Contributed by Paul W. Anderson, PhD
Most of what I have left from my childhood are tattered memories and a few pieces of paper; black and white pictures, old, faded letters and such.
I was five years old when I was kicked out of an American kindergarten for painting a kid’s face black. After all, I was about to leave for the Gold Coast (now Ghana) on my parent’s first term of missionary service. I wanted to play “African.” That was the beginning of the chaos.
During the next three years my family and I left and returned to the U. S. of A, rode in cars, trains, planes and ocean liners. I crossed the Atlantic twice: once in a converted DC-3 bomber which did not make it across and had to return because the fuel cap was left off and discovered only miles before the point of no return. We turned back and tried again, on a different plane. On that flight I watched my mother pass out several times due to the cabin being improperly pressurized.
By the time I was eight, I had lost a dog named Spot (the first of many pets) to snake bite, learned a second language, was home schooled through second grade, spent more time learning about life from the “house boys” (the domestic help, as they were called) than from my parents, was molested several times (by a 21 year old male in London while on our return trip to America), got spanked a lot, got saved (as in born again) and still got spanked a lot. Despite trying so hard to be good and obedient, I had to hand over all my Christmas presents from America one dark night in exchange for our lives a few days before the second Christmas we were in Africa. The Gold Coast was in turmoil as it struggled to throw off British colonialism. A white face was a liability.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from the first term as a missionary kid was that my purpose in life was to take care of my mother emotionally so she could support my dad while he was busy saving souls. My life was not my own.
As subsequent terms of service in Ghana transpired, I quickly learned to adjust – and adapt – to my life. It was simply a matter of fact that without much advance notice I was to be ready to lose my “whole world with the closing of an aeroplane door,” as Ruth van Reken1 puts it.
Without fanfare or formal closure, I was to calmly allow “every pet, every friend, every tree (I) climbed, every secret place (I) hid, every sense of home (I) had known”1 be erased – repeatedly – with each re-entry. These were irretrievable losses. When I returned – to either culture – nothing was the same. The cultural context had changed, my parents had changed, and I had changed. I was expected to start over and do well. None of this lifestyle was at my choosing, or under my control. Very little of this was discussed in or outside the family. It was just the way it “was”.
Family circumstances characterized by the “predictably unpredictable” are emotionally chaotic contexts.
These kinds of chronic dynamics can produce relatively high levels of chronic anxiety in families and family members. An extended emotionally chaotic family context creates more instability than can be sufficiently absorbed and integrated by its members, especially children, so that they are not able to mature and develop in a healthy fashion.
This instability can be generated by any circumstance(s) which disrupts long-term regularity, predictability, a sense of safety, and security for the children. Examples of these situations include family violence, poverty, addiction, upheavals from repeated patterns of relocation, natural disasters, multiple deaths, chronic illness, criminal lifestyles and migration. These are contexts of high chronic stress and anxiety.
The long-term results of these threats and challenges to growth in childhood will obviously vary depending upon the severity of the circumstances. However, in adulthood a variety of symptoms can develop in any area of life; physical, financial, social, interpersonal, emotional, and spiritual. What is known about adult children of alcoholics can clarify the impact on adults who grew up as third culture children.
The research of Claudia Black2 isolated three rules, or patterns, of chaotic family life, which affect the way children from alcoholic homes make decisions and conduct their adult lives:
- Don’t talk about the real issues.
- Don’t trust others in talking about real issues; and
- Don’t feel your own feelings, let alone share them. It isn’t safe.
These interpersonal patterns in a family can leave children with little trust of others and a chronic feeling of being out of control over their circumstance.
I was 12 and got in a fight with an African boy my age. He was tormenting my pet donkey, Inky, I was riding. He kept poking the donkey’s rear end with a long corn stalk. I asked him to stop, repeatedly. He continued with glee, egged on by his friends. I took my riding whip to the kid.
Turns out, he was the favorite son of a prominent village elder. Mother punished me (read, “whipped”) and told me I had undone all my father’s missionary efforts with the locals. End of talk. My father never spoke of it. Instead, he spent his extra time that next week in the village mending relationships.
Not until adulthood did it occur to me to wonder – why did I have a different standard of conduct than the other boys my age, and how was my bad behavior as a kid more powerful than my father’s good behavior?
Denial, rationalizations, and guessing about what is “normal” become the rule of thought and behavior when real issues are not addressed. How does an adult with a “don’t talk” childhood get the tools to keep a marriage intimate, or a job healthy, if real issues are difficult to identify, let alone discuss?
Likewise, dishonesty, lack of trust and an inability to access true deep feeling can lead to additional troubles in adult relationships, quality of life, and personal authenticity.
In 1983, Janet Woititz published “Adult Children of Alcoholics”. By 1987 it hit the New York Times best seller list and stayed there a year. In her book, Woititz attempted not to label adult children of alcoholics, but to “provide a little understanding of why you react the way you do, of what some of the reasons are for the behaviors that you have not been able to understand.”3 Her goal was to reduce the isolation of countless persons who also thought they were different because of their life experiences.
In a 1990 edition, she stated she has since learned that the material in her book applies to other types of “dysfunctional” families as well.4 She includes families with compulsive behaviors, chronic illness, profound religious attitudes, adoption and foster care. For me, these are but further examples of families with emotionally chaotic, chronically anxious emotional climates of “predictable unpredictability.”
