Some initial results from my survey of ATCKs – and how you can help!

I’ve written before about my new project for twenty-something TCKs, and the survey I launched as a starting place for looking into issues that affect them.

I had to put my research on hold for a few months due to illness BUT the good news is that means I’m still looking for more ATCKs to complete my initial survey! If you lived overseas as a child and are now an adult (especially if you are between 30-50 years old!) I would LOVE to have your input. Please do share this around with anyone you know who might be interested.

Click here to go to the survey

300 ATCKs have completed the survey, and over 100 have indicated a willingness to be interviewed. So far there are 55 different passport countries and 134 countries of residence represented. All of this is really exciting!!

Are all your countries represented? I’ve included the full list of countries below – take a look and see!

I’m also going to share with you a few inital results from the survey – the story so far. The survey is still open and so these results may shift, especially if the demographics of participants evens out. Currently there are more females than males, more under 30s than over 30s, and more missionary kids than other demographics. So, with the understanding that these are very provisional results, here are a few statistics from the survey so far:

  • 46% lived 10 or more years of childhood outside their legal culture/s.
  • 20% lived in four or more countries before age 18.
  • 32% currently hold legal status (passport or permanent residency) in two or more countries.
  • 43% have given up legal status (passport or permanent residency) they previously held.

A lot of this survey asks which issues are/were a struggle, to help me understand what issues and information will be most helpful to discuss in a book for twenty-somethings. Here are a few of the issues that many ATCKs are responding to:

  • 80% have struggled with maintaining friendships long-distance.
  • 73% have struggled to find a sense of belonging in their passport countries.
  • 72% have struggled with putting down roots.
  • 70% have struggled with a fear of connecting and then leaving/being left.
  • 69% have struggled with making a place “home”.

I also asked questions about mental health and support services. This is something I get a LOT of questions about, and I want to make sure the new book has solid and helpful information. This is a simple survey based on self-reporting, but the statistics on how mental health issues have affected ATCKs are still worth paying attention to:

  • 78% report being affected by unresolved grief.
  • 76% report being affected by anxiety.
  • 70% report being affected by depression.
  • 26% report being affected by self-harm.
  • 14% report being affected by substance abuse.
  • 36% have never received any type of mental health support.

Finally, here is the long list of countries represented by the 300 people who have completed the survey so far! Are all yours here?

55 Legal Cultures
These are the countries survey participants have/had a passport from or legal permanent residency in.
Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Côte D’Ivoire, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guyana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Senegal, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America, Venezuela, Zimbabwe.

134 Geographic Cultures
These are the countries survey participants have lived in. 123 of these were childhood homes! (This list includes 10 territories*; I include them as they are geographically/culturally very different to their governing nations.)
Afghanistan, Akrotiri and Dhekelia*, Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba*, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cayman Islands*, Central African Republic, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo (Rep), Congo (DRC), Costa Rica, Côte D’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Hong Kong*, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao*, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norfolk Island*, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Pitcairn Islands*, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico*, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, South ‎Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Virgin Islands*, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 3: after “everyone leaves”

My first post in this series explored a “lesson” TCKs learn through growing up internationally: that everyone leaves. Next, I paused to address a very common response: “what about the internet?” The internet allows for relationships to be maintained long-distance, which is so very helpful! But it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.

Now in part three, I am finally (delayed due to a month of ill health) getting to the “solutions”. Only after we stop to really hear the sadness TCKs experience can we start talking about what happens after everyone leaves. With that foundation under us, I’m going to work through a few ideas that can be helpful for anyone dealing with the life lesson that “everyone leaves”. The bottom line is this: you can’t change the past, but you can choose what sort of future to build. Understanding what we think, and learning new ways of thinking, can make a huge difference in this regard.

Change, transition, and goodbyes

While the focus of this post is dealing with the aftermath – the life lesson encoded from a childhood full of goodbyes – it’s worth taking a moment to consider what to do in the thick of things. It’s important to understand the relationship between change and transition, and the impact transition has on our daily lives – whether we stay or go. Understanding this process, leaving space for it, and practicing self-compassion during it, goes a long way toward encouraging future healing and growth.

Saying good goodbyes is also really important. I’ll write a full post about this at some point, but as a summary thought – anything that matters (a person, animal, place, group) is worth saying goodbye to. Any relatiosnhip that will be changed, any routine that will be lost, is worth marking. There are lots of ways to do this (parties, gifts, memory books, photos, last visits, etc.) but it can also be an internal process. I can stop and recognise the importance of each person/place, expressing sadness and gratitude, any time – even after the fact, even years later, when a good goodbye was not said at the time. This is especially helpful when a family moves unexpectedly – for both the ones who leave, and the ones left behind.

