Childhood mobility & mental health issues

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How do you recognize Third Culture Kids (TCK's), expat kids, and other mobile children in your practice? What issues do you think they struggle with that are directly tied to mobility?

We sent this question out to several hundred recipients among various networks...  and to date have received very few answers. What is going on here?

For years, we’ve known that those who move frequently in childhood and adolescence are at greater risk for certain emotional and behavioral problems that may manifest early or not present till later in adulthood -- surely mobility should be a red flag, something therapists might screen for during intake sessions with new clients.

Yet how often are clients specifically asked about childhood moves?  With increasing international and domestic mobility, how are therapists being trained to recognize and deal with these issues?

Some weeks ago, I attended the Families in Global Transition conference where I sat in on a presentation by marriage and family therapist Lois Bushong of Indiana. Herself an adult TCK, an American missionary kid who grew up in Central America, she cited some fascinating -- and troubling -- facts:

Bushong has developed a new intake form for use with her clients designed to help identify childhood mobility, which includes places to list the number of moves and countries lived in. Her soon-to-be-released book, “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere:  Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile,” is sure to help those who work  with TCKs to better understand their challenges.

Dr. Doug Ota, whose own book on setting up effective school programs to meet the needs of internationally mobile children is due out later this year, counsels many TCKs in The Hague, and finds that issues of mobility “usually arise naturally when taking a person’s history ... the issues that arise invariably have to do with identity: the question of ‘who I am’ is not only constructed by the ‘self’ (a very Western notion), but also reinforced and held in shape by a person’s environment (a very Eastern notion of where a person’s identity comes from). Westerners often get into trouble with mobility because they don’t see the last part of that equation changing when they move. They feel erased when they arrive, as all their reinforcement vanishes, and they can feel invisible -- without even knowing why!”

“There are (and always have been) mental health issues tied to childhood mobility,” writes Bruce La Brack, cultural anthropologist and researcher, whose own childhood included nine domestic moves in eighteen years. He has published extensively on intercultural experience, cultural adjustment and reentry issues. For years he directed the University of the Pacific’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training, working closely with TCKs and international students and preparing students for intercultural exchange. “I believe that many TCKs are either misdiagnosed (or the background causes of their anxiety or stress are either unknown or unacknowledged) if they are treated by health care professionals who are clueless about the TCK Profile or the salient factors that impact their emotional life and constitute their identity.”

These specialists understand well the challenges of frequent moves for Third Culture Kids, many of whom don’t self-identify and won’t offer up their itinerant pasts unless pressed for the information. But the patterns and characteristics that develop as a response to global mobility among TCKs can be applied to other cross-cultural children as well -- to those domestic nomads who move among cultures within a nation’s borders, or the ethnic-minority or immigrant child who lives a traditional life at home but is schooled in the larger community, or the children of refugees growing up in a country not their parents’, or international adoptees, or foster kids, or even those “stationary nomads” who remain in one place but whose world continually changes around them because of others’ mobility... the list goes on. One begins to see how huge an issue mobility has become.

How might mental health practitioners be better prepared to recognize mobility as a marker, then, when people come for help? What can our training institutions do to emphasize the importance of mobility as a catalyst for some of the presenting problems? What sort of preventive measures can be taken to insure that children -- and the adults they will become -- can more successfully navigate their transitions? And, finally, how can we take the reality of increased mobility, with all the benefits and enrichment that are also part of a mobile lifestyle, and reframe it into something TCKs and others can use as a model and a marketable skill?

I am hoping to explore these and other questions with readers of this blog. Please feel free to begin the conversation -- I look forward to your responses.

© Nina Sichel

You can read Nina's previous post on Third Culture Kids (TCK's) here.


  1. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
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    Wendy, you have so eloquently written what is at the heart of the experience of so very many TCKs -- the conflict between expanded horizons that come with frequent moving and the grief of letting go of people and places one has loved... Thank you for sending in your post, and for the awareness and sensitivity you bring to parenting your own TCK. May he build a beautiful life upon such a solid foundation.
  2. Wendy's avatar
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    I have struggled a lot as a TCK since adolescence, have had many different issues and have made many diagnosis. I have, as many others, learned about TCKs and shared with other TCKs, and gotten comfort from the experiences and issues we find in common. But I find that I still have a lot of unresolved identity issues, maybe it did not help that I married another TCK that doesn't have the same nationality as me (so more moving). But now that I have a kid, I see every little effect moving has on him and can draw links between what I see in him at age 2 and what I have lived and noticed the effects of only in adolescence. I think moving has (a lot of times) dramatic effects on children, and I'm still envious a lot of times of my friends who did not move in their childhood. Yes, moving gives you an open mindedness and broadness of horizon, many different skills, including linguistic ones... but the effort that has to be put again and again into building up an identity and into fighting to build again and again new links to your surroundings - the effort put into those things is enormous. And a human being only has strength and time for so many efforts... so you have to chose where the priority is. In moving, the priority in your child's life will often be (re-)adjusting and questioning/remodeling of identity - so spending a childhood (and adulthood) coming back to and restructuring the foundations instead of having time for the rest of the building.
  3. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
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    Thank you, Bonnie, for your comment and for sharing your video blog. Your experience and perspective reflect that of many TCKs -- a childhood on the move, a time of confusion and disconnection from what you'd been raised to believe was your "real" home culture, and a coming to TCK identity. This is very much the arc we described in my first collection of memoirs, Unrooted Childhoods.

