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Losing A Home – The Impact On Your Third Culture Kid (And How To Handle It)

Ben was 8 years old when he left the country where he’d spent all his childhood.  

Third Culture Kid losing a home

‘Daddy’s got a promotion overseas and says he can’t refuse it’, explained Ben to his teacher when he got the news. Originally the family was supposed to live abroad for 3 years and come back.

The move was temporary and Ben’s dad was well-paid, so the family decided to keep the house and didn’t even need to rent it out.

Ben took his favourite toys, his bike and his skate board.

But home was his house: his own bedroom with the wall paper he’d chosen, the big playroom where he chipped his tooth while riding the rocking horse when he was 6 years old, the garden with the rusty soccer goal where he played for hours with his dad. Ben was leaving, but he knew the house would wait for him. He would come back.

It didn’t turn out that way.

After 3 years, Ben’s dad got another assignment and the family moved to another country. One evening, the parents gathered Ben and his older sister.

‘We’ve been thinking a lot about our situation’, said Ben’s mum. ‘Dad will never get a job located back home. We now have to sell the house.’

‘What?’ shouted Ben, his cheeks blushing. ‘Never. I’ll never agree to sell MY house. When we left, you promised we’d come back after 3 years. You lied to me. I’ll never believe you ever again if you do that. You’ve got to keep it. I’ll buy it from you when I’m older.’

‘Ben, unfortunately we can’t maintain an empty house forever.  You’re only 12 years old.’

‘If you sell the house, I’ll kill myself.’ whispered Ben, clutching his fists.

Ben’s parents knew that he was attached to the house. They expected a strong reaction. But such intensity took them completely off guard.

Deeply worried, they decided to delay any further action.

 

 

Announcing something and acting on it immediately afterward is traumatic for the recipient of the news because acts in human beings are always preceded by projects.

Francoise Dolto, child psychoanalyst

Adults and children don’t share the same amount of information. Oblivious to this fact, adults often forget that they had time to get accustomed to the idea before they made a decision and announce it to the children.

If this announcement is left to the last minute, action quickly follows leaving no time for the kids to process, hence the traumatic reaction.

In addition to this, paediatrician and child psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto mentions 3 levels of continuity that are essential to children’s development:

  1. their body evolving and developing itself in a particular space, and thus linked to it
  2. their social network and
  3. their sources of affection.

When there is uprooting from a meaningful place, the child can get lost in their body — their spatial landmarks. This happens until the child reaches 8 or 9 years old.

We now understand why the house is so much more than just a familiar place with pleasant memories. It’s linked to the child’s inner world.

Some parents, fearing the drama, may be tempted to hide the sale of the home with the idea of ‘protecting the child’. Of course, sooner or later, the truth will come out. Can you imagine its impact then?

 

 

Ben’s parents began to discuss the process with Ben. During the following weeks, they took time to explain the situation in detail. They shared their vision for the future.

When Ben expressed his concerns, when he recalled rose-tinted memories from the past, they didn’t try to ‘convince’ him or to prove him wrong. They just listened. They knew they had to let him grieve.

Eventually Ben admitted that he didn’t intend to commit suicide. It was his way to have his parents consider his opinion and try to stop the project.

 

 

Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.

Mark Twain

Expatriates face a very specific situation. They need to deal with a particular type of grief. I call it expatriate grief.  

The losses they have to mourn are not associated with the death of a loved one. This is the reason why it’s so often ignored, denied or ridiculed.

Some losses are tangible (the loss of a house), some are ambiguous (the loss of daily contacts with grandparents or school mates), some are invisible (the loss of a language that is not spoken any longer within the family).

Grief is different for everyone. Children grieve too.

Experiencing the grieving process in such a mindful way ensures a healthy  future. In accompanying your children on that path, in putting words on what’s happening, in respecting their inclinations, their desires, their rituals, their wishes related to their grieving process, you give them a skill for life: the knowledge of how they grieve.

 

 

Ben was still sad but less angry. From time to time, he spoke about his house, resigned to the idea that his parents would do what they wanted. Often, he didn’t want to touch the subject.

His parents finally decided to launch the selling process. The house would need to be emptied.

