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The Unraveling of a Crisis – Grieving a Move as a Third Culture Kid


I was reading a book the other day by renowned psychiatry professor Johan Cullberg entitled Crisis and Development and came across a chapter about the symptoms of a personal crisis and how they unravel over time.

In it, Cullberg introduced the four stages of grief (a well-known concept to those interested in counselling and therapy) and described how each stage affects a person differently depending on the individual.

Despite this concept originally being intended for the loss of a loved one, I thought it would be interesting to apply this to the grief experienced by Third Culture Kids when they lose a friend to relocation or are themselves forced to move.

For those of you who do not know, a Third Culture Kid is a child who has spent an extended period of their childhood in a country different to that of their parents.

Unlike migrants, Third Culture Kids are expected to repatriate when their parents finish their assignment abroad and therefore do not adhere to a subgroup of a larger community such as Irish-Americans in New York.


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The first phase introduced by Cullberg is shock.

This stage typically lasts for a couple of days. During this phase, the person in question holds reality at a distance and goes about daily life whilst the chaos builds within.

Another symptom of this phase is a distinct change in personality, a quiet person may become very talkative and vice versa.

The person may exhibit traits that would suggest an impending psychosis but this is rarely the case.

For a Third Culture Kid, who has perhaps lived in several different countries and has only spent a few years in each of them, the disruptive nature of a move might send them into a state of shock.

Coming home from school one day to hear that you will move to the other side of the world in a few weeks or months will undoubtedly affect a child’s emotional stability.

Not only is it the logistics of the move, packing one’s belongings etc, but it’s saying goodbye to the house that you have spent a considerable amount of your childhood in, it’s saying goodbye to friends that you are not sure if you will see again, it’s leaving a romantic interest that you were just getting to know and perhaps even having to leave a family friend behind.

Having to consider all of these things in the small amount of time one is given, will most certainly lead to a shut-down of cognitive functions and the child will become standoffish and apathetic.




The shock and reaction phase typically lasts for four-six weeks.

During the reaction phase, the person in question turns his or her attention to the reasoning behind the event.

The person has finally begun to open their eyes to what has happened and is searching for the meaning of it – Why did this happen me?

People who do not understand the reasoning behind what has happened, tend to ascribe themselves guilt. An example of this are mothers whose children have died during birth. They tend to blame themselves because it’s the only logical reason.

This phase is colored by a sense of awareness. The person actively uses their imagination to maintain their relationship with the deceased.

For a Third Culture Kid, the reaction phase can manifest itself in a prolonged period of emotional outburst aimed towards the people who are perceived to have caused the move… namely the parents.

The child will in this case place him or herself in the victim role and see the move as something that is happening to them rather than being a part of it.

Parents of children who are in this phase may find it best to practice low affective treatment and to take a hands-off approach to childrearing.





The understanding phase tends to kick in half a year to a year after the event has occurred.

During this phase, the person in question will move away from “searching for an answer” and start looking towards the future.

The asocial tendencies of the previous stage (i.e. imagining lost loved-ones etc) will weaken with time and the person will begin to engage in activities that were an interest to him or her before the event occurred.

Again, for Third Culture Kids this may mean that the child has laid the “move” and the old home country behind them and are willing to explore new relationships and activities.

In other words, the child has finally accepted the situation and is willing to settle into their new home.

A typical sign for this would be inviting a new friend home or asking to be a part of an after-school activity.  


Moving on

The final phase is a continuation of its predecessor.

The pain of the event has now become a “scar” and nothing more.

There are no symptoms left other than the happy memory of their old home. The person in question can feel as much at peace with the past as they can with the future.

I hope this article has given you some food for thought with how transitions can look like for Third Culture Kids.

Perhaps you yourself have experienced this during your childhood or maybe you are an expat who is about to move and are wondering about the possible effect it may have on your children.

If you have any questions or insights you want to share with us please feel free to contact us.



Next Article: Senioritis – A constant in the lives of Third Culture Kids!

Remember senior year? Those last 9 months of school when everything seemed completely meaningless? The time when the mere act of walking through the corridors of your school could leave you with a sombre feeling… READ MORE


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