their children the opportunity to pass from a “gradual adjustment” to the “competence stage” and, in the best case, to the “mastery” (after 5-7 years). – In the expatriate adjustment lifecycle on this infographic I miss the stage of repatriation. Repatriation is an “important yet often overlooked component of a successful assignment experience“. During repatriation, expats face exactly the same stages as those listed in this infographic and the repatriation can be as challenging and traumatic as the first relocation. Especially for children who have spent a significant amount of their lives overseas (and many have probably never lived in their passport country!), repatriation is very difficult. Many repatriating families feel “culturally, socially and professionally out of sync with their new environment”.

This is why re-establishing a social life as soon as possible is very important in the first period of a relocation. It also helps against homesickness. – Everyone goes through the phase where the life before seems much better than the one in the new location (or “back home”). Therefore it is really important that, before entering this phase, i.e. while still in the “honeymoon phase”, expats should try to find like-minded people who can help them cope with the culture shock phase – or the reverse culture shock phase for those who repatriate.

The fact that “many brits abroad” seem to miss the sense of humour, really applies to everyone, Brit or not. Finding someone who laughs at the same jokes or at the same scenes in a movie gives us all a sense of belonging.

In this infographic, 70% “of expats say that social media contacts with friends and family helps to relieve homesickness”. I think social media are a great help nowadays. But it can also deter people from getting in touch with people in their real lives. Expats need even more to get in touch with people, with locals and like-minded people in their new location, to re-establish a new social life and create a safe haven where they can find help if needed.

If you’re facing issues like those mentioned in the infographic or know someone who might need some help, here are some sites to visit and contact (in alphabetical order):













This is NOT a sponsored post and I have NOT been asked to write it.

Expats infographic

Here is an interesting expats infographic which looks at the total expat population around the world.

A few numbers:

  • Since 1960, the number of expats triplicated: in 1960 there were “only” 73 million expats worldwide, today we are 230 million!
  • 3.1 % of the global population are expats.
  • If all the expats of the world were to form an imaginary country, it would be the 5th most populous country in the world and its  population would be greater than the ones in Russia, Germany and Brazil.
  • If all the expats would form a human chain, it would circle the earth once, i.e. it would be 40,000 km long.
  • Women make up 49% of the expat population worldwide, i.e. nearly 113 million, which is more than the population of Canada and the UK put together!
  • The top recipient countries of expat remittances are India, China, Mexico, Philippines and Nigeria.
  • The top 5 countries with the highest share of expats in total population are Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan and Singapore.
  • There are 6.32 million American and 4.7 million British expats living abroad. – I would have liked to have a more detailed list about this.
  • In the time taken for you to read this, 6-7 expats would have moved abroad for the first time!

How to cope with repatriation

When you are returning to your passport country after you’ve spent some time abroad you may not really feel “at home”. Expats generally learn to adapt to their host locations and in the most positive case, end up to behave and think like locals. Even if they had some troubles adapting to the host country, when they repatriate, they often experience a reverse culture shock also known as “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock”:

I wouldn’t say “any other place in the world”, maybe “any other place you’ve lived”? I definitely feel more foreign in my passport country than in the places I’ve lived in. The main reason, in my case, is that I’ve never lived in my passport country and feel more like a tourist who just happens to know the language and some people who live there (family and great friends!). I’m quite familiar with the culture and some habits of my passport country, but I don’t really feel connected to the place, the country.

Since I have children I feel more responsible to know as much as I can about my passport country, the culture, the traditions, the history. But as I described in another post, being an expat German is not that easy, at least not in the countries I’ve lived in. I’m wondering if this “feeling more foreign in the passport country” depends on our nationalities. Are there nationalities, expats or TCK’s feel more comfortable with or that makes it easier for them to (re)adjust once they repatriate? Or is it easier to repatriate from a country that is culturally closer to our passport country?

Returning to the passport country for someone who grew up abroad may depend on the moment the repatriation takes place. Personally I think that the easiest time to repatriate is before one turns 5 (!) but I don’t think that it’s easier for children in general. As soon as they attend school they usually prefer staying with their peers, especially when they hit the teens.