Ben’s mother was anxious to speak about the topic with him once more. But she was committed to the process: openness and transparency.

‘Ben, we’re going to have a relocation company come to the house. Some things we’ll bring back here, others we’ll sell and the rest will go to the bin or to charities. Dad and I will go for a week to sort everything out. It won’t be fun. Hours of sifting through all the stuff.

If you want to come, you’re welcome. If you prefer to stay and tell us what to put in the container, that’s fine too. What do you decide?’

Secretly, she hoped Ben would choose to stay put. Taking the kids with her was an extra burden.

They’d have to miss school. They might slow down the sorting by complaining about  how boring it is. They might want to see their former friends and she’d have other things to be preoccupied with. She certainly didn’t want to organize playdates!

She was also worried that Ben would be more affected by seeing the empty house. What if this stay refreshed so many memories that he’d be more attached to it and he’d suffer more afterwards?

 

 

Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.

Maria Montessori

 

That’s why it’s so critical to pay extra care, offer options, and deeply respect the children’s choice when dealing with such an important matter.

Whatever the degree of intimacy with someone, you can never feel what they feel.

People have tried over the years to analyse the grieving process and to structure it in steps. The reality is: it’s messy. The grieving process is utterly personal. There is no rule. Except that it should happen. It should not be constrained, denied or ridiculed.

Accepting our ignorance of how it unfolds for others with the deep knowledge that it happens, in some way can be deeply liberating. It means trusting your child that they will feel what their heart is inclined to do. It means creating for them a space where they feel safe to express themselves without being criticized, judged or fixed.

It also means letting go of the guilt: if you choose for your child and try to influence them in a way that seems more convenient for you, what if they suffer afterwards? What if they give your reproaches? How will you feel?

But you may argue: If I let them choose, what if they regret their choice afterwards?

You’ll know in your heart that you gave the options and that you genuinely listened to them.

Your children will know how it felt to make this decision. They’ll learn how to take responsibility for their actions.

 

 

For Ben, the decision was simple. He wanted to go.

The family spent a whole week, emptying the house. There were fun moments when Ben could play with his ball in the now empty living room. There were emotional moments when the loaded truck left the street and the family closed the front door for the last time.

But Ben felt good in his tummy. He had a proper goodbye. Now, he could move on.

 

 

Now over to you: what’s your experience with your child(ren) of losing a home? How did you handle it?

 

 

Credit picture Depositphotos credit music The piano society

Emotional Abuse In Expat Couples – 4 Essential Steps To Deal With It

Sophie sits on the couch, her empty gaze staring at the salon table in front of her.
Jack, her husband arrived from work and they’ve just had an argument.

Emotional abuse in expat couple

It’s become more and more frequent since they moved to this new country, a year ago. Sophie left her job to follow Jack when he got a promotion…

She thought she’d done for the best. Not once has he acknowledged her courageous decision.

When she complains about his lack of compassion for her struggles — not understanding the language, feeling isolated, suffering from the loss of her financial independence and her role as a co-provider for the family — he brushes her off with comments like “You didn’t like your job anyway. You were stagnating in that position for years.”

On the outside, they have a fabulous life: they are in a gorgeous flat with panoramic city views. They go twice a year on holidays. The kids thrive at school and Jack enjoys his new position, even if it’s quite stressful.

On the inside, the reality is less glamorous. Sophie is drifting.

‘What am I doing here? Is this now supposed to be my life?’

And her doubts are amplified by Jack’s behavior.

‘He’s totally oblivious to my needs. He often blames me, implying that I have an easy life in coffee shops and massage salons while he works his tail off. But it’s not true. I’m running the household on my own because he’s never home. Those stinging comments hurt so much. I feel I have to justify myself all the time.

Sure, we have some good moments together. This gives me hope that he’ll understand me better.

But I’ve noticed that he avoids any deep conversation. He always has a good excuse: tired, stressed, not in the mood. Or he says that I don’t know how to speak to him, I’m always doing something wrong.

It’s my tone of voice or my use of language or the moment I’ve chosen that’s inappropriate. I never know when the next blow will come. Recently he even inferred that I was giving the kids a bad example, always whining and complaining. I start to get anxious when he comes back from work.’

What Sophie doesn’t know yet is that she’s suffering from emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is insidious. It’s extremely dangerous because it seems innocuous. No bruise, no scar, ‘only’ cold looks, deadly innuendos, destructive comments to destabilize and demean.

How can you convey such an experience to outsiders?

Sophie doesn’t dare to speak because she’s confused herself, wondering ‘Maybe I didn’t understand properly’, ‘I’m thinking too much’ or ‘I’m complicating things’.

She fears not being understood. The incidents taken separately seem harmless but the sum of them all deeply affects her self-esteem and self-confidence. She’s afraid people will find her weak or treat her as a paranoid.

She’s ashamed to be in such a situation and she isn’t ready to admit to herself that the person she loves so much is not the ideal she’d dreamed of years ago.

She feels even more powerless because she is living abroad confronted to other laws, the language barrier, the lack of support networks and no easy access to money or job.

Why is it so important to identify emotional abuse?

  • Because it often precedes physical violence
  • Because it gives a very bad role model for the children
  • Because it’s toxic and can lead you to depression and other physical ailments
  • Because it’s not what love is about.

In such a situation, what can you do?

In her groundbreaking book ‘Stalking The Soul’, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst M-F Hirigoyen gives 4 essential steps to deal with emotional abuse.

1. Recognize the abusive process

Look for the following patterns in the communication [1]. Renown therapist Virginia Satir describes the first 4 and Hirigoyen adds the last 2 ones.

Those techniques aim at maintaining distance rather than establishing meaningful contact so that the other person can be used and more easily controlled.

Blaming is characterized by ‘judging, comparing, complaining and bullying others while denying one’s own role in the problem’.
‘See? You made me angry, once again. You don’t know how to talk to me. Your tone of voice is just awful. Ask my colleagues at work. They all come to my office and confide in me their worst problems. They’ll tell you that I’m a great listener.’

Placating is characterized by ‘pacifying, covering up differences, denying conflict and being overly ‘nice’. It’s used to consistently defuse the conflict.
‘You’re making this all up. You have the need to find problems when really there aren’t. It’s your nature. You need to worry about something otherwise you’re not happy. I don’t see any problem, really.’

Distracting is characterized by changing the subject, being quiet, feigning helplessness or pretending to misunderstand. The purpose is to avoid the conflict.
‘Wait a second. I need to check my emails. I’m expecting a message from my boss about the big project I’m managing at the moment. Work is priority.’

Computing is characterized by taking an overly intellectual approach, lecturing, taking the higher moral ground and using outside authority to back up intellectual arguments without engaging emotionally.
‘I know what’s wrong with you: you’re still experiencing culture shock. The second phase is very typical. Sadness, complaints, resentment.’

M-France Hirigoyen adds two extra typical “communication” styles.

Use of paradox is characterized by a mix of innuendo and unspoken hints contradicting each other and aiming at creating confusion in the other person’s mind.
‘You’ve been dealing with the kids all day. Sure, I totally get it that you’re exhausted. How would you cope if you had my job…’

Silent treatment
The words speak for themselves. Imagine Sophie waiting impatiently for Jack after he was away on a business trip. She goes to pick him up at the airport and he gives her an icy look: she didn’t put on the dress he expected. He wouldn’t talk to her for the next 3 days.

Violence, even when it is non-verbal, hidden, and smothered, can be transmitted by what is unspoken and implied, and will result in considerable anguish.

Marie-France Hirigoyen

2. Stop justifying yourself
…even if you’re highly tempted to do so.

Sophie thinks it’s surely a misunderstanding because there’s an element in the story her husband isn’t not aware of. Certainly when she tells him, he’ll understand.

If this sounds familiar to your life, you’ve also noticed time and again, explaining yourself doesn’t help. It’s as if there is neither good faith nor good will. All of what you say may be used against you.

When dealing with emotional abuse, don’t argue with your partner. The best is to remain silent.

In this case, it’s not a form of abuse. It’s a way to keep your energy and protect you from further attacks.

3. Set boundaries

Define firmly what is acceptable behaviour and what’s not for your own integrity.

· Look at the pain. When does it hit?

· Look at the fear. When is it triggered?

· Look at the patterns. What do you notice?

This is all the more difficult that the abusive process is insidious and may echo your own doubts: not contributing financially, doing work that is essential to your household, but not truly valued by your spouse.

BEWARE: Setting boundaries is easier said than done. Each time you define a particular boundary, it triggers a crisis.

Setting boundaries acts like earthquake tremors, but it’s the only way to work out a compromise or possible solution to the situation.

Marie-France Hirigoyen

This is the moment where you’re truly alone, facing your fate. You need to fend for yourself and nobody can do it for you. It can be paralysing but…
‘The longer the crisis is delayed, the more violent it will be when it finally arrives’, she adds.
And this is why you absolutely need some form of support.

4. Don’t remain isolated

The emotional turmoil is huge and Sophie needs to find some psychological support for herself. Trusted friends, support groups or/and professional help are indispensable.

In a country with different (and unknown to you) laws, another language, limited network of friends and in the case of expat compound, privacy issues, this may prove extremely challenging. Sometimes, psychological support is enough. Sometimes, physical integrity is threatened, certainly during the earthquake tremors of the previous step in setting boundaries.

Sophie is worried. She’s terrified. She’s ashamed. Is she the only one going through this?

The experience each person believes to be unique is shared by many others

Marie-France Hirigoyen

Emotional abuse is not what love is about.

Will you let it rule your expat life?

 

[1] Source: Family therapy: concepts, process and practice – Alan Carr detailing Virgina Satir’s description of pathological patterns of communication

Credit picture Depositphotos credit music Free Music Archive

Repatriation With Children – How To Be Sure You’re Doing The Right Thing

“Going back ‘home’? Are you serious?” Jonathan’s eyes bulge out of his head. He’s 13. When his family moved abroad, he was 8. “I don’t want to leave my friends! I don’t know anyone back there. Why are we going? Why don’t we stay?” “My job ends next month. We have to leave,” says his […]

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Repatriation – Easier Than Another Expat Assignment?

‘Honey, pack your suitcase. We’re going back home!’ shouts your partner as he walks through the front door. ‘Whaaaat? Really?’ Your jaw drops. Whether you longed for this moment — without ever believing it would happen so soon — or you’re heartbroken to leave your host country (perhaps even resenting the idea to go back) one […]

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The Biggest Challenge of Repatriation – What You Thought You’d Never Need To Know

If you’re planning to go back to your home country after living abroad for any length of time, I bet you’re not madly skimming the Internet for information on how to make the most of your transition. Why should you? You’re going back ‘home’! No need for a language course. No need for a cross-cultural training. […]

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Expats – Your Body Aches But You Don’t Listen (And What To Do Instead)

‘I’ve got a terrible headache. And it’s not the first time.   My vision is blurry. When the pain strikes I can’t even stand up. I’m feeling dizzy. At first I didn’t worry too much. I thought it was due to the move and the changing environmental conditions: jet lag, humid climate, food. But after […]

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Expats – The true story of building a portable social network (and why it matters)

Starting all over again? You have no energy left. This is your third move in 10 years. You’ve just unpacked all your boxes, settled the children at school and established a new routine. You know you should also rebuild a social network. But really, you feel exhausted. Each time, it’s the same story. It’s not […]

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2015 – A Year In Expatland

As is now the tradition, in the last days of the year, I’m taking you on a journey: the story of an expat woman, Lisa, through a compilation of all the articles published on the blog in 2015. Disclaimer: Not all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. In fact, they’re all either clearly identified or […]

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Trailing Spouse – Does Volunteering Make You Happier?

Sophie avidly reads an article reporting the conclusions of a Harvard study conducted in 2014: ‘Volunteering makes you happier’. It’s been 6 months since she arrived with her family in this new country. She followed her husband when he got a promotion abroad. While she didn’t have a minute for herself 3 months before and 3 […]

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Paris Attacks – 5 Contradictions You Face As An Expat When Terror Strikes In Your Home Country

For the second time this year, Paris is the scene of multiple terrorist attacks:  137 people lost their lives and 352 are severely wounded. The random killing of innocent people is wrong  no matter the country, the victims’ nationalities or the invoked cause. But when those tragic events happen to your home country while you’re living […]

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