Life Transitions with Parents



By Tina Quick

There they were, the telltale signs that my parents were squarely planted in the “leaving stage” of their upcoming life transition. We, their children, had been trying for years to get them to think about the inevitability of having to leave their beloved home for the security and stability that an assisted living facility could offer them. The two separate incidents which brought them to share a room in the skilled nursing rehabilitation facility also brought them to the realization that they could never manage on their own again, even with outside help.

As my brother and I managed the details of their move, I was struck by how acutely the stages of Dr. David Pollock’s (co-author with Ruth Van Reken of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds”) transition cycle were playing out for them. The stages were applying not solely to their physical relocation, but to their life transition as well – from independent adults living out their retirement dream to aged parents requiring assistance with daily living.

The circumstances could not have been more convenient for the arduous task of packing up their belongings, clearing the no longer relevant, finding their small dog a new home (dogs are not allowed in this facility), and getting their new apartment set up and turn-key ready for their move-in.  They would be in the rehab center for one month. The denial was thick in the air as I expressed frustration with their inability to follow through on the one simple instruction I had given them. They had a whole month to review all the photos I had taken of their home – furniture, closets, corners, shelves, insides of cabinets and more – and decide what they wanted to keep and what could be let go. As we prepared to go back down to Florida for the big yard sale we discovered they had done none of it. Perhaps by denying it, it wasn’t really happening.

Then a neighbor had the bright idea of driving them to the house on the day of the yard sale! Pandemonium ensued. My mother was talking prospective buyers out of their new-found treasures while Dad was telling us we weren’t charging enough for the priceless items that were practically flying out of the driveway. We finally convinced the well-intentioned neighbor to take them back to the rehab facility so we could finish out the day. Letting go while holding on was not easy to witness. We saw it again when they insisted we drive them by the empty, lifeless house with the “For Sale” sign predominantly displayed in the front yard. Their grief could not be contained as the memories and tears flowed equally.  This was tough. Besides dealing with the pain of moving my own family around the globe on several occasions, this was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do.

I experienced a déjà vu of sorts when I walked away, leaving them in their foreign surroundings. What was it I was feeling? What was that familiar emotion so palpable in the pit of my stomach? I’ve had it before, so many times. Then it comes to me. I’m feeling the guilt that comes with uprooting people I love; watching them grieve and not knowing how to comfort them. Instead I find myself mouthing empty phrases like, “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends here,” or “Be sure to get involved and don’t just stay in your apartment all the time.” I haven’t comforted them at all. I understand that if I were to comfort them I would be admitting my own pain and sadness. So I encourage them instead. Something I used to do with my own children in their transitions. There it is again, the guilt.

I imagine my parents too, must have gone through these feelings each time they moved me and my brothers. Now it has come full-circle.

I shared these feelings with another adult third culture kid who had gone through the same experience with her parents. This TCK had the added dimension of having grown up in boarding schools.  It hit her hard when she had to leave her mother in a nursing home and was given a list of needed clothing items with strict instructions that name tags be sewn on everything. As my friend sewed name tags onto her mother’s clothes, she was haunted with flashbacks of being dropped off at school and wondered if her mom and dad had felt this strong battle of responsibility of giving her the best education mixed with overwhelming guilt for not keeping her at home. Again that déjà vu feeling that our generation of expats experience as our parents age and we are called on to help them manage their life transitions.

I watched and marveled as my parents experienced the predictable emotional highs and lows of settling in to their new surroundings – the transition stage. I braced myself for the dip in the ‘u’ curve of what I like to call “transition shock.” It’s the culture shock that comes with any life transition, whether it be transition to a foreign country, repatriation, or other major life change. And come it did. Both Mom and Dad dealt with bouts of anxiety and depression, but to their credit, they rallied to force themselves onto the new scene by engaging in the activities on offer. This is when I was reminded that though they may not realize it, they too, have been through this many times before in their lives. While it may seem a lifetime ago, they packed up and unrooted themselves and their children time and time again during my father’s 22 year-long military career. Mom quickly made Quonset huts in Japan, high-rise apartments in Turkey, and temporary housing units all over the U.S. feel like home to us kids. By placing familiar knick-knacks and wall hangings around our new digs and getting us into our regular routines as rapidly as possible, we felt the security of home with our parents at the center of our world, there to care for and protect us.

