The experience of living overseas as a child is very different to the experience of living overseas as an adult. The impact of childhood experiences last a lifetime. They are formative experiences – they teach us how the world works. We all internalise ‘lessons’ from our childhood experiences.
TCKs grow up between cultures, learning lessons from more than one cultural viewpoint. Often these messages contradict one another, and learning to navigate this conflict is part of what makes a TCK. The lessons they learn about how the world works, therefore, often come less from individual cultures and more from the fact that they juggle more than one cultural viewpoint. The experience of being “in between” greatly affects their understanding of the world.
As I interviewed hundreds of TCKs there were a lot of repeated themes, and even specific phrases, that became familiar. These were the lessons these TCKs had learned through their childhood experiences. In this post I’m introducing one of the most common lessons of a TCK childhoood: everyone leaves.
I heard the exact phrase “everyone leaves” in scores of interviews. Even when a TCK lived in one place a long time (even their whole childhood) most did not live fully immersed lives in their host culture, and were therefore affected by the mobility of other expatriates. That is to say, if TCKs didn’t move on themselves, they watched many of their friends leave. On top of this, most TCKs make trips to visit family in other countries, where they reconnect and then have to say goodbye. Or they attend conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they have friends they make and farewell every year. The end result is that goodbyes form part of the background of a TCK childhood.
It can be hard for adults to really internalise what this feels like for kids – how it shapes them. Perhaps a story will help. When leading sessions on transition with students, I ask how many times a close friend has moved away from them. Not just an acquaintance or classmate, but someone they felt close to. I get a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws – how can anyone expect me to tally that number?? Some just roll their eyes and refuse to even try. One 10 year old lifted both hands and started opening and closing his fingers, representing an ongoing and endless number. One time, a 5th grade girl got a very determined look on her face – she was intent on counting to an exact number. She kept going while the class moved on to discuss another question. When she lifted her head again, I turned back to her and asked if she had her number. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s 23.” Before even finishing primary school, this girl had said goodbye to 23 people she felt close to.
Reacting to this lesson
There are several quite rational responses to this experience. Some TCKs try to avoid the sadness of goodbyes, by denying that the goodbyes are real or painful. Others try to create emotional distance to blunt the pain.
“I lived with a mentality that ‘everyone leaves’. I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” – Maddie, as quoted in Misunderstood
“I never feel sad until a half hour before the person I know leaves. It hurts too much, so I numb myself to the pain, block it out, and refuse to think about it until it’s actually happening.” – Faith, as quoted in Misunderstood
Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes.
“I didn’t want to devote myself to new friendships because I knew it would just be another goodbye at the end of the six months.” – Eve, as quoted in Misunderstood
“I remember feeling ‘popular’ but looking back, the majority of my friendships were quite shallow and superficial. I did not open myself up to the different possible friendships I could have had. I did not properly invest time or emotions in my ‘friends’. I was prepared to say goodbye to those people from day one.” – Siyin, as quoted in Misunderstood
Other TCKs dive deep into relationships as quickly as possible because they don’t know how long they have. This can create friction outside non-international circles, as they may come across as too eager, or be labelled as too intense.
Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.
Looking for hope
I feel the urge to switch to something hopeful here, so I don’t depress you! But please stick with me a minute longer, as I offer a sobering reflection – to help understand how the “everyone leaves” lessons affects TCKs who don’t yet know there is any other way to experience the world.
Imagine you are 9 years old, and every year of your life you have said goodbye to a close friend, and had to make a new friend. In your world, friends only last a year or two. Is it really worth the effort this time?
Imagine you are 13 years old, and you’ve learned the skill of being warm and friendly and fitting into yet another new circle of friends, but you doubt it’s possible to be truly known by any one person. Am I going to be lonely forever?
Imagine you are 17 years old, your best friend is moving to another country, and this time you’re desperate not to lose them. You think about all the ways to stay in touch and plan around time zones, trying hard to ignore the sinking feeling that it won’t be the same.
How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?
Every child’s experience is different, but the weight of having to keep building new friendships, and negotiating long-distance friendships, is something most TCKs experience to some degree.
Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay
The best first step for helping TCKs, especially when they are young, is to validate feelings of loss. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends” a far more helpful thing is to say “You’re right, this is really hard. It won’t always feel this way, but right now it’s totally okay to feel sad or angry.” Instead of telling them things you hope will make them feel better, ask them questions that invite them to share how they feel right now.
Listening to a child’s hurt is HARD – it’s painful to hear! But it is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. Listening well says “I see you. I hear you. The way you feel is valid. You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to tell me about it.”
I plan to write more in future about how to help TCKs with this, but for now I want to stop here, with the truth that losing friends hurt – and that’s okay. We hurt because we’re losing something that matters. It’s a good thing to attach to someone enough that it hurts to lose them. None of us can “fix” the pain of losing a friend. I can’t change that this friend is moving away, or that our company is moving us away, or any of the circumstances that cause a child the pain of loss. I can’t fix it. But every time I talk to groups of TCKs about this, they share that they don’t actually want someone to fix it. They know it can’t be fixed – and they don’t like adults acting as if it can be. They just want someone (especially their parents) to listen to them, and say it’s okay to be sad.
And that is something we can do.
In part 2, I consider a common response to “everyone leaves” – namely, “what about the internet“?