The Ripple Effect: TCKs and those they leave behind

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Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Nina Sichel

Millions of children in the Northern Hemisphere will be heading back to school soon, and those in the Southern Hemisphere to summer vacation. And many of those, regardless of location, will be moving on, into a new school environment.

Much has been written about those TCKs who will need some support in their transition to a new environment. I have written about this myself in other blogs on this site. But what about those who are left behind?  All those others in international or other  schools with high turnover -- the students, the teachers, the other parents who have formed attachments to the mobile child and his/her family -- what is the effect of TCK mobility on those they leave behind?

I was one of those, the child of expat parents who raised us in Caracas, Venezuela, and sent us to international schools. There was a little core of resident expats like us, from all sorts of nationalities, and lots of TCKs who came and went as their parents relocated for their international corporate or diplomatic or other jobs. It was fun to get to know the new kids, and see how they sorted themselves out among the various cliques that are part of any school environment; how they proved themselves in the classroom, or slunk into their seats seeking invisibility; what their interests were and whether or not they’d align with ours. Sometimes it was easy to get to know them. Sometimes, even though their nationalities might match ours, it seemed as though we had little in common other than speaking English -- and some were more fluent more than others. 

Many characteristics of the mobile TCK overlap with the expat child’s, but the way mobility is experienced may be different. The TCK is ripped from circles of relationship with every move and needs to reestablish community and identity at his next post, go through the ups and downs of relocation, the excitement of the new and the sadness of losing the old. But the stationary person’s relationship with him is also ripped away with his friend’s move; his circle is also broken. He, too, loses the possibility of a long-term friendship, watching each other grow and develop over time. He, too, has losses to mourn, adjustments to make, a transition to navigate. His friends aren’t just moving to another place.  They’re moving out of his life.

And sometimes it isn’t just his friends. Many of the teachers and support staff in international schools are also globally mobile, following their own careers or their spouses’ from place to place. So these attachments, and their severing, also become part of the expat child’s history. 

In the time and place where I grew up, all this was so normal it wasn’t even spoken about.  Sometimes it was so taken for granted we didn’t even know our friends had left for good -- we thought we were only saying goodbye for the summer. A quick so-long at the end of a school day, see you next year -- and off they went. The hole they left wasn’t felt till the start of the new school year, when you were supposed to be excited and fresh  for learning, not spending your time feeling surprised and sad that your friend wasn’t there any more.

We tried to keep in touch with those who left by mail, which could take weeks to reach its destination. Out-of-country phone calls in those days were too expensive and reserved for family emergencies. Friendships faded over time. Some of us learned to cling more tightly to those who stayed, and some of us learned not to invest too deeply in relationships that might dissolve. Now, kids can keep in touch via email, or Skype, or other instant forms of communication, both audio and visual. This can lead to an extending of these friendships, and keep alive the hope that they might someday reunite. The abruptness of farewell is tempered, eased, by looking forward to reunion.

But no matter how prettily you want to paint the picture, no matter how real an imaginary future together seems, saying goodbye is tough. And saying goodbye is a two-way street. Saying goodbye can keep a door open or slam it shut. And for those left behind, not just for those leaving, the way you say goodbye matters. It matters for remembering and it matters for closure. It matters for honoring the time spent together. And it matters for moving on -- and into new relationships. 

* For a detailed analysis on the effects of mobility and how to develop school/institutional transition programs, see Dr. Doug Ota’s Safe Passage: How mobility affects people & what international schools should do about it (available at and

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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. For more information on TCKs, readers can visit her Facebook page, which includes links to articles of interest, book recommendations, and connection with other TCKs.


  1. Lisa's avatar
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    I grew up in 6 countries, so I was used to being the one to leave, even though it wasn't easy. Then when I was the one left behind in Morocco and Egypt: it was worse. At least in Morocco I had a new school to go to after summer break, so I was still the "new kid" a 2nd time in the same country, which was hard but gave me smth to focus on. In Egypt, my best friend's family was sent back to the USA and my brother left for college. There was no adventure/unknown to be excited and scared about. There was just the hole in my life where my friend and sibling had been. I got so depressed that they both called me long distance after receiving my letters, which were pretty despairing. Hm--I'd forgotten about that… Anyway, I did have friends that year, but not a true kindred spirit, and it was senior year, so that was rough.
  2. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
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    I'm sorry, Glenna. This is the fifth blog I have posted at this site about TCKs and thought, perhaps, it might be redundant to explain again. But thank you for calling it to my attention:

    A TCK, short for Third Culture Kid, refers to a child who was raised outside his passport country because of a parent's relocation due to career or occupation. Typically, these are children of diplomats, international business people, international educators, missionaries, and so on. His identity may or may not reflect his parents' -- TCKs tend to relate to other TCKs, regardless of their place of origin, more than they do to others who share their passport country or place of origin -- for more on the identity-formation of TCKs, please see some of my other posts on this site or contact me again and I will send you a more detailed definition and reference material.
  3. Glenna Wilson's avatar
    Glenna Wilson
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    What is a TCK? One should not use acronyms without at least explaining in the beginning.
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