Note from Carole: What follows here is a piece of writing from a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous. If you feel you can provide advice and/or sympathy via the comments, please be sensitive. If you have your own tale to share, or can provide a more detailed response, please get in touch with me. Anonymity is absolutely guaranteed.
A troubled expat child
My daughter celebrated her 14th birthday by going out with her best friend for lunch and a spot of shopping. She had a great day out, a large slice of chocolate cake and brought herself a little gift with her pocket money.
On her return she unwrapped the small package and locked herself in the toilet. She took the pencil sharpener out, dismantled it and used the blade to carve a deep cut into her leg.
TCKs and mental health
The only positive result of that shocking incident was that she told me about it right away. This disclosure is a massive step forward for her and means she wants to stop cutting herself. She is now under the care of a specialist mental health service and a competent school counsellor.
My husband and I are based overseas and our daughter has been in a boarding school in our home country for nearly 18 months. She loves her school, has many good friends and is doing very well academically. And she self-harms.
We have considered pulling her out of boarding school. As she can’t live in this country with us because it’s not safe, the schools aren’t good and her life would be severely restricted we considered returning home as well. But it’s not the boarding school causing these issues – she self-harmed before she went there. In fact, this school is actively good for her in so many ways. Besides, it’s possible that the root of her problem is her having to start over each time she moves, so both these options would be disastrously counter-productive.
We’ve lived in five countries during her life. Not many compared to some; four more than others.
How do children cope with the expat lifestyle?
Before considering our initial move overseas with we asked around and heard many positive stories about leading the expat life with children. Nobody told us anything negative at all. Everyone else’s kids seem to cope well with this lifestyle. Perhaps this is a myth?
She’ll have a greater world view and understanding of the diversity of cultures.
Indeed this is true and I’m sure it will be entirely relevant when she’s an adult. Right now, though, it is not an issue. Will she even make it to adulthood? I can’t help my thoughts drifting in this agonising direction.
Kids are resilient and can deal with anything.
No. They can’t. They are, however, very good at pretending all is well.
She’ll learn loads of languages.
Agree. She can speak four languages and is top of the class for another two, but she cannot find the words in her native tongue to explain why she self-harms.
She can’t talk to me about it much as she gets too upset, but she can talk to counsellors and staff at school, which is good. Occasionally I am told snippets but most of the details remain a mystery to me. I’ve spent hours researching self-harm and the mental health of TCKs but there is little I can do to make it all better for my daughter.
International school bullying
In trying to explain the problems that led to her self-harming she cites bullying in her previous school which spilled over to cyber-bullying.
Bullying happens in all schools. International schools are no different. International school bullying often involves exclusion for being the ‘wrong nationality’, ie not the host nation’s; not being able to fluently speak the language – even though the language of the school is supposed to be English, being the ‘wrong colour’, yes, racism is alive and kicking in many international schools. Then you have the individuals who bully because they are bullies.
My daughter was on the receiving end of all these, and in all countries. In her last overseas school this bullying was even being perpetrated by teachers. What chance did she have?
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my soul.
A fair amount of the bullying during her early school years was based on her not ‘looking the same’ as most other kids in her school and being “too stupid to speak our language” (after only being in that country a few weeks). International schools do have kids from many countries, but overall there seems to be far more from the host country and, as the majority, it’s this group that a child aims to ‘fit in’ with.
Not fitting in anywhere
Another reason she says causes her to cut herself is not knowing where ‘home’ is and not fitting in anywhere. As far as I can tell, this is a common TCK problem – how do others deal with it? She desperately wants to fit in but is so used to being different that she’s confused about who she is and who she wants to be. On one hand she wants to be different while on the other she wants to fit in.
As a mother, I cannot begin to tell you how I feel about all this. I’m sure other mothers can understand my pain without me going into details. Of course, I blame myself for my daughter’s problems. But we have (had?) a happy family life. With each move we discussed everything with her as a family, listened to her concerns and worries and so on. Love and openness have been a constant. Does she self-harm because of us or despite us?