Everyone expects repatriates (i.e. those who come back to their passport country after some time abroad) to fit in almost immediately. They usually do know the language and have many rights that foreigners don’t have. People expect them to know everything about the culture, the life there: from finding a house, school to buying the right toothpaste…

But doesn’t all this put too much pressure on them and make repatriation even more difficult? Repatriates can easily feel misplaced: they feel like a foreigner in what is supposed to be their own country. They experience reverse culture shock, described as follows by Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound:

“Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”

When you’ve lived abroad and had a deep international experience, you change. Of course, your whole life changes you wherever you live, you don’t have to be living abroad for this, but the experience living abroad may change you more. “Old norms and values are viewed from a fresh perspective, and the expat and family see things in a new light; something like (…) going from black and white to Technicolor.” (cit. from Audrey Sykes article Reverse culture shock: What, when, and how to cope on Expatica.com)

Dean Foster, Founder and President of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions:

“By the time most traditional international assignments come to an end, several years may have passed, providing the international assignee a significant amount of time to learn new patterns of behavior and thought, necessary to fit into their host country.  While not aware of these changes, expats are shocked into the realization that they have in fact changed substantially usually only when they encounter their home culture upon repatriating.  Both they and the home culture have changed, and this is often the first time that expats have had the opportunity to experience any of these changes.”

Every time you go back home for visits, you can feel frustrated or confused when your close friends and family are not curious or intrigued about your experiences. – Will this change once you’re back for good?

According to Dr. Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific, this is what expats may expect while returning home:

– Boredom
– No one wants to listen
– You can’t explain
– Reverse homesickness
– Relationships have changed
– People see “wrong” changes
– People misunderstand you
– Feelings of alienation
– Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
– Loss/compartmentalisation of experience

Audrey Sykes gives some clues how to cope with repatriation. She recommends to “share your experience with others” – but what if there is nobody to share the experience with because you did repatriate to a very monocultural and monolingual place? –  “maintain your style and stay international” – what if this style is too exotic for the people in the place you live? –  “ask for training” – but what if you can’t find any help in loco?

Dean Foster recommends a repatriation training for the entire family. He considers that “it needs to involve the HR department at least 6 months prior to the return, so that the company can insure a position for the repats that values their new skills.  Repatriation training that helps not just the repat, but the entire family, adjust to the fact that they have all changed significantly while on international assignment, to assess and value those changes, and to see the ways that their home country has changed while they were abroad. This takes training.” – But are companies giving repatriates all this time to get prepared to the repatriation? And do they provide this service for the families? Every repatriate should know that there are programs that “address the entire family’s issues, and that are combined with HR advising to insure a position that values the repat’s new global skills.  The family issues that need to be addressed include helping children adjust to a home they may not remember, returning to unfamiliar “kid” culture (children may have in fact been born abroad, may come home with accents), partners who need support to re-enter a workforce they have been out of for several years, the loss and disinterest of expected family and friends, all of this requires training to anticipate and to manage successfully.” (Dean Foster)

I would like to end with two quotes from Global mum: A Memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, where she describes the reverse culture shock she and her family experienced when they had to repatriate after the events of 9/11:

“Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing TV lingo or TV personages or TV jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it each in our individual way” (p.161)

“…we felt strangely alien, unable to share a great past of ourselves with others. One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling alien in what’s supposed to be your home country? I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from loud vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one seemed to want to hear much about” (p.162).

I never made the experience to live in my passport country and I’m wondering if there is a moment in our lives, where repatriation is “easy” and what would be recommended in order to make it as smooth as possible.

If you are a TCK (or ATCK), a global nomad or an expat: have you ever lived in your passport country? If yes, when and for how long? Did you go back to live there only once or more often? How old were you when you did repatriate? What was your experience with repatriation? Do you think that your nationality or the historical, political or social situation of your passport country makes it easier – or more difficult – for you to (re-)adjust? Please share your experience in the comments.


Some excerpts in this article were taken from Dean Foster’s Repatriation 101: Demystifying Reverse Culture Shock .