Living “everyone leaves” long term

What I really want to focus on in this post is what to do later in life, when the lesson that “everyone leaves” has sunk in and affects the way I think and act. As I’ve listened to and mentored young adult TCKs in particular (especially as I start preparation for my next book) I’ve found a few tools that help us reframe our thoughts – and take control of the future. Taking time to consciously understand how these very valid past hurts impact our present-day reactions allows us to stop the past from stealing the future.

Saying goodbye sucks. Losing friends sucks. There’s no point sugar-coating that. The reality of change and loss can be painful, and it can’t be changed. The past is what it is. But staying in that place of pain, and the helplessness and hopelessness that often goes with it, doesn’t change the past. We must acknowledge the truth of our lives. But we don’t have to be ruled by it forever. We get to choose what happens next.

Sunk costs

In business there is a term for money you’ve already paid: a “sunk cost”. It is money you can’t get back. You’ve already paid the rent, bought the inventory, paid the salary – whatever it is, good decision or bad, it’s done. The question now has to be what is the best way forward, given that you can’t get the “sunk cost” back. This rule means that sometimes the best decision for a business is to sell old inventory at a loss – because that’s better that having it take up space in a warehouse. Let me use a mundane example to explain. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, and having eaten 3/4 of your meal you are feeling very full. Part of your brain is saying you should eat the rest because you’ve already paid for it! A “sunk cost” mentality says that you pay the same price for the meal no matter how much you eat, that the money is already spent. So, would you enjoy the meal more by stopping now, or by making yourself sick eating too much? Forget what you can’t change, and make the best decision starting from now. Perhaps you can take the small leftover portion home to be a snack later. But even if that’s not possible, eating it all in order not to leave waste may not be the best decision.

I’ve found sunk costs an extremely helpful concept in my personal life. Something has already happened in my life. I can’t change that. So what am I going to do about it? I don’t need to “fix” something that’s already happened. Blaming myself for a bad decision, or blaming someone else for causing me pain, doesn’t change the situation I find myself in. Instead, I can look ahead and decide what to do next.

When it comes to the “everyone leaves” lesson, we can’t change what has happened. We can only decide what is the best way forward, all things being as they are. Yes, I have experienced many goodbyes, and that hurt. But what sort of life do I want from now on? What choices will help me build that sort of future?

Change happens

Change is a part of life everywhere – you can’t insulate yourself against it, no matter what you do. You may decide you want to settle down in one place for the rest of your life, to minimise the potential for change and loss. But anywhere in the world, your best friend might choose to move away, perhaps without warning. No matter what you do, you can’t eliminate change. To be happy and healthy moving forward, therefore, you must find a way to cope with change.

Some people want to be the one who initiates change, so they are in control of it. They may move frequently, change jobs, or locations. One adult TCK told me that she had lived in the same town (with her husband and two kids) for six years, but in five different houses. Most of those moves happened simply because she wanted to move. She would find a better area, look for a better house. It took her years to realise she felt uncomfortable staying put for too long; when work kept them in one place, moving house helped soothe her itchy feet. Having recognised this, she wanted to try addressing the underlying feelings, but in the mean time she was pleased she had found a compromise that worked for her – that kept her living in the same city, not running away.

Another ATCK finds moving stressful, but still has a deep desire to see the world. So he and his wife travel frequently, but always come home to the same house.

I think the important part of this isn’t how I cope with change, but that I do cope with change. That I am able to face my feelings about change, and make conscious choices about how to respond to those feelings – not be controlled by fears I avoid. Each of us needs to acknowledge that change happens, and we can’t avoid that – but it doesn’t mean
we don’t have choices.

Pick your poison

Many TCKs I’ve talked with over the years have laid out the two choices they have: either go through the horrible pain of saying goodbye over and over, or don’t invest deeply in people to begin with. For many, avoiding deep relationships seems like the obvious and logical choice. The problem is that it’s not a choice between pain or no pain, it’s a choice between two different kinds of pain.

Yes, getting close to people only to have to say goodbye, over and over, is painful. But going through life without those close friendships, without people who know you, without anyone to share life with, is also painful.

So this is the real choice: either enjoy the beauty of friendship while you can, and pay the price in grief when someone moves away, or swap that sharp pain for the constant dull ache of feeling isolated and unknown. There is pain either way. But one path leads to relational connection – pain with gain. The other leads to isolation – a more lonely and sad kind of pain.

Faced with the reality of this choice, most of us instinctively understand the benefit of continuing to take the risk of investing in people.