Who’s to say she wouldn’t have self-harmed if we’d stayed put in our home country. I feel she would have taken this, or another self-destructive, route regardless of her domicile. Bullying happens everywhere. One of her reasons would be different, but I believe the outcome would be the same. Adolescence is a hard time.
I have nobody I can talk to about all this. It’s too ‘heavy’ and far too personal to dump onto new friends. I have to lie and say “Yes, she’s doing really well”, and watch other balanced and happy children live well.
Monsters don’t live under your bed; they live inside your head.
Recently I moved her bedroom around and seeing all her bits and pieces from her baby-and-child years was heart-breaking. Reminders of her life before she self-harmed. I also found and disposed of hidden pencil sharpeners with no blades and various other sharp items.
No longer is she my gorgeous, innocent, smooth-skinned baby; now she is my gorgeous, damaged, scarred teen and that pain is enormous. If only I could take away all her pain and turmoil. The days of a ‘kiss to make it better’ are long gone.
There is so much more I could write, but this has gone on far too long already.
Thank you to Carole at ExpatChild for giving me an anonymous, supportive place to share this.
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I stumbled upon this post today, and I just wanted to say thank you to this brave mum who has shared this very personal journey she is on.
I am an adult TCK, and I too self-harmed, both while growing up and well into my adult life. Anger management issues were another big part of my life.
Looking back today, I can see that issues of identity, belonging & feeling out of control were a big part of why I felt driven to react in the ways I did. Would I have been the same if I wasn’t a TCK? I can’t absolutely answer that – but I think being a TCK was a significant contributing factor.
It sounds like you are a very loving and supporting mum – even while your heart is breaking. Please keep hoping and loving. More than anything else I appreciate my loving supportive family today, and how they never deserted me.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your experience. I’m sorry for your issues and sincerely hope you are well on the road to a full recovery now.
I too like other readers are very glad that you choose to share your daughters (and your own) struggle. Self harm is a very common issue today but often goes unseen and unspoken of. Your post helps shatter that silence and may in fact inspire more parents to open up / reach out. Thank you for that!
I have been working as a school counselor here in Stockholm, Sweden within international schools for the past 7 years. Now, I am out on my own doing private practice. I saw first hand how many students used cutting as a way to gain better control over their lives. I worked with them to find better ways to handle their problems and as well communicate what they want and need. It is a very positive sign that she is opening up and talking to you in an honest way about the cutting. There are many parents that never find out because their child becomes so good at hiding their true emotions and state of being.
Obviously cutting and self harm is not a very effective behavior as it only provides short / immediate relief but often we do our best to cope…even if its destructive. If she is working with a counsellor than she is on her way to finding alternative behaviors that can also help her meet her needs in a healthier / constructive way.
I agree whole heartedly that it is important to maintain the love and support you are already doing so wonderfully at. Keep up your hope!! In all the cases I have worked with I have seen the most success where parents remained determined, loving, patient, and most importantly….there!
I have written some helpful blog posts on bullying and as well on some ways parents can help connect better with their kids. I am going to share your post to other parents in hopes that they will be as brave as you and share more openly about this issue. Its an issue that needs to be addressed more as It is more common than most people realize. Its just more hidden.
Here is my website if you want to read my blog. Hope your daughter and you get through this ok!!
Thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond in such an insightful way.
Having published this article I have heard countless similar accounts and hopefully people are becoming more open to discussing it now.
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Thank you for sharing what I am sure was a difficult story to share. Even in “safe” spaces, we all find it difficult to share sometimes, for various reasons, and I will not presume that mine are yours but I have a daughter who is abusive to herself and others, among others challenges she faces. Without going into details, because they neither link nor distinguish, I can say that I tend to waver between blaming myself (what could I have done differently) to understanding her challenges to other external reasons. Depends on the day!