What may have blindsided them in this transition, is the very thinking that throws expatriates off-guard. When we move to another country where we look and sound like the surrounding dominate culture, we just assume we will adjust very quickly. We, in the inter-cultural world see U.S. expatriates to countries like England and Australia, thrown completely askew when the transition does not go as smoothly as expected. Thankfully my parents did not have to leave their community where they had good neighbors and friends from church who regularly stop in to visit, but their entire lifestyle is different. “It’s just not home,” my father would say.

I was surprised but relieved when Mom called not long ago to say, “Thank you.” She unmistakably verbalized all the proof I needed that she had reached the entering stage. She thanked my brother and me for instigating and orchestrating their move. She had come to accept the realization that due to their medical conditions, they would never have been able to live on their own again. She now appreciates all the assistance and support they are receiving in their new environment and have even made some friends and found new routines to enjoy. But true to the emotional instability that continues through the transition into the entering stage it is no surprise when she calls to say that while she knows they are right where they need to be, she is overwhelmingly sad. Through conversations with FIGT colleagues I have come to understand that this is not an “either / or” situation, and I am pleased to see how she has been able to embrace the plethora of emotions all mixed together – good with bad, happy with sad.

I encourage her in her grief. I tell her to get all those photos out that I took before we disassembled their precious home and to spend time with them. Remember what they had in that place; not just the possessions, but the memories as well, evidence of a life well-lived in a place well-loved.

I won’t say my parents have come full-cycle to the re–involvement stage, but I am hopeful. They just commandeered the corporate top brass of the assisted living conglomerate to change their policies and allow pets. The day after the ruling came through, they brought home their new housemate – an adorable Chihuahua!

The globally mobile lifestyle I have led with my own family reminds me that life is really just a series of constant transitions and I must prepare myself for the possibility that just when it seems they have finally reached adjustment, something else will transpire (another major health incident or even the death of their life-partner) to start the transition cycle all over again. As I like to say, “Life is a chapter book. The trick is in knowing which chapter you are in.” I’ve come to realize that you can’t fight change (transition) but if you know what to expect, you can get through it with as much grace as my parents are attempting to do right now.

Tina Quick, an Adult Third Culture Kid and author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.


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“I went to my 50th high school reunion and bumped into me.”

TFA class at Falls

I just returned from my 50th high school reunion. For most of my peers here in Indiana, that would mean they returned from an evening of partying, seeing if they could recognize their former classmates, catching up on what what vocation each pursued following graduation and maybe adding a couple of addresses to the family Christmas card list. It’s usually a fun event.

But for me, an adult TCK who didn’t go to just any high school but rather to a boarding school, it was a highly emotional event. Back in the day, landing at Toccoa Falls Academy in northern Georgia began for some of us the lonely path of adjusting to a new culture, grieving too many losses known and unknown to us, and experiencing a freedom (and a loss) of being several countries away from our parents. During my youth, I did not recognize the value of good friendships. Yet those Toccoa Falls Academy friends were to become my family for three years. Sadly, after graduation, I lost touch with them. Now, I’ve come upon the landmark of the Academy’s 50th at the same time that I’m arriving at what psychologist Erik Erikson identifies as the stage where we reflect back on our life.

I was expecting all of the excitement of reconnecting with old roommates and former boyfriends and catching up with the lives of long-lost, friends. But I was not expecting to be overwhelmed with a tidal wave of emotions. Because we were in boarding school, we ate, slept, worked, studied, laughed, rebelled and learned about life together. We were all left there by parents.  Some of us understood why and others did not. We tried to sort out our thoughts and feelings together, in private, or both.

While at the reunion, I experienced many of the same characteristics that countless adult TCKs experience over the years:

  1. I completely side-stepped the chit chat and jumped headlong into the deep stuff, recognizing I only had one or two days with my former classmates. I didn’t do the normal progression of gradually reconnecting with friends and friendships.
  2. I stated several times it felt like an Attention Deficit Disorder friendship. We would go deep into a heart wrenching story, when someone suddenly approached with a camera to take a picture of two best friends together again. In the midst of this chaos, we swung from tear filled eyes to mugging for the camera. Then we’d leap back to wherever we had left our the story, only to suddenly see another old friend and run to hug their neck and laugh and carry on until they walked away to hug someone else’s neck. Then back to the depths of the story with the original friend. We knew our time was limited and resigned ourselves to telling our stories in fragments.
  3. I found out “the rest of the story” as to just why some of my friends ended up at our boarding school. Why they acted or reacted in certain ways. We shared emotions and experienced that were somehow missed when we were distracted by youth in high school. This reunion was a “journey of clarification” for me. We talked long into the night. We promised to hold up each other now more than ever, freshly aware that we have already lost some of our group to death. Others are facing life-threatening illness. Our mortality right before our eyes. We need each other during these days of transition into retirement, reflection, and retreading. We need not be alone, for we are family.

