Expat relationships are not ‘normal’

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TCK problems – a response

As I mentioned previously, I had numerous responses to an anonymous article I published on behalf of the mother of a self-harming expat child.

Below I publish the considered and supportive email received from Imogen Gorman. Imogen is a British Educational Psychologist, an expat and mother who sent this email for me to forward on to the author of the post. Both have given me permission to publish the contents here.

I wanted to write a response to your blogpost as I am a mother, an expat currently living overseas and an Educational Psychologist. I am writing in a personal capacity as opposed to a professional one however my professional background will no doubt inform my response.

Firstly, I am sorry that you are having to go through this experience. It must be incredibly difficult, frustrating and lonely to not be able to confide in people who are geographically at least, close to you. I wonder if they may have an inkling however that all is not as it seems, and perhaps one (or more) of them would be happy to bear the burden with you?

As expats, our relationships are not ‘normal’. We seem to bypass all of the usual stages of ‘making friends’ and quickly decide whether this is a person ‘for us’ or not. Moreover, I think we would feel terrible to know that one of our number is struggling with something they are finding difficult to bear, and that we could not help them as we did not know.

Self harm support

I noticed that you said that this is too personal to share and that is entirely understandable. I still wonder however, if sharing this with someone you trust might ease your burden a little.

As you will know from your research, self-harm isn’t as uncommon as all that. Indeed some estimates put the incidence of self-harm amongst teenagers as high as 1 in 10.

Again you identify possible reasons for her self-harming and the research as you know backs your hypotheses; common experiences include: trauma, abuse, domestic violence or poor communication.

However, school experiences can play a part, for example bullying and rejection because of difference in terms of race or sexuality or other factors to do with identity.

The most common function of self-harm is to relieve bottled-up feelings of anger or tension. Less common functions are as a means of communicating emotional pain to others or to bring the person out of numbness and more into contact with reality and themselves into the world. One thing that is important to note is that self-harm is different from suicidal intent.

It sounds like your daughter’s needs in relation to her self-harming are being addressed by both the school and the specialist mental health service. The advice around what to do when a young person is self-harming is linked to the hypothesis that self-harm is a way of dealing with painful or difficult feelings. Therefore it is suggested that providing alternative means for expressing these, ‘when needed’, is very important.

Does she have a safe haven to go to at school when she needs to? One of the most important things is that she has someone available to talk to and is able to get support when she needs it. It is not always possible for parents to do this (both in the expat and home world) but a form tutor, house mistress, school nurse or even peer can be very helpful.

The world of the TCK is becoming slightly more mainstream and I am sure you will have heard of, and indeed read, Pollock and Van Reken’s research and book entitled ‘Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. If not, I would thoroughly recommend it, as its later chapters deal with the grief and separation issues TCKs have to manage. One of the most important things to note is, as you point out, whilst there are benefits to being a TCK, there are clear negatives as well. The impact upon emotional life being perhaps, one of them.

From your post, it sounds like your daughter’s needs are being addressed. She has a mother who is engaged and trying to find out as much as possible to help her. She felt she could, and indeed did, confide in you and now the relevant services are working to support her.

I wonder though, whether you might benefit from having a supportive friend to confide in, in your country of residence. Perhaps a professional such as a psychotherapist, who can help you to work through your own emotional reaction to your daughter’s self-harming would be helpful.

Finally there are a number of organisations who can help. I am unsure if home is the UK, but the UK organisations are as follows:

By Imogen Gorman

Imogen Gorman is a British Educational Psychologist who, prior to moving abroad with her husband and two small children, worked in London as a Specialist Senior Educational Psychologist for children in public care. Her special interests are attachment, mothering and the emotional development of children. Currently she is developing her knowledge around supporting the parents of third culture kids, to try and minimise the emotional impact of multiple international moves.


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