In any case, I am writing because you mentioned that she is in a “boarding school.” You did not specify but we, eventually, found what I euphemistically call a boarding school. Perhaps you already know of them but there are some “residential treatment centers” that actually are basically boarding schools that *also* have ongoing treatment for young adults such as my daughter and perhaps your own? They are outstanding options because she can be there among peers who have experienced what she has experienced, who help her to find those words to articulate those experiences – the “whys” about why they do it (or they do not pressure them to figure it out) – and perhaps also importantly, that bullying atmosphere is absolutely not tolerated but instead confronted at the earliest incidence.
Carole, please feel free to share my contact information and I am happy to share what I have learned but my daughter is at a school in north carolina, though there are schools all throughout the country.
Kindest regards, Laura
Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment, Laura. I will indeed pass on your details to the writer.
I am so sorry you and your daughter are also going through difficult times and I sincerely hope everything works out for you both soon.
Thanks for writing and sharing this article. This article touched my heart, as I’ve been working for years with expat families with a variety of
psychological issues and I understand the pain of this mother and child. I was in
particularly touched by the mother’s words on her little, innocent girl and how this
changed. This girl is now learning how to manage her difficult emotions;
once she learns this skill (it is a skill that she can and will learn eventually),
then she wonâ€™t feel the urge to self-harm again and yes she can again be this mother’s little cute innocent girl. If this mother is reading this now, I would like to say to her to keep up the
great effort to support her child and with proper help, things will hopefully go well.
Thank you for your very kind words, Vivian
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Almost my entire practice is devoted to working with expat teens who have issues just like the ones you have described. I’ve also done some presentations at professional conferences on Working with TCKs in the Therapeutic Milieu, because even when they get to treatment, not all therapists are well-versed in the uniqueness of the expat lifestyle. There have been many great suggestions on how to get help for your teen if he/she is struggling. I’d like for families to consider also working with an educational consultant (like myself) to find those resources, support, and programs that can help the young person find health and happiness again. For more info, you can email me at email@example.com.
Thank you for sharing your details, Becky. I have added them to my list on the page about Reaching Out to Help Troubled Teens http://expatchild.com/expat-tck-problem-therapist/
Thank you. I know that what we do can not only change a life, but save a life.
Thank you so much for sharing this story, I wish more parents had the courage to speak up about these issues that we see specifically in the expat youth population. If the adults don’t speak up then we will never be able to help young people find healthy ways to cope with some of these international community issues. I grew up abroad myself and became clinically depressed for 7 years when I returned to my home country. After spending 15 years in the adolscent devlopment field, I started Sea Change Mentoring to help expat kids learn how to maximize the positives of an internatinal life and minimize these negatives. All of our mentors grew up abroad as well and are trained to support our youth. If I can offer assistance, please, please let me know. Even if it is just a quick conversation. I empathize a great deal with both this parent and this young person.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Ellen. It’s much appreciated. I’m sorry you had such a hard time but pleased you turned it into such a positive. I do hope others will find it in themselves to speak up too.
Ellen, I have added your details to my list on the page about Reaching Out to Help
Troubled Teens http://expatchild.com/expat-tck-problem-therapist/
As a social scientist specialised in
child education and parenting unfortunately this is not the first nor the last
time I will come across a story like yours. I think it is a good thing to
remember that self-harm is a coping strategy, It is not the problem itself, it
is a way of dealing with the problems that a person is challenged with. In the
case of TCKâ€™s that can be fitting in, adjusting to a new environment or
relocating and saying goodbye. But in adolescence there a far more challenges
to overcome. All of those can cause stress. To cope whit stress there a several
strategies. Like analysing, hiding, running, fighting etc. The self-harm of
your daughter is a way of coping with her stress level and gives a small moment
of relief of the emotional burden.
Unfortunately this relief is usually followed
by feelings of guilt and shame. As a parent, the best way to respond is be understanding
about the pain, help develop other ways of dealing with this pain, but NOT to
judge the behaviour of your child on how she is coping with her stress right
now. Or burden her with your suffering because of her coping strategy. The rule
â€œyou canâ€™t do that anymoreâ€™ can lock you out of her process of finding a better
way to cope with this distress.
