Sunday, May 2, 2010

Travelling with Teens

Last week I wrote a post about international understanding and mentioned the difficulties faced by a teenage student I once taught who returned home to Japan after spending several years in an international school in Europe. I've thought about this a lot this week as it occurred to me that as a parent I have caused the same difficulties for my own teenage daughter in moving "home" to Europe after spending the past 4 years in Asia. By coincidence I came across a tweet from Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano last week, where she mentioned she was reading the book According to my Passport I'm Coming Home (available here as a pdf). This book discusses the challenges faced by teenagers when returning "home" from another culture. Thanks for mentioning this book, Silvia, as it really helped me this week!

One statement really seemed to sum up this book: Parents come home; usually their kids are leaving home. The book focused on teenagers as this transition is especially difficult for adolescents at a time of their greatest growth and development. Even without moving half way round the world, the teenage years can be difficult - for both the teens and their parents! The book mentions that for girls their appearance is probably their greatest concern - they want to be accepted by their new peers so want to look and talk like everyone else. A second big issue we have found is adapting to a new school with completely different academic, social and disciplinary standards.

Without a doubt, the thing that has caused the most pain for our daughter is leaving all her friends. Being in international schools all her life, she has become used to making friends and having them move away again - but this time she lost them all. David Pollock in his Third Culture Kids book wrote about the issue of unresolved grief:
They are always leaving or being left. Relationships are short-lived. At the end of each school year, a certain number of the student body leaves, not just for summer but for good ..... Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.
Change leads to personal growth, but the process of growing is a painful one. Having to start somewhere new, especially when you haven't chosen to leave your old life and move there, is a very uncomfortable feeling - and this move happens just at a time when many teens are lacking in confidence to reach out and make new friends and their low self-esteem gets in the way of breaking into the friendship groups that already exist in the new school. As adults we are able to look forwards - we have moved before and know that we will eventually reestablish ourselves and make new friends - but for teens 6 months down the road is a long way away, and it is today that is important and today that they are feeling unhappy.

Another difference is that we did not grow up as Third Culture Kids ourselves - we already had our culture, identity and ideas established before we started moving overseas. For our children this was not the case. Adolescents are searching to establish their identity, and moving around makes them unable to settle on who they really are. We want our children to become independent, but at the same time we are new to this country too and wary of some of the experiences our teens are going through and some of the friends who are encouraging these. We want to say "hold on, wait a bit," while at the same time our teens are desperate to fit in so that they can make new friends. We are told over and over that it is love and attention from parents that keep teens the safest - so we keep dishing that out. We are told that the best predictor of a child's ability to adjust is the mother's adjustment - so I try to keep myself well adjusted too! I am very conscious that it is me who has made this lifestyle choice, and our daughter who is living with the consequences of this choice. I try to turn a blind eye to the size of the phone bills each month, and instead try to encourage Skype as a cheaper way of staying in touch with old friends (though often difficult with the time zone issues).

The good news is that these travelling teenagers often report that as a result of their overseas experiences they can relate to anyone, regardless of race, nationality or religion. The good news, too, is that we are seeing our daughter making wise choices about her friends and what she does with them. The best news of all is that we are nearly at the end of our first school year here and that next year will surely be easier.

Photo Credit: Rainbow of Peace by Jasohill

1 comment:

  1. Maggie, this is such a helpful post even for those of us who don't have third culture kids. At the school where I work, we take in many missionary kids or students who's parent is a professional athlete, we see many of the same characteristics. It is important to remember that even though the parents may be from here, the kids don't really feel like coming to Colorado is "home" and they struggle. It is important for teachers to recognize these feelings and help kids work through them.