When I left the reunion the emotions did not let up. In fact, they became a tsunami. I understand that the deeper our love, the deeper is our grief. I am grieving the realization of the goodness that we had in our boarding school and the richness of friendships that I let slip through my fingers. It is a grief of the goodness I had and the guilt of not being there for my closest of friends during their deepest valleys. In the few days following the 50th reunion, I have reflected further.

  1. My grief is heart-wrenching. Yet I determined to do grief right this time around. After high school, my grief was packaged up in all of the activity of life or buried under multiple layers of humor. This time, I am giving myself the space and time to grieve.
  2. I find myself getting angry at those I know in my local community because they are not like those I just left behind. Although they may try, most do not understand why I am so swallowed up in my grief for my TFA friends. Those with whom I just reconnected, walked with me as I was learning about the U.S. culture. They were there at the very beginning when I was a naive, fourteen-year-old kid. They compassionately tried to understand my intercultural world. My world today says, “You should be okay as you have lived here many years.” I don’t fully understand all the whys of my anger myself, so I would rather avoid trying to explain it and crawl into my cave of isolation. I don’t have the emotional energy to explain it.
  3. I feel oh so needy, like I am about to drown in an emotional vortex. This is not a good spot to be in when I am trying to impress on my old friends that I am now a “well-put-together woman”. This needy person is not the real me of today. I quickly lose patience with myself for being so needy. I beat myself up with the nagging question, “What happened to my in-control self”?
  4. As we parted that last day, we all made promise upon promise not to lose touch ever again. Yet as I drove away, I secretly feared that in a couple months, or after another move, I will lose them again. I feel panic welling up within. How often have I made that promise? I moved 44 times by the time I turned 34. I have left a trail of best friends behind me around the world. Will this happen again, it did before when I was 17? I grieve that we did not keep up with each other and I grieve that we went through hard times alone because we had lost contact with each other. Life swallowed us up in its time-consuming clutches. I realize that life will go on and we may not be in contact as regularly as we are right now, but I am determined I will not lose them again in the hurrying of life.
  5. I am finding myself experiencing all the symptoms of someone who is entering deep depression i.e., no sleep or appetite, no interest in hobbies, withdrawal. Have I lost my sanity? What is going on with me?
  6. During our time together, I learn that a dear friend who was left behind in our boarding school because her parents were part of the staff experienced this same, repeated grief cycle as each of us boarding students moved away. Over and over she had to walk past the spots filled with memories of good times with her friends, while I had moved on to new adventures and new sites. Like me, she struggled with making herself vulnerable to new friendships. She, too, grieved alone and was delighted to find us once again this past weekend. The supporting staff and their families are often forgotten in the cycle of mobility. They grieved deeply.
  7. Texting, Facebook, emails and phone calls flood my inbox today. None of us wants to let go of that feeling of connectedness. Pictures of every activity of the reunion spring up on Facebook and we all rush to make a comment or “like”. We try to somehow keep the feeling alive, yet we know that, as life goes on, the intensity of connection will lessen. Hopefully, it will not be broken.
  8. Most important of all, I realize that as a TCK my roots go deep into relationships. I grieve the goodness that we had and yet did not realize. It is an affirmation of the good. My friendships at Toccoa Falls Academy were the foundational stones in my adjustment to my home culture. Yet I did not even know it, until I ran into them again this past weekend. That first year of high school, a boarding school, was a most pivotal time for me. It became the anchor point to which the rest of life was attached. These friends from around the world know the me of long ago and we comfort each other with promises to walk with each other during these the later years of our life. We are the indomitable class of 1965, the mighty Wildcats.