To give an idea what happens with TCK children
when they return on their own to their homecountry I wrote an article on my
I hope you and your family will find good support in this journey together and find a good
way to stay connected to each other. Although I am Dutch, my English is pretty
good. So if you would like to contact me feel free on skype or email. I am
found at wereld wijd welkom (dutch for world wide welcome).
Thank you so much for your very kind and relevant insight. I will share these thoughts in an article so everyone gets the chance to read them. Much appreciated.
Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. I was an expat child as well and it caused nothing but problems for me. But no one in the expat world ever talks about these things. All anyone wants to talk about is how good it is for children, and it makes people like me feel even more alone. Resiliency is a myth.
My heart goes out to your daughter. I very much hope that she’s able to find a healthy way to cope with her issues and be happy. If it’s any consolation, I got a lot better once my life became more stable so maybe this will be the case for her as well once she’s in your home country for longer.
I’m so sorry you had a rough time as an expat child. I sincerely hope you are recovering and enjoying life now.
And you’re so right – nobody (until now!) talks about these issues. I hope we can open this up to the world and prevent others going through similar problems.
Thank you for your kind comments. Parenting is hard at any age, isn’t it?!
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I’m going to comment on this anonymously as this issue is very personal for me, and I’m sorry if this post is “about me”, but I wanted to share as I had a similar experience.
Although I wasn’t an expat child, my parents moved me around a lot — to many different parts of the US before finally landing on an island that was way too small.
In comparison to the other students at my school, I was very well-traveled and educated — my grandparents would take me to visit a different area every summer and I often spent summers away.
Because I traveled so much and I didn’t act or speak like the others, I found it very difficult for me to find “a place” to fit in. And, in the end, I never really did. I struggled with depression throughout grade school, high school and parts of college.
On the outside, I was doing very well — I was accomplished in music, doing well in school, and multilingual. On the inside, the inner turmoil was terrible and I considered suicide often — the bullying at my school had progressed to people throwing pencils at me and calling me names in the library.
I came home crying every single day. There were days when things would begin looking up only to crumble again. In the end, the situation only became better when I left for college and I was able to find people like me — who had traveled and had been exposed to many different cultures and ideas.
I know what your daughter feels about not exactly knowing there “home” is. I never felt at “home” and I am not sure I really can call anyplace “home”. For me, home is where my husband and daughter are. Because we moved so much, I don’t have an attachment to any one place. My adolescence haunts me, but my life is a lot better now.
You are giving your daughter an amazing opportunity to see the world and different cultures. The only advice I can give is to continue to support your daughter. The only thing that got me through those years was my family’s continued support.
Thank you so much for sharing your difficult experiences. I truly hope that you are enjoying your life now and I wish you all the best for the future.
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My heart goes for the family and for the girl. I wish I had a good advice, but my older daughter is only 5. She was born here in China and so far she’s been doing ok, though due to her fire-y and spirited nature there are many kids in her class who don’t want to play with her – she sometimes gets upset about it but she has many good friends (it isn’t any different than me growing up in my own country as I was the same and had the same situation).
I really hope the girl finds a solution and a way to cope with her overwhelming emotions. Prayers and positive thoughts sent their way.
Thank you for your kind thoughts.
I’m not sure why, but more and more international parents are telling me stories about their teen children and self-harm (most cases it is daughters). Your courage to speak out will help them feel less isolated – thank you. I work as a guidance counselor for university studies and do refer families facing this challenge to professional psychologists and psychiatrists. For the mom who wrote this article, I’d like to offer you some support and brainstorming (free of charge) – please send me an e-mail (everything will remain 100% confidential) and we can set up a private phone call or skype – firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve been working with TCKs and their families for over 15 years. The positive, goal-oriented work I do with teens can be a helpful add-on to traditional medical treatment. You are obviously a caring parent and I know your daughter will make it through this difficult time. She can learn healthier ways of coping.