    You may want to explore the work of Donna Musil, who contributed a memoir to my second collection, Writing Out of Limbo. In her essay, she describes her own military kid background and how she came to develop a documentary about military kids that has now traveled the world: BRATS: Our Journey Home. Interestingly, she also encountered some of the denial you have when trying to raise discussion about the issues military kids face.

    I wish you much luck in spreading the word!

    Nina Sichel
  4. Bonnie's avatar
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    I think it is so important to address this and to also accept the life and challenges TCKs face as children as well as adults. I am a TCK that grew up moving around military bases in Europe until I was 17 when I moved to my parents home country of the USA. For four years I struggled as an unknown TCK until my worldview was made clear when I stumbled upon what TCKs are at a missions conference. It really opened my eyes and my parents eyes to a lot of hard transitions that occurred and were still going on. The next six years I still felt very disconnected from the USA even though I was a dual citizen, had american parents, and an american accent. I met with councelors and they either did not know about TCKs or did not know much about it because we never really talked about those issues or I knew more about it then they did. I knew I wanted to live back overseas and it was dismissed by counelsors as 'holding on to the past' and not letting go. However two years ago I moved to Europe with my husband and kids (now also tcks) and I've never felt happier or more content. It makes me wonder what life would have been like if we had moved here years ago instead of the ten years I spent in the US. I've tried to bring up a TCK discussion on a military base (Back when my husband was in the military) and that base was not interested in having a TCK meeting because they said it was not a need. Here I am a military kid, former military wife, who as a TCK it defines my life and the way I see and view the world. I would not have asked for a different childhood and I embrace showing my kids the world as they grow up knowing they are TCKS. There should def be more open conversation about it in all circles. More people are moving and moving overseas for work and even if your own personal life is not affected by it, you may know or come in contact with someone who is a TCK. This is a video I posted about interacting with TCKS:
  5. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
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    Thank you, Mike, for your response to the blog and your question about the role of faith in the lives of TCKs.

    You may know that Christian missionaries and their children are one large sector in international relocations, and memoirs and studies of these children have been in circulation for years. Nancy Henderson-James wrote an essay for WRITING OUT OF LIMBO, "The Religious Lives of Adult Missionary Kids," which surveys several tracks these children have taken once they reached adulthood. The book also contains memoirs of several missionary kids that you might find interesting, as does my previous collection, UNROOTED CHILDHOODS.

    There is an enormous literature on the Jewish diaspora, and how Jewish culture has been maintained and/or diminished through its long and difficult history. I know there are also many memoirs on Muslim migration and adaptation to new cultures.

    I hope this will be helpful.

    Nina Sichel
  6. Mike's avatar
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    How does faith in God affect TCKs

    It seems that cultural stress is amplified by a desire to fit in with the culture around us. Just living in a multicultural society makes me aware of the complicated cues that I miss even though we speak the same language. But living in a totally different culture as a youth would be extremely difficult.
    The big problem arises when a youth comes "home" for school and finds he or she doesn't understand their own culture.

    A Christian is called to be in the world but not of the world. You might think that their allegiance to God's kingdom would help them rise above the cultural "shame" they may feel by being different?

    I would like to hear some response or of some research on the affect of faith on the adjustment of TCKs.

    Thanks for opening the dialog on this largely ignored subject.
  7. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
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    Thanks for this comment. Lots of communities, including Caracas, have Newcomers Clubs or other welcome-wagon organizations to greet new arrivals, but I think they mostly cater to the spouses of the assigned person (someone please correct me if I'm wrong!) and don't necessarily distinguish between TCKs and others. Global Nomads at one time had several centers on college campuses for TCKs. And different sponsoring organizations prepare their families for transitions abroad and cultural adjustment, and some, like the Foreign Service, also have ongoing events for youth when they return to their countries of origin.

    But I'm not aware of any specific organization that identifies TCKs and helps them settle in to a new "home." It would be especially wonderful for children.

    Sometimes the beginning of a move overseas is called the honeymoon period, because it is filled with the excitement of the new and the many wonderful and stimulating things that can happen when one crosses into another culture. It would be a good thing to have some guidance as well once that period is over, and people begin to find themselves missing certain aspects of home... or the place and people they left behind.
  8. andrea valfre's avatar
    andrea valfre
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    I am still homesick even though I left Caracas, Venezuela 33 years ago and have lived in the States ever since. I moved to Miami so I could feel a semblance to the latin culture I was raised in. Still it is not the same. I had many great experiences as well as not so great but I still miss what I called home during those years I grew up down there. I have had issues relating to the American way of life but I do not blame my own nomad existence on this completely. I do know however that growing up oversees and then having to move against most of my wishes has impacted in me in several ways both in a positive and negative way. I still have maintained contact however through the years with many old friends as well as family that still live overseas. I think there should be an organization in every city that caters to tck's by helping them adjust to the new city they have transferred into.
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