Contributed by Tina Quick of International Family Transitions

It’s that familiar time of year again. Spring is in full bloom and difficult to voice emotions are being felt by secondary students all over the world. Graduation is looming large and with it come feelings of exhilaration, excitement, and anticipation about their upcoming adventures, but they may also be feeling sadness and experiencing a sense of loss. They may be feeling some distancing or even exclusion as they give up roles and responsibilities they held as high school seniors and turn them over to underclassmen as they move forward toward graduation and leaving. With those responsibilities also go the status, position and identity they enjoyed in their last years of high school. They are most likely reflecting on what it will be like to leave friends and family behind as they head off to college/university. Parents may notice their student’s mood swings between still wanting to be coddled like an infant and screaming for more independence.

All graduating students are firmly implanted in what the late Dr. David Pollock called the ‘Leaving Stage’ of his transition model, but for Third Culture Kids (TCKs) it can be a very conflicting time. A lot of denial may actually be going on as they find it difficult to imagine that they really are going to be leaving the place they have called “home” for so long. The leaving stage is characterized by a loosening of emotional ties and distancing from family, friends, and relationships. This behavior is quite unconscious and is a form of self-protection – from their own feelings – and it will be displayed in a variety of ways. I watched as each of my three daughters went about this typical withdrawing in their own style.

My normally jovial, sweet, loving, eldest daughter became so irritable and downright annoying that I was convinced she was demon-possessed. She must have, somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, thought that by acting out, her family would be relieved to see her finally leave home to go off to college, thereby, making her departure easier on us.

My middle daughter handled it quite differently. She spent the entire summer before college hanging out incessantly with her friends. She didn’t loosen any ties with them, only her family. In fact, if anything, she and her secondary school buddies became even tighter over the summer than they were in the years they spent together before graduation. She was pleasant enough when she was around, but that wasn’t very often.

My youngest became a recluse at home. She came home from school or sports practice and went directly to her room. Her only appearance to spend time with family was mealtime. I would always find her in her room reading or doing homework. She used to sit at the kitchen table to do homework so we could chat as I prepared dinner. When I pointed out her long absences, she sighed and replied with a hint of sadness, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be distant.” I then realized this was her way of disengaging and separating from us, her parents.

A TCK’s globally mobile lifestyle (whether they are the ones who are moving around or the one who is always staying put) means that they have experienced a lot of separations and loss. When we lose people and things we need to be able to grieve them. Leaving a beloved host country is no exception. Dr. Pollock used to say that “TCKs need to grieve well to leave well.” Grief validates all the good in our lives. Grieving well means:

  • Recognizing and naming the loss(es).
  • Mourning the loss(es) – however that may be for the student, i.e. journaling, art, music, poetry, photography. (Some of the most amazing pieces of art I have seen were done by TCKs dealing with grief.)
  • Accepting the loss.
  • Coming to closure, and
  • Moving forward to the next developmental stage.

Dr. Pollock also used to say that “In order to enter well, one must leave well.” In other words, how a person leaves one place will have a profound effect on how well he enters the next.” He went on to develop a model anyone going through transition could use to help them leave well. He used the RAFT acronym which stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, and Think and Talk Destination.

Reconciliation – Do not leave a place with broken relationships, undone issues or unfinished business. Try to resolve issues and resentments and reconcile your relationships. Think about who you need to say “I’m sorry,” to or who you may need to apologize to. Broken relationships can hinder making new ones.

Affirmation – Just as giving and receiving forgiveness liberates and heals you, so does affirming people that have been important to you. Telling others (friends, teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors) how much you appreciate and respect them makes you and them feel better about saying good-bye.

Farewells – Saying proper good-byes helps bring closure. Be sure to say good-bye not only to people but also places, pets, and your possessions!

Think and Talk Destination – Find out as much as you can about the college/university you will be attending, the town or city it is in, the state and the country before you get there. Even if it is your ‘home’ country, treat it as a new one! Find someone you can ask questions of. And think about all the things you will need to bring with you. Plan ahead and be prepared so you are not caught totally off guard.

Some third culture kids will be going back to their home or passport country but it may not really feel like home to them. Some will be continuing on to another host country/culture for the university experience. Regardless, all TCKs will be stepping out of that ‘third culture’ or expatriate culture they have been enjoying for so long and may not take into consideration how their international experiences have made them different. They often do not discover they are different until they hit their campuses and are suddenly surrounded by people with whom they have no shared experience. In all the TCK interviews I did for the book, “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition” the most common concern I heard was, “I don’t fit in…I don’t belong…I can’t connect with anyone.” It’s because the TCK’s life experiences have been very different from someone who grows up in a basically stable, traditional, mono-cultural community. I always encourage them to remember they have not had the same experiences as their peers so they need to find common ground on which to connect. I also tell them Naomi Hattaway’s “I Am a Triangle” story. It’s too long for me to write about it here but it is a foundational concept that truly explains the TCK experience. I encourage every reader to read about it at http://iamatriangle.com/triangle-story/. Wishing you and your students every success in their upcoming adventure.

Author: Tina Quick of International Family Transitions

Tina Quick, author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition and Survive and Thrive: The International Student’s Guide to Succeeding in the U.S. is a cross-cultural trainer, writer and international speaker. She is an adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) and has raised her own TCKs across four cultures and continents. She has served as Program Chair on the Board of Directors of Families in Global Transition (FIGT) and on the Advisory Board for TCKid. Tina works closely with colleges and universities, domestic and international schools.