Woitiz’ lists characteristics which describe how adult children from alcoholic homes tend to think and function. I think they can equally relate to the issues confronting adult third culture kids. These are reactions children make to adapt and stabilize in an emotional home environment of low trust and little control.
- Guess at what normal is.
- Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Judge themselves without mercy.
- Have difficulty having fun.
- Take themselves very seriously.
- Have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Usually feel they are different from other people.
- Super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Impulsive. This leads to confusion, self-loathing, loss of control over their environment and wasted energy cleaning up the messes.
From my observations as a family addictions psychologist, I have added a few more characteristics which I think also apply to adult third culture kids.
- Hyper vigilant. Keen, alert observers, especially of social settings.
- Over-reactive to being slighted, discounted or otherwise maligned or misunderstood.
- Most immediate emotion beneath the surface is sadness.
- Can “drop and run”. Thinks releasing connectivity to people, places and things happens easily at will. Does not anticipate the long-term painful consequences to one’s own self of erasing personal history.
- Resilient and resourceful.
- At risk of forming compulsions and obsessions of their own.
- Thinks in black/white, all-or-nothing terms.
Ironically, many of the adaptive patterns formed by an anxious childhood lead to adult habits and lifestyles that create stress and anxiety. The patterns identified by Woititz may provide short term relief and stabilization in childhood. Because they are reactive patterns and not consciously thought out, these ways of coping may eventually manage stress and anxiety less and become maladaptive. The result is cycles of anxiety perpetuated through the generations of families.
What to do about all this as an adult who grew in a home where you were not taught how to talk, trust or feel? Here are some tips:
An Examined Life:
Be willing to live an examined life. Anxiety, low trust, and feeling out-of-control are reduced as a person comes to trust themselves and their own resources to take care of them. To do so, you need to know yourself, know and accept who you are and what works best for you. As children, we are dependent on others to be well cared for and secure. Adults can do these things for themselves. Conscious self awareness and self management reduces the concern and focus on controlling the external environment and other people in it so you can get your needs met. Manage yourself instead.
Reduce Fear and Increase Safety:
Acknowledge to yourself when you feel low trust and/or loss of control in a given situation. Identify the sources. Look for ways to replace fear with pro-action, not reaction. Practice mindful self-care. Trust yourself and a Higher Power that all your security needs are presently being met. Fear does not kill us. What we do in fear can.
With people you care about, consciously go as far as you are able to trust, talk, and feel with them about the real stuff in your life. Talk about your difficulty trusting, talking, and feeling. Take appropriate risks to reveal yourself to others.
Practice Balanced Living:
Regularly practice good self-care in all areas of your life, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, social, and recreational. Nothing reduces chronic anxiety and improves quality of life more than taking good care of yourself. Meet your needs on a consistent basis, even if it makes you feel selfish or guilty. Practice balanced living; living within your means of all kinds – emotional means, social means, etc.
Robust By Design:
Robust by design means we are tougher and more enduring than our feelings at times may lead us to believe. When anxious or experiencing strong toxic, negative feelings, we can be deceived into concluding we are how we feel. If you act in those moments letting how you feel guide your behavior and the choices you make, it is possible to do damage to self and/or a relationship. Feelings are only feelings. They always pass. Don’t let feelings scare you into impulsive, self-defeating behavior.
Get a good Coach or Counselor to companion you as you make these changes.
Talking with a neutral and objective other person adds perspective to any situation. Coaching/counseling helps remove us a bit from our normal subjective and more emotional stance about a given situation. With more objectivity we can see options for action we may have missed in the haze of strong feeling.
A competent counselor helps us process consequences, pros/con of various choices. When we decide to act, it is better informed, thoughtful and less likely to make things worse.
I like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (control); courage to change (control) the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Acceptance of who you are and what you can do and cannot do brings clarity to any given situation. Clarity keeps you grounded in truth and reality. The truth is you are a person of courage, a creature able to access all the wisdom you need at any moment to be safe and in control of yourself.
You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 913-991-2302.
- van Reken, Ruth Coping With Loss: The Downside of Being A Missionary Kid,1997, Reality Magazine, Auckland, New Zealand.
- Black, Claudia, It Will Never Happen to Me, 1981, Ballantine Books, New York, New York.
- Woititz, Janet G., Adult Children Of Alcoholics, 1990, Expanded Edition, Health Communications Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL, page 23.
- Ibid., page xi.
Author: Paul W. Anderson, PhD
Paul has been in private practice as a family psychologist and executive coach for over 30 years. Prior to that, he worked in corporate management positions. As a child growing up overseas, Paul developed skills he could use to join diverse groups and cultures at will. As a Third Culture Kid, he learned that reality can be viewed from many perspectives, an awareness that helps him validate each person he works with, even though their views may differ from others. Two things characterized his practice: 1) a strategic, solution focused perspective which, 2) takes context, particularly interpersonal dynamics, into account. With this practical systemic approach, he works with people to develop solutions which not only give them the successes they want but does so in a way that sustains those achievements. He lives in the Kansas City metro area where they raised 5 daughters. Travel, dogs and furniture making keep him busy outside of his professional work.