Going back to my 50th reunion at Toccoa Falls Academy caused me to pause and recognize the tremendous worth of that band of brothers and sisters. I will always be grateful for the alphabetical system that sat me next to a shy, young Brock girl in most of my classes, for the roommates I lived with, and for the dorm mates who taught me about the Beatles, girl-stuff, dating, and were my audience and encouragement for many an impromptu comedy act. Those seemingly random friendships, have helped me to reconnect with the me of long ago.

I went to my 50th reunion and I bumped into me and my dearest friends whom I thought I had lost in the process of the many transitions of life. I grieve, but this time not alone.

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TCKs Make Great Therapists


It is a fit! As a Third Culture Kid and in the light of my natural giftedness as a counselor, I selected a vocation that is a perfect fit.

When I was in college in the 60’s, I only knew of one TCK who had become a therapist. Dr. S. was a mess! As he valued another TCK and me for an overseas assignment, he made a most obnoxious comment to us: “Anyone who ever went to a boarding school has severe psychological problems today”.

I stopped listening to anything else he said. He had lost all credibility with just that one flippant declaration. For many years, that TCK psychologist was one of the reasons I did not want anything to do with the world of psychology. If his statement was part of the evaluation, I certainly flunked the test.

Psychology has become much more accepted by the general public since that day. Psychologists have changed and become personable. Well, most of them have. And the research on TCKs has proven Dr. S’s declaration regarding boarding schools to be mostly inaccurate. Yes, there are some TCKs who were badly messed up by their boarding school experience.

Yet I believe Dr. S. was projecting onto others his own negative experiences at a boarding school that had gained a reputation for being very hard on their young TCKs.

Sadly, there are some TCKs out there who make lousy psychologists or counselors. They have not worked through their own baggage and so end up placing it on the shoulders of their clients, especially other TCKs. But I believe the majority of TCKs are wonderful counselors and psychologists. They have faced their own demons and conquered them. They are well trained, very compassionate with their clients, and have excellent skills in working with all levels of society.

Last year, I stumbled on to an article on why Third Culture Kids make good therapists. After rummaging through my files and doing some Googling, I cannot find the source of those original thoughts. So here goes my own list, with apologies to the originator of the idea of WHY TCKs make good therapists.

1. We have learned to be observant of all that is taking place around us.

2. We are good at jumping quickly in and out of deep relationships. We do not mess    around with superficial chitchat.

3. We are use to saying goodbye and moving on with life after an intense relationship.

4. We adapt quickly into the culture (joining) of the client.

5. We naturally have compassion towards those who feel marginalized.

6. We are comfortable with all levels of society.

7. Many of us have been in life and death situations and can therefore relate to clients who have been traumatized.

8. We know how to live a simple lifestyle. (Our career is not lucrative.)

9. Many of us are fluent enough in several languages to be able to listen to a client who needs to express his or her emotions in another language.

10. Most of us are very creative in our skills as a therapist.

I may have left out a few other reasons why we make good therapists. I would love to hear your comments.

It always amazes me how people land in careers that are a natural for their personalities. For example, the introvert/detail person gravitates towards the accounting job, the extrovert lands in the position of the Activities Director of the cruise ship, and the caretaker blooms in the role of Director of the Day Care center.

Years ago, I met a lady called Elsie Purnell who was a regular attendee of the Missions and Mental Health Conference at an Indiana State Park. Elsie had served for years as a missionary in Thailand and led several support groups for adult TCKs in California. She loved ATCKs and she loved therapists who worked with TCKs. At the conclusion of each conference until her death, Elsie would ask all of the former ATCKs who were now therapists to pose for a picture. The first year,, our group was quite small. But over the years, the group grew. It was a source of pride for me to be in this growing band of ATCKs who were now working as therapists. And our numbers continue to grow.

I fit in this profession as a counselor who happens to also be a Third Culture Kid. I hope you too have landed in a vocation where you feel you can use those unique characteristics you posses as a TCK as well. It makes going to work something to look forward to each day. And I might even get to do it in Spanish!

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Caged Birds, Clipped Wings and a Current Passport


Parrots are an important part of my story. Rosita, who lived on a perch on the porch, was always there to sing, laugh just like a human, or grumble when she did not like her food. Sometimes she simply paced up and down her perch and watched us before attempting to repeat our words or sounds.

I thought we were doing Rosita a favor by keeping her on a perch on the open porch rather then locked away in a cage in the house. We would leave her unattended because we kept her wings clipped so she would not fly away from us. Yet I now wonder if she harbored any deep feelings of resentment towards us when she regularly heard the flocks of parrots flying through the pine trees or in their flock, high up in the sky. Was our gesture of giving her a life of freedom actually a cruel and unusual punishment?