That’s very interesting, Denise. I was vaguely aware that self-harm is on the increase but hadn’t made a connection to TCK / Expat life until I read this. I do hope that by opening this discussion even more awarenss and help will be forthcoming for all.
First of all, thank you so much for sharing your story. Of course it is understandable that you want to remain anonymous, for your daughter’s sake. It is a very hard time she- and you both are going through. I wish I could offer you some advice. Other commenters belov have shared great tips, and I would ask you to please reach out for help.
Thank you Olga.
It’s very brave (and I imagine, difficult) to share your daughter’s story. I would like to share with you that I self-harmed as a tween and teenager, and through counseling, meditation, and a process of maturing, I grew away from this tendency. I was not an expat child – far from it, as my first 18 years were spent in the same 100-mile radius region in the US. But there were changes in my home life that had shaken me. Today, I am adaptable, resilient, entrepreneurial, and compassionate toward others. I do not look back and wish that things had been different, because the path of overcoming them has given me qualities I might have otherwise not developed. And I luckily don’t worry my mother in the same way I used to!
The message I’d like to share with you is that this is a difficult time, but with support all around, your daughter and your family can indeed heal.
Thank you for sharing, Jennifer. Much appreciated and I’ll pass on your positive outcome.
Please know, from someone who also self harmed at the same age but whose mother rejected her, that the fact she came and told you about it is a HUGE plus as is the fact that you care so deeply about it. I think together you’ll work it out, the only piece of advice I would give you is never appear to judge her for it. Extra judgement/blame/resentment on top of what she’s piling on herself might only drive her to withdraw. I’m not saying don’t be honest with her (an ultimatum from my husband finally stopped me from self-harming) just don’t project your reactions onto her.
I wrote about when I first started self-harming, you can read the piece here if you think it might help your understanding, although I’m sure your daughter’s triggering experiences are very different from what mine were. Good luck.
Aisha. I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much for sharing your advice and for that incredibly moving piece of writing. I want to reach out and hug you and your teenage self. I’m sure your words will be of great comfort to anyone in a similar postition.
So sorry to hear your story. Thank you for being brave and sharing it with us. Sorry to hear that your daughter is going through such a rough patch in her life, it must be very difficult for you being so far away from her. Bullying is really terrible and cyber-bullying is even worse!!
I have a few thoughts that I want to share:
– You write that your daughter cannot find the words in her native language to explain why she self-harms, but does she have another “heart” language in which she can do it?
– Does she have positive supporting TCK friends that she keeps in contact with?
– You write that she has help from a mental health specialist, has the mental health specialist worked with TCKs before? Do they have knowledge of the specific problems TCKs can face? I hope so. Just in case here’s a link to the International Therapist’s Directory
– Does your daughter have any way to express her pain: like making music or journalling, at times this can help. Self-harm is often a coping machanisme in the midst of her emotional distress. She needs to find a new coping mechanisme.
I wish you strength and courage in this time. Greetings from Janneke Jellema, I grew up as a TCK in Africa, I am now a medical doctor in the Netherlands and have worked in the children & adolescent mental health for the past 10 years.
Thank you for your comments and advice – I’ll pass them on to the writer and I’ll include your link in another post so others can seek help.
I’m profoundly touched by your story and can understand your desire to stay anonymous. Please reach out for help! There is people who can help you and your daughter. I’ve mentioned this on another site: Ellen Mahoney’s Sea Change Mentoring is one group to address. You are not alone, there are many families like yours and children like your daughter. I’m really glad that you write about this because it has to be said and this is an important step on the long way to come to terms with the situation. It will take a long time, but please don’t give up talking about it. It’s maybe a taboo among people you’re now, but look for people who understand and can help you. – I wish you and your daughter all the best! Please let us know how you’re doing!
Thank you Ute. I’ll pass on the details of Sea Change Mentoring and will mention them in another post so others can seek help.