Due to a great deal of interest we are re-running this Morning Zen post by Nina Sichel, who is co-editor of the collections "Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011)."
You may not notice her. At first glance, she may appear perfectly comfortable -- these kids are chameleons, adept at taking on the colors of each new environment they are plunged into. She looks and sounds like the other kids in her class; she wears the same kind of clothes, has the same gadgetry, carries the same backpack.
Perhaps she comes to your attention because she is having adjustment problems, like any other new kid on the block. She isn’t making friends easily, doesn’t join group activities. She is withdrawn, uncooperative, angry or disruptive. Or maybe she’s been diagnosed and labeled, but it doesn’t seem to explain everything.
She doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t know where to begin.
What you don’t know and can’t see is that she is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) -- a child who has moved in and out of foreign countries as her parents have transferred around the world. Born into one culture, raised among others, her identity is most closely aligned with others raised like her, moving internationally. She is not “from” anywhere. Although she was born here, for her this country is another foreign assignment. Feeling out of place is only the tip of the iceberg. She is struggling through yet another adaptation, another culture shock, another freefall.
TCKs are the children of international business people, global educators, diplomats, missionaries, the military -- anyone whose family has relocated overseas because of a job placement. The children attend international or host-country schools, or are sent to boarding schools, or are home-schooled. They are supposed to be coming home -- even if they’ve never lived here, even if they’ve only been back on furlough. Often, this is their most difficult relocation. There are nearly a million in international schools around the world; others in Department of Defense schools on international military bases; countless numbers returned to their passport countries of origin.
Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who specializes in the placement of these children, says there are three basic things all children need: belonging, recognition and connection. For TCKs, these basic needs are ripped away with each move. Powerless in the decision to relocate, their many losses are often not acknowledged even by their own parents, and the main problem is unspoken, unrecognized, shunted aside.
It looks like depression, but it’s not. This is the face of TCK grief.
And, according to Ruth Van Reken, unresolved grief is the most urgent mental health issue facing TCKs -- the children as well as the adults they will become.
Herself a TCK, Ruth Van Reken has spent a lifetime writing and advocating and teaching about the psychological impact of an internationally mobile childhood. Along with the many benefits come challenges that must be faced with each move the child makes. She states, “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.
These children are losing the worlds they love, over and over. They cycle through the stages of grief each time they move -- or they don’t, and push it down, submerge it, only to have it bubble up later in life, unexplained.
The grief of children is often invisible. They are told they will adapt, they are resilient. They are told they’ll get over missing that friend, they’ll get another pet, they’ll have a nicer room in the new house. Their family is rushed; they don’t have time to mourn their losses.
And they are children, and don’t know how to express what they are feeling.
Some mental health professionals call it trauma.
Kathleen Gilbert has researched grief among TCKs, and writes, “Losses that are not successfully resolved in childhood have an increased likelihood of recurring in adulthood... For TCKs, questions about who they are, what they are, where they are from, what and who they can trust are examples of existential losses with which they must cope. And the way in which they process these losses will change, or may even wait until long after their childhood.”
So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her. Ask her where she’s lived. Ask her what she’s left behind. Open doors. And just listen. Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn. She has a story -- many stories. And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.
Morning Zen Guest Blogger Nina Sichel
© Nina Sichel
Nina Sichel is co-editor of the collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011) and Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004). She leads memoir-writing workshops in the Washington, DC area and continues to collect stories and research about international and cross-cultural childhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruth Van Reken is quoted from an email exchange; Kathleen Gilbert’s essay “Echoes of Loss: Long-term Grief and Adaptation among Third Culture Kids” appears in Writing Out of Limbo.