It all depends on your perspective. If she compared herself to her caged friends, she was most fortunate. But in comparison to her family members, who were free to fly anywhere in the world, it was a sad situation.

I was thinking of Rosita today as I thought about my own clipped wings. As a Third Culture Kid, I was able to freely fly from land to land, forest to forest, mountain top to mountain top and just up into the blue sky. Today, I am often in the company of friends who share their worldwide adventures with excitement and wonderment. I am happy they get to travel this world and I soak up all of the details about those other worlds out there. Yet, I feel like Rosita, with my clipped wings, pacing my perch with my up-to-date passport safely tucked away close to my perch.

Many TCKs seek out careers where they can travel at the expense of their employer. They join the military, Foreign Service, international agencies, or they set up their own businesses with an emphasis on international travel. Some never settle in one spot, but relocate frequently to various countries, working a short time in their one location before moving on to the next country.

Other TCKs are like me. They are now older and looking at retirement and fixed incomes and caring for their elderly parents. Therefore, they may not have the option of satisfying their love of travel. There are some who have a spouse who say, “No, you can’t leave home. It is too dangerous.” Some are advised by their financial planners that it is now time to establish roots somewhere in order to stretch out those retirement dollars.

Some TCKs are still young, but just cannot afford to travel due to their current job, income, student loans, family responsibilities, an unsympathetic partner, the absence of a traveling companion, or a physical challenge. These are the ones who are left at home to water the plants, pick up the mail, or care for the pets (or children) of their globetrotting friends.

Do we just dance up and down our perch and mutter, like Rosita? I knew one parrot that would repeat Spanish vowels in a very angry tone whenever she got mad at her owner.

Here are some things that I have done to try to fill that void of flight.

  • Haunt international stores or international neighborhoods for hours on end.
  • Watch the Travel or National Geographic channels on television.
  • Revel in deep conversations with internationals or other TCKs who understand my desire to escape.
  • Spend the day at an international festival and imagine I belong to that other world.
  • Read good international books, see a foreign film with subtitles, play that special album of my favorite international music from my iTunes library.
  • Travel to an unexplored part of my community or state.
  • Keep my passport up to date and save those dollars from babysitting for my globe trotting friends in anticipation of that chance to escape.

I know it isn’t the same as traveling to another part of the world where they actually stamp your passport. But, as with Rosita, it all depends on your perspective. And like Rosita, I keep waiting for that day when no one has noticed that my clipped wings have now grown back and I am OUT OF HERE!

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What do we do with Thanksgiving?


Why do we have an official holiday in the United States for some presidents, but not all of the presidents? Why do we not celebrate the “Day of the Child” but put great emphasis on celebrating “Mother’s Day” and to a lesser degree, “Father’s Day”? What is “Black Friday” and why is it the day after Thanksgiving? What do we do with Thanksgiving anyway while we live in London? Or what do we do with it in the United States as in today’s modern world we often jump from Halloween directly into Christmas and skip over Thanksgiving? Holidays are so confusing to TCKs. They seem to tap into our questions on identity.

Let me quote from my book, “Belonging Everywhere & Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile” which is available on on this entire matter of identity and holidays. I will begin with a good example of the colliding of the multi-cultural world of the TCK and a Cultural Psychologist.

“The Cultural Psychology professor asked each student to ‘Describe how your family celebrates Thanksgiving.’  The TCK in the class was confused about answering that seemingly simple question: ‘It depends on where we are at that time as to how we celebrate Thanksgiving.’ The professor tried again, ‘Well, describe how your family celebrates Thanksgiving culturally.’ Again, the TCK did no know how to respond to the question and expressed his inability to answer this question since his family had made so many transitions between cultures. The professor kept interrupting his questions and restating the assignment, ‘How does your family celebrate Thanksgiving?’ At this point, both the TCK and the professor were frustrated – their cultural worlds had unknowingly collided. The professor of Cultural Psychology was completely unaware of the multi-cultural world of the TCK and it hadn’t occurred to the TCK before that it was so unusual to have celebrated Thanksgiving in so many ways. (As told in Cross-Cultural Symposium, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, Oct. 13,2011).” (Pg. 98)

