According to Lia Younes, London-based child psychotherapist, living in a world of cross-cultural transitions and high mobility plays a large role in shaping a child’s life. There are two most common and significant challenges faced by the expat child: unresolved grief and loss, and the need to find their own personal and cultural sense of identity.
A child of expatriate parents herself, Lia Younes tells us more about the specific difficulties these children can often face.
The reasons for unresolved grief and loss
- Fear of denying the good… The child believes that by admitting her sadness and pain due to the losses experienced by leaving her country, she is neglecting the joy and the richness of her present.
- There are a number of “hidden losses”… And hidden loss also means hidden pain: loss of his world; loss of his status; loss of a particular lifestyle; loss of his possessions; loss of relationships; loss of role models; loss of his past.
- Losing everything all at once: her reference points, her sense of security and competence, the elements that enable her to stay connected to her past, as well as her important relationships, such as with her family. The child often experiences this accumulation of hidden losses with no opportunity to grieve them through valuable rituals.
- Lack of permission to grieve… The child often feels he has no permission or opportunity to express his sadness.
- Lack of time to process… There is often a lack of time and space dedicated to the grieving process: it is important to allow her the opportunity to honour this big transition.
- A need for more comfort… It is essential to validate and support the child in understanding his pain and sadness.
The central struggle to find a sense of personal and cultural identity
The developing child has a fundamental need to build strong and secure relationships (that are nurtured and maintained in time) and to feel a sense of belonging (to a family, a culture, a nation). This can be difficult if she lives a life of high mobility. Indeed, a child expat often moves back and forth before completing critical developmental task of forming a sense of her own identity.
The other multiple challenges faced by the expat child
- The child often expects and wishes to repatriate to his home country, permanently. This can manifest as a refusal to integrate in the host country, creating a hope that can often lead to painful disappointment.
- The child can often develop a system identity, particularly to that of the employer or government that sent her parent(s) abroad. She therefore tends to be more conscious of representing something greater than herself in her host country.
- Often, the child expat has a different sense of ‘home’ than his parents might, which can create some confusion and inner conflict about where he belongs and where he comes from. Parents may also not necessarily fully understand their child’s experience if they were not themselves raised outside of their home country.
- When the child has experienced numerous expatriations, she will often develop a feeling of ‘rootlessness’ and restlessness (Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Pollock & Van Recken, 2009). Indeed, she tends to build relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. She simultaneously belongs “everywhere and nowhere”. Thus, the two most difficult questions to answer are: “where are you from?” and “where is your home?” Her home is an emotional and sentimental place, built on relationships… not necessarily a geographical place. She will often eventually develop a migratory instinct: she will experience home as temporary. Consequently, her sense of belonging is in relation to others of similar background.
- There are different emotional and behavioural expressions of unresolved grief in children: anger, denying their pain or reality, sadness/depression (which presents itself more as anger and aggression in children), turning inwards, rebellion, transferring their sadness onto others, or delayed sadness that appears in later adult life.
- A precocious maturity: the child often grows to become more autonomous and can appear to be more capable and confident amongst adults. He often becomes multilingual and develops broader world knowledge. He, therefore, can appear like a mini-adult.
- Paradoxically, following numerous expatriations at fundamental developmental periods, adolescence may be delayed.
- The child can possibly experience a feeling of anger and resentment, as well as instability and anxiety. Indeed, she is aware that she did not choose to leave. She feels she has no control of change and transition, loss and sadness. Furthermore, each family member also engages in their own sensitive phase of transition that takes place at various rhythms and affects everyone differently. Thus, this period can feel quite chaotic for all.
- During transitional periods whereby daily points of reference can be disrupted, the child can often feel distressed and fragile, leading to a period of regression: he can adopt earlier, more infantile behaviours to express his need for reassurance and comfort from his parents.
- Essentially, the child expat’s experience can feel like a great big paradox: it is filled with opposing benefits and challenges, all in one. She needs to make sense of being so profoundly connected yet simultaneously disconnected to people and places around the world.