Our family travels a lot and there are always suitcases ready to pack or unpack somewhere in the house. I used to loath both tasks and it has taken a good few years of CBT to find the prospect of cramming mini shampoos next to winter boots remotely enjoyable. A usual retail therapy – buy everything new and pink – did not help!

With the bags ready – our travels do not take us to any new or exotic places. They are journeys to grannies, cousins and uncles that live in five European countries. What me and my husband craved in our 20s – childless and footless – has become a chord, even though at the end of it we do get to party (at family gatherings, that is!).

If you are an adult, you can fight the routine. Pepper it with a bit of ‘learning experience’ at a renovated castle or a walk down a new beer garden. You can see it as a sort of ‘catharsis’, after all – drinking, arguing and making up with your relatives is a form of therapy. If all fails, you can pretend you are on a holiday, hobbling around the gate in platform shoes from TK-Max with gin and tonic in your hand.

If you’re a child, however, this is all a bit confusing. “Why can’t we just have a normal family”, I hear my children say. Scientists are split about emotional dynamics of transnational families. A lot depends on the socio-economic status. If your parents are seasonal migrants or labourers with lower educational achievement it’s very likely you experience periods of separations. Being looked after by relatives rather than maternal parents with your schooling disrupted may impact on your emotional wellbeing and potential behavioural problems. Communication issues, even once the language is accomplished, are common. Cumulative effects of such discontinuities and disruptions are very well documented in Chinese, Canadian and American literature – I am yet to find a UK research in this area, particularly linked to recent EU migrants.

The research shows that all things considered, you are still better off as an immigrant child in a new environment than a child of a migrant left behind. But even those who come with professional, ‘well off’ parents may suffer an element of ‘identity crisis’ that may or may not go away depending on their copying strategies. This phenomenon has been described as the ‘third culture kids’ (TCK) syndrome, well researched by Pollock and Van Reken. Despite the complexities, authors say, TCKs have a lot to offer to future generations, with their ‘transnational outlook’ and strive for higher educational achievement. Who better placed to deal with some of the modern world global crisis we’re faced with today than those who had lived and seen many different cultures?

Countries like Moldova, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and others from the New EU will have many poorer regions experiencing particularly the more staggered and disrupted migration. Some of you have commented on my previous blog about Moldova, querying the sad stories. You suggested that many emigres have a positive, entrepreneurial outlook. True as that may be, I am in UK public sector and see families on the brink of crisis that are harder to deal with particularly because of the ‘disrupted support networks’. Take a sudden death of a husband in a relationship where you had only each other for support abroad. Imagine a breakdown of a family leading to social services intervention where all proceedings are done through interpreters. Have a think about a child who acts strangely at school because they couldn’t go to their grand-father’s funeral. Stories like these are happening in our neighbourhoods all the time and the people