And THIS is where the internet comes in

Maintaining friendships via the internet helps with a middle ground here. There is still the grief when a friend moves, or something happens and I’m not there in person. Tthere is still the ache of not sharing everyday life. And yet, an ongoing bond through different life circumstances (in different countries!) can be rich and rewarding. My own best friend and I have only spent two of our 13 years of friendship in the same country. We both travelled across oceans to be in each other’s weddings. We come from different passport countries but have each visited the other’s family home, met parents and siblings.

I’ve had to grieve the changes in our relationship many times. But each time, I knew it was worth continuing to invest in her, and in our friendship.

This is the bottom line: you can’t go back. you can only go forward. Take the time to acknowledge hurts and grieve losses – then move forward.  Make choices about where you want to go, and who you want to be, rather than what you want to avoid. Invest in people, even though it means investing in harder goodbyes. Work out what you want from life, and start building toward that.

You can’t change the past – but you can make choices about what happens next.

Milestones! A celebration and a survey

Yesterday was a day of celebrating round numbers: the Misunderstood facebook page passed 1,000 page likes, and the survey of adult TCKs I’m running passed 100 completed responses! So for today’s blog post I’m going to share about both of those things.

First up – the 1,000 likes.

A bit under a month ago facebook sent me a notification about having passed 900 likes, and would I like to write a post to celebrate? Instead I decided 1,000 was a better number and set up a prize draw to celebrate when it happened. I wrote a post announcing this at the time. Yesterday, when the page got to ONE THOUSAND likes, I used a random number generator to pick a winner from the 25 people who entered. And the lucky winner was….

Helen! Helen just moved from the UK to the US with her family and is looking forward to learning more about the international world she is now raising her children in. She says she can’t believe she won; it was so fun for me to tell her the news! I’ll be posting her signed copy to her this week.

And next – the survey!

Two months ago I announced that I’ve started working toward a second book, this time for twenty-something TCKs – support for the journey from international childhood to independent adulthood. During the time in between I’ve had several conversations helping me clarify what I want to do, but mostly I’ve been working on a survey. I was stalling out on how to start my research, and finally realised what I needed was to do two separate surveys. I’d always planned to do a big and comprehensive survey to provide data for the book, but I realised I first needed some more foundational information to get me started, and give direction to interviews and the structure of writing.

survey-imgI spent the last month or so creating and testing different versions of this survey (thank you to the 30 people who helped me test the drafts!) and last week I posted the final version online.

Most of the survey asks for reactions to different issues that twenty-something TCKs I’ve talked to and interviewed over the past few years have struggled with. The goal is to see which are the most widespread and deeply felt. There are also some optional open-ended questions, to catch what ATCKs feel is missing, and hear their advice for others. I’ve been blown away by some of the thoughtful and insightful comments that have already been left! Most comments reflect items already in my breakdown of themes and issues to covers, and have served as confirmation and additional layers on those. Some have raised additional issues I can see should also be included.

A few people have expressed concern that the list seems quite negative. I thought this was worth addressing publicly. The goal of the book is not to say that being a TCK is bad and ruins your life. I absolutely do not believe that! But I do recognise that life is rarely all good or all bad. There are huge positives to international life, but there are also difficulties. A big focus of my work in general is recognising those difficulties and providing support for working through them effectively so that TCKs can more freely enjoy the benefits of their experiences. I strongly believe that ignoring or covering over negative feelings/experiences is a mistake with long-term repercussions. A large focus of the book I’m working toward will be acknowledging that certain struggles exist, talking about how to face them and overcome them, and assuring ATCKs that they can (and will!) find a way through, and create lives they enjoy.

As I said, I have now received over 100 completed responses, and more than half of those have indicated a willingness to be interviewed individually for the book. I’m so encouraged by this level of support! My goal is to get responses from 300 ATCKs in their 20s, 200 in their 30s, and 100 in their 40s. I’m well on the way to that, although so far I have fewer responses from 30-somethings and from men generally, and I have a higher number of responses from the mission world. Hopefully as word continues to spread those demographics will even out a bit more.

And, because I’m a bit of a nerd, I’m going to finish this post with a little stastitics fun. Looking at the demographics of the completed responses, I can see that:

  • 27% currently have citizenship/PR in more than one country
  • 13% lived in 4 or more countries before age 18
  • 47% spent 10 or more years overseas before age 18
  • Combined, they have lived in 53 different countries before age 18
  • Combined, they span 26 passport countries, from all 6 passport-issuing continents:
    • Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, PR China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Rep of Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tanzania, UK, USA.

Will be fun to see how this changes and expands as more data comes in!

If you know anyone who spent at least a year living overseas before age 18, please pass this along to them! I would love to reach a wide range of people, from different parts of the world, with different international experiences.

You can take the survey (or just read the introduction to it) by clicking here.

Or scan this QR code to go straight there:

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