“While there may be many TCKs who struggle for a while with wondering who they are or where they belong, once they understand the reason for their confusion and that these feelings are within a normal range for others of like experiences, most go on and embrace the various places of their life rather than feeling as if they only have an either/or choice to decide who they are.” (Pg. 99-100)

 “As the TCK slowly learns he is both the insider and the outsider at the same time, he comes to grips with his own identity. To have those parts recognized and valued while being welcomed and respected into the group or culture where he resides, he learns to accept himself. Although he cannot control how others respond, he can respect that restlessness due to his heritage of many cultures. This is why I love Pico Iyer’s term ‘Global Soul’ when he describes the TCK.” (Pg. 101)

So, as a TCK what do I do with the various holidays? I don’t have to decide either/or regarding celebrating holidays or my identity. I can embrace all of them! I celebrate those holidays that are celebrated in the country where I am living currently. Yet I find, I have to put them into my calendar with some notation i.e. “Nothing open”, “Don’t go to work”, “Buy a card” or “Buy candy” along with the date. Those holidays important to me, yet ignored in the country where I live i.e. “September 15” (Independence Day for Honduras) or “Noche Buena” (December 24), I find my own creative way to celebrate them with other TCKs even if I can’t get the day off of work.

I believe I am fortunate as a TCK because I can celebrate all year long! And because I have lived in so many countries, I could probably find a reason to celebrate every day!

What will I do with Thanksgiving?

I will list my “global heritage” identity as something for which I am thankful this Thanksgiving. This is what I will do with Thanksgiving!

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TCKs and Anxiety and Excitement


The action of pulling my well-worn suitcase off the closet shelf never fails to awaken strong feelings of anxiety and excitement. Some TCKs feel only anxiety, others excitement.

But me? I sense both anxiety and excitement.

I believe much of this is due to my life as a TCK and moving from country to country, saying goodbye to new and old friends, leaving behind much-loved caretakers, the excitement of sensing that a new adventure is about to begin, fear of the unknown, wondering what will accidentally be left behind, and the anticipation of our new home, all mixed in with the silent pleasure of leaving behind some challenging relationships.

When I think about the emotions of excitement and anxiety, they both produce the same feelings in my body. I feel my heart’s rapid beat, shortness of breath, my muscles tightening in my chest, and I am aware of my rapid speech. At times, when I am feeling completely stressed out or overcome with excitement, I fear I will have a heart attack if I don’t get myself under control. I find it interesting that both feelings create the same body sensations.

When I work with a TCK in my counseling office, they sometimes present all of the symptoms of anxiety. Some talk about full-blown, panic attacks. Some have been on medication for anxiety for months. Yet the source of all of this anxiety can be a mystery to a therapist who lacks experience in counseling TCKs or expats. The life of the globally mobile looks picturebook perfect. Most will report a loving, stable family, travel to some of the most exotic places in the world, the best of education, and wonderful job opportunities. Yet underneath this idyllic world, some experience a silent struggle with anxiety.

Are we just a strange group of travelers who are a bit hypochondriac and we just need to be given a prescription for the newest psychotropic medication with the least number of side effects and sent on our merry way? No, no, no! Yes, some of us might need some psychotropic medication due to our genetic background or our long history with anxiety, but most of us respond well to a caring, understanding friend or family member who understands our world, actively listens to our “what if” stories, accepts us even though they may not completely understand us and journeys with us.

A few of us need the skills of a professional counselor who has knowledge of the impact of the constant mobility on the life and identity of the TCK or the expat. We need to be seen as normal and yet nudged to explore the source of our anxiety, allowed to grieve our losses on this journey and move forward into all of the wonderful opportunities before us. We need a therapist who can help us develop better coping skills for that anxiety along with embracing the excitement of that next adventure.

So give me my suitcase! Anxiety is not going to stop me from getting to know yet another part of the world. Even though anxiety and excitement may travel with me, they will not stop me. I will tell myself, “My two friends, excitement and anxiety, will help me to stay on my toes to do all that I need to do so that I can get the most out of life.”

Now, I can finish packing my well-worn suitcase. Where is my passport?


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Depression and Third Culture Kids


The recent suicide of Robin Williams, a much-loved comedian and actor, has brought about a great deal of discussion on severe depression. With all the focus on depression, I worry about TCKs who have repeatedly gone to a therapist’s office seeking help for depression. Will they feel, like Robin Williams did, that there is no way out of their deep dark pit labeled severe depression? Will they conclude that the world of therapy and/or psychotropic medications cannot help them escape this prison? Will the therapist be a good match for them and understand their world?

The TCK, who is depressed, may not know why they are depressed; all they know is they are miserable.  As therapists walk through the symptoms of depression with the TCK or gives them the Beck Depression Inventory, the client might certainly fit into that diagnosis. But rather than making the TCKs current situation as their only focus, such as what we do when we do Brief Therapy, here are some other areas we, as therapists, might explore.

A major problem in trying to understand what might be causing depression for those who have been globally mobile is one simple fact, the consequence of their highly mobile lifestyle. Their lives are often so rich and filled with privilege; they and those around them don’t see how they could have a reason to be depressed. Many don’t have the usual markers (family history of depression, a traumatic event, ongoing stress) that often seem to precipitate a diagnosis of depression. As a therapist, we can easily become distracted by their life of adventure that we want to just brush it aside and believe their history or globally mobile life is irrelevant to the depression and search for some “big reason” in their current world, or some past abuse, to which we can attribute their despair.

We cannot ignore the fact that for those who grow up as TCKs, their lives are filled with chronic cycles of separation and loss. Obviously, such cycles are part of the experience for everyone. But for the globally mobile, the cycles are chronic and often relatively sudden and severe. They not only lose a friend here and there, they lose a whole world along with those they love. When these losses are not acknowledged it becomes unresolved grief. Grief that is not acknowledged and left to fester deep in the recesses of the soul becomes depression, anger or anxiety.

As a therapist or a friend of the TCK, the best skill you can employ with your depressed client is sitting and listening to them talk about their losses. You may need to help them in naming those losses. I many times will ask them to divide their losses into categories such as friends, pets, places, senses, relatives, homes, stores, geography, etc. If you attempt to reframe their losses into gains, the result is feelings of shame and withdrawal or anger. If you attempt to defend the system that sent their parents abroad, they will shut down and internalize that you don’t understand them. Yes, there are two sides to their experiences and it can be a challenge to embrace both the positive and negative of each of these events. But before they are willing to consider any positives, they have to experience comfort in their world of grief and loss. Ultimately, they will recognize their history is a weaving of gains and losses.

Besides the layers of unresolved grief, the TCK may be experiencing depression due to their feelings of isolation in their current situation and struggling in forming meaningful relationships in their current environment. They may not have the emotional energy to walk through the process of making friends and small talk, but yet they long for a more in-depth relationship with someone within their community. They often fear the other person will reject them or they fear they will have to once again tell another friend good bye and it just does not seem to be worth it. They may not know how to make and keep a long-term friendship with someone who has not moved or traveled beyond the borders of their state or country and is always there in real life. For many TCKs their “eyeball to eyeball” friendships have only been for two to four years, as someone always moves to another part of the world. They just do not know how to maintain a long-term friendship.

How can we as therapists, help the depressed TCK? We can help the TCK by flushing out those hidden losses and celebrating those wonderful joys and experiences in their history, guide them in long-term relationships, utilize various techniques of grief therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, encourage them to engage in an exercise program and healthy eating. Some are good candidates for medication or alternative forms of treatment such as yoga, meditation and acupuncture. But the most important thing that you as a therapist or as a friend can do is LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT to your TCK as they share their world with you.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest from the Netherlands and a well-respected author, once stated “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures; have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

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How to Spot the TCK in your Counseling Office


I pride myself in being able to spot a TCK within the first five minutes of a counseling session. How? Is it because their attire has an international flavor? They have an accent? They are late for their appointment? They have a backpack with them containing their laptop? Or because they have already made a new best friend with my receptionist?

No, it is not due to any of the above reasons. Although these would all be good clues for some of my TCKs. No, I have more solid evidence which gives me some good clues. It is my Client Intake Form.

I have designed my Client Intake Form with the Adult TCK or the Cross-Cultural Kid in mind. I have added the following questions:

1.  Birthplace
2.  Number of moves
3.  Countries lived in longer then four months
4.  Fluent in what languages
5.  Passport country
6.  Length of time in current home

Each of these questions gives me a clue as to their rate of mobility as well as their exposure to various cultures. Each of these questions could result in a long discussion around their global lifestyle. It is important to ask their age in each of their international and international moves, along with talking about where they have been. All of this is valuable information in understanding and helping my client.

If I see that their passport country is the United States, I might ask them how they are doing at adjusting to their “home” culture. Often I see a look of surprise come over their face and they state, “Oh my goodness, how did you know I am lost”?

Other clues might be:

1. Their employment with an international agency or an NGO.
2. Some of the symptoms they often check on my Client Intake Form are: restlessness, loss of identity, grief, transitional challenges, relational Issues, depression or anxiety.
3. In answering the question, “Briefly describe your problem” they often give clues to their life as a TCK. An example might be “I struggle with making meaningful friends as people are so superficial”.

When I look at the Intake Form this helps guide my first session and connection with that client. I have only 50 minutes to connect with my new client.

If I don’t quickly connect, they won’t return to see me as they might conclude, “This new therapist will not understand my world.” I have crafted my Intake Form with the TCK in mind. It serves my purposes as a counselor specializing in TCKs.

The fact that someone is a TCK does not protect them from things that other human beings struggle with as well. I must focus on the reason they presented for therapy and not just their TCK-ness, but their identity as a TCK will flavor all of our work together as therapist/client. This work begins when they first step foot into my office.

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Left Hands (and non-TCKs) are not Overrated

Last week, I had surgery on my left hand which has kept me “handicapped” this week. As I was painfully trying to type on Thursday, I surprisingly realized the value of the “underdog”, my non-dominant hand. When I could once again type, I jotted down why I needed my left hand, even though I had a perfectly capable, right hand.

To steady things for the other hand to do their job. It is hard to zip up your jacket, button your clothes and take the lid off the bottle of water with just one hand.

To give the other hand some needed rest. When the one hand gets tired carrying the load, you can shift the load to the other hand. When you are helping a friend paint their garage and your hand holding the paintbrush starts to cramp, you can shift to the other hand.

To maintain balance in precarious situations. If you starts to lose your balance, you can reach out with your hand and grab something to steady yourself.

To provide efficiency and speed in accomplishing the task. When reaching for your Coke at a drive through, your hand nearest the window is the most efficient hand for the job. Another example is trying to type with just one hand.

To give additional strength to the task. When digging a hole for your new garden plant, two hands on the shovel gives you the strength to make that hole.

Then, my mind launched into the metaphor how this is all like TCKs and those who have not had the privilege of living this lifestyle i.e. non-TCKs. From my perspective as a TCK, I see the TCK as the right hand and the non-TCK as the left hand.

Our world needs both working in tandem for all of the reasons listed above.
One is not more important then the other.
One can try to replace the other with a “fake” but it still is not as good as the “real” thing.
When one is in the pain, the entire body suffers.
We can not change who we are, therefore embrace your identity.

Finally, I cannot clap with just one hand. I need both the TCK and the non-TCK in order to celebrate life!! Can anyone out there loan me a left hand while this one heals?

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Mango Trees vs Slippery Trees

“I will see you at the big mango tree down by the front fence”.

Those were the words you wanted to hear from a friend when you needed a listening ear, a confidant or a partner in crime. The time was during my years in elementary school at Las Americas Academy in Siguatepeque, Honduras.

Our campus was full of all types of banana trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees, pine trees, and some nameless trees. But our favorite trees were two trees, one extra large mango tree and a “slippery” tree.

I don’t know the official name of the “slippery” tree, but we all called it the slippery tree. It had no bark so we could easily carve into it’s branches the initials of our true love for the week. It had many long thin branches that we could swing up on and quickly scale to the top of the tree. And it’s branches never broke as we bounced on them pretending to fly through many storm clouds in our small plane or sail on the rough river with Tom Sawyer on our small, make shift raft. It was in the slippery tree we all gathered when we wanted to have friends join us in fun, laughter and imagination.

But when we had something serious to share, or when we were not in the mood for fun and games; we would climb the largest mango tree on that Central American campus. This particular tree was the one with the most leaves where we could hide out among it’s branches where no one could see us, even if they were right below us. It was our private hideout.

This is how I want to use my blog, for those private and serious reflections about the life of the Third Culture Kid, the expat and the mental health counselor.

So, meet me at the old mango tree during your next recess! I will look for you high above the cares of this world, deep in the embrace of those strong, leafy branches. Let’s talk.

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