Fostering resilience, easing transitions: Learning from Third Culture Kids

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I’ve been invited to the gathering as a guest speaker. Another group has come together to discuss what it is like to grow up global. Another group of parents is embarking on an  international relocation. Their decision has been made, but they want to know more, there are issues still left to discuss.

The meeting focuses on international mobility from the child’s perspective. I join some others who have spent childhoods away from their countries of origin, and we talk about our experiences being raised cross-culturally, growing up among expatriates in the global stream. The audience nods in understanding, smiles as we describe the benefits their children will reap, laughs at the silly mistakes we’ve made and learned from, grows serious when we talk of the grief inherent in saying goodbye so frequently to the places and the people we have loved.

And then, the inevitable question:

And I wish there were an easy answer.

tcktrainSo much depends on the child, and the parent, and the circumstances of the relocation. What do we tell our children as they, and we, face a major life disruption like moving away from home? How can we be sensitive to their needs while we are busy unravelling the old and weaving the new connections we need to move on?

Children are expected to be resilient in the face of change, and manage transitions easily. But some people are resistant to change, and don’t know how -- or don’t want -- to “go with the flow.”

In a world where frequent residential mobility is fast becoming the norm, how do we best prepare children for moving on? How do we foster the resilience they need to adapt to changing circumstances? How is the need to belong, the need for connection, met among the unrooted?

There is much to be learned from generations of border-crossing Third Culture Kids, whose lives, though filled with rich experience, also consist of repeated cycles of moving and repeated cycles of loss. The moving from place to place, country to country. The loss of these places and countries, and of friends, family, community. The loss of home.

Many of the sponsoring organizations that send employees and their families abroad -- the military, diplomat and business communities, missionaries, educators and others -- have programs in place to help families in transition. There are relocation services, counseling, pre-assignment coaching and meetings. There are books, many of them valuable, that aim to teach resilience to people of all ages.

But as I read these books and pamphlets, filled with information about developmental stages, goodbye rituals, writing prompts, suggestions, I see that none of them can answer that first, most important question of all, and the one that is most frequently asked:

So I tell them what I’ve learned:

Most adult TCKs, looking back on the worlds they discovered in their young mobile lives, claim they would never trade their childhoods for any other. They say the enrichment they experienced outweighs the challenges they endured. This, despite the fact that many have suffered adjustment problems, unresolved grief, identity issues, experiences that have tested their mettle at a very young age.

I tell them, there is more in place now to prepare yourselves and your children for relocation than there ever was. Take advantage of it -- do the work in advance that will smooth the transition for your family.

I tell them, continue your involvement after the move. Learn the language and the culture of your new home. Create an environment of openness and support and free communication. Encourage independence and problem-solving skills. Build bridges to new friends, create connection between your old life and your new with repeated rituals. Bring along some favorite objects. Stay sensitive -- your child will not be feeling the same emotions you are. Be aware of transition red flags:  withdrawal, refusal to cooperate, anger. Seek professional help if you need it. Keep the conversation open.

And above all, listen. Listen when your child comes to you with fears, and don’t brush them away -- teach him how to manage them. Listen if your child expresses unhappiness, and acknowledge it before trying to cheer him up -- allow him time to grieve his losses. Listen when she tells you her experience, which is different from yours. Listen and encourage as your family heads off on this new adventure. This may be one of the richest and most rewarding times of your lives. 

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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


  1. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
    | Permalink
    Barbara, there are several books I would recommend for background information and some suggestions:

    EXPAT TEENS TALK, by Dr. Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit
    SAFE PASSAGE, by Doug Ota

    … and there are many, many more.

    Please feel free to "like" the Writing Out of Limbo page on Facebook, where you will find weekly suggestions for books about TCK, expat, CCK issues. And feel free to write in to the page, and you will probably receive great feedback.

    Nina Sichel
  2. Barbara Hutchins's avatar
    Barbara Hutchins
    | Permalink
    Hi I am sharing with a group of missionary kids at a conference for our organization and I am having difficulty finding relevant activities for 12-17 year olds. Talking on resilience, grief, transition. Any suggests would be so appreciated. Doing this in about 1 month.
  3. Linda A. Janssen's avatar
    Linda A. Janssen
    | Permalink
    Thanks, Nina. We had a good talk with the husband (my husband is an adult TCK), they may not go for a year or two depending on the schooling for the eldest. I told him I'd touch base with his wife, I intend to give her a copy and imagine we'll get into a little more depth and substance. The kids are excited (although it's easier when it's abstract and no date is set), they're a great family, very close - with some foresight, preparation and understanding, I'm sure they'll do well.
  4. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
    | Permalink
    Thank you for your comments, Joanne and Linda. Yes, Joanne, the issues are ongoing, especially when they are not recognized for what they are by the people around them, not to mention the individual. So much of the TCK's emotional response to mobility still remains hidden... Linda, I do hope you gave your neighbor a copy of your own wonderfully helpful book, "The Emotionally Resilient Expat." Moving within the US -- even if crossing cultures -- is vastly different from an international relocation, and I hope his children are as excited and optimistic as he is.
  5. Linda A. Janssen's avatar
    Linda A. Janssen
    | Permalink
    I think you've captured the best, honest, most candid response possible, Nina. A neighbor mentioned possibly moving overseas and when I inquired more regarding their children, his response was that they did fine moving once within the US (when most weren't even in school yet) and think it would be exciting. Attitude is very important, but it certainly isn't everything.
  6. Joanne Glenn's avatar
    Joanne Glenn
    | Permalink
    Good, heartfelt advice, beautifully expressed. I think of someone I know who was one of these kids. I now understand some of the issues that played into current adjustments and relationships. Thanks for this insight.
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