I think if we are all honest, adolescence was an awkward
time. Not necessarily bad or good, but definitely a bit awkward. Trying to
figure out life, whilst undergoing social, physical, and emotional changes, is complicated.
These bring challenges and difficulties which we would have either not
considered or not cared about beforehand. When I was eight, I didn’t care what
the girls in my class thought about me, but by the time I was fifteen things
had changed. There is an invisible, complex social structure that needs to be
understood at this time. Not only that, raging hormones and physical changes to
the body and brain mean there are a million things to contend with. Whilst
trying to navigate this time, most people’s mentors or guides are their equally
confused peers. The blind leading the blind.
To be fair to teenagers, most of them do a great job figuring life out during this time. A lot of people admirably deal with the difficulties which life throws at them at this age. Whilst it is difficult for others, I know I navigated this difficult stage perfectly. I quickly figured out that the best way to deal with girls was to insult them and that the best way to deal with this confusing time was to pretend I had it all figured out. Despite the advice of everyone who knows me, I still closely follow those tenets (much to the chagrin of my fiancée).
Transition is one of the standout features of adolescence. The transitions that occur during these years (roughly 8-22 depending on who you ask and allowing for individual differences) is a critical reason why these years are so formative. Some of these transitions are normative, such as one’s body changing. Normative transitions occur naturally and are a normal part of life. Other transitions are not, such as moving school, city, or even country.
Crucially, for the purposes of this blog, adolescence is seen as a risk time for mental health because of these transitions. John Coleman, a British Psychologist, has a model where he describes these risks, which applies heavily to TCK’s. Most teenagers don’t develop mental health problems, so the transitions in themselves are not bad things. Also, some transitions are beneficial, like moving to a more suitable schooling environment. He says that the risk is greatest when these transitions overlap. For example, moving to a new school is tough, but is not a great risk to mental health alone. However, moving to a new school, a new city, at the same time as social transition is a concoction of risk factors.
How this applies to TCK’s is hopefully becoming clear. The word transition strikes fear into the heart of many TCK’s who have experienced countless. Examine the chart below for some ideas.
All the items in the right box are things that most people
experience normally. That means that whilst there are other transitions that
occur in everyone’s lives, these are the ones that are pretty much pervasive. Whilst
the list is not exhaustive, it does cover the more significant changes that one
experiences before the age of 18.
The box on the left is just a few of the many transitions that TCK’s face growing up. Moving from one country to another is extremely difficult. It often requires learning new languages, food, ways of building relationships, and about a million other things. I included school on this list as well because many TCK’s move a lot, far more than the average kid. What this means is that there are usually multiple transitions from one school to another, not just moving from one age group to the next. Seriously though, the list on the left would fill a book if we were to list every transition that moving from one culture to the next entails.
One of the most painful transitions of being a TCK is the cycle of broken relationships. For many it is a constant source of grief, often unresolved. This is extremely significant for mental health regardless of the other transitions. Added to the other change it is particularly hard to process and deal with.
The great challenge international living poses for TCK’sis that they must navigate the transitions on the left whilst navigating the transitions on the rights. Using Coleman’s model, we can now understand why there is such a great risk for TCK’s in developing mental health problems. There are numerous concurrent and impactful challenges that happen during the adolescent years for TCK’s which increase their risk of mental health problems.
When Polluck and Van Reken provided the standard definition for TCK’s it was describing those who had “spent a significant amount of their formative years” in a culture different than that of their parents. These formative years overlap greatly with the years of adolescence. This means that the risk for adolescents with Coleman’s model is high for TCK’s.
People in adolescence tend to be remarkably resilient and so are TCK’s. This is a great combination for trying to maintain psychological health. However, it could be the case that reducing the number of concurrent transitions may help TCK’s develop healthily psychologically. This is just a thought, but maybe someone can look into it into the future.