Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Living Abroad
by Cathy Tsang-Feign, PhD

International Children

Third Culture Kids

“Sure, I can show off to friends that I'll have lived around the world before I turn twenty. But what do I get? Nothing. No friends, busy parents and no place I feel is home.”

Katy, age 14, relocated to Bangkok with her family about six months ago. Her father's job requires them to move around. Bangkok is the fourth place they have lived in the last six years, after Cairo, Jakarta and Mumbai.

According to her mother, Katy has been depressed, antisocial and withdrawn for the past two months.

During a recent family trip her parents tried to talk with Katy about her feelings, but found it difficult to get their daughter to open up to them. Finally, they sought therapy.

Katy apparently feels hostile towards her parents. She blames them for treating her like merchandise. “They send me here and pay to get me fixed. But they never have time for me or to hear what I have to say,” Katy chokes with tears.

After several weeks, her mother was invited to join one therapy session.

“Of course we care about you, Katy,” Mom said. “I thought you enjoy your independence. You know your Dad and I are busy and have to do lots of entertaining. We figured you're old enough and don't want to be dragged along to parties. So we give you money to go out with your friends, and we never question your whereabouts. We thought this would show how much we trust and respect you,” Katy's mother explained.

“Sure, I have all the money I need so I can go out...and you don't care where I am! At least I won't be in your way and you and Dad don't have to see me or deal with me. I bet you never notice whether I'm there or not,” Katy said bitterly.

Clearly there is misunderstanding between mother and daughter. Each tends to see things only from their own perspective. Both feel rejected and unloved.

Adolescence is the time young people begin to find their own identity. Identification with peers is an important part of this process. However, in Katy's case, the frequent relocations deprive her of a stable environment where she can benpart of a regular peer group. Each time the family moves, Katy has to start all over again: adjusting to a new environment, new school system and worst of all, to a new group of peers who may or may not accept her. She feels building friendships is a waste of effort because inevitably the family will move again. The risk of rejection has put Katy in a rather defensive state. So, instead of reaching out to friends she turns to her parents for security and comfort.

Without a clear understanding of what she is going through, Katy's parents try to nourish their daughter's sense of independence, with good intentions, by “letting her be on her own”. They enjoy living in different parts of the world. They expect Katy to experience the same spirit of adventure. They fail to realize the impact the relocations have on Katy.

Like most parents, they believe children can adapt to new surroundings much faster than adults. Therefore no special effort was made to help Katy adjust, beyond the superficial details of currency, food, and so on. Their social lives and entertaining preoccupy them and leave very little time for Katy.

Feeling alone and uncared for by her parents, Katy reacts with hostility and resentment. Consequently, she retreats within herself.

Katy's case is one of many expatriate children whose families are transient. In such families both the child and parents can experience hurt. Both can feel unloved and unappreciated. Often the problem can be traced to less-than-open communication within the family. The only way to bridge the gap is through direct expression of feelings rather than making assumptions about each other.

Special effort is needed, especially on the parents' part, to help children adjust to a new environment. Giving them time and patience is the first step. Parents need to resist the temptation of offering money to their children instead of time. In most cases, time, love and affection offered by parents can do their children far more good than therapy.

Parents and children should cherish their precious moments as a family. Career, entertaining and travel are all important, but nothing can replace or compensate for those priceless few years of family togetherness before the children grow up and are gone.

©2013 Cathy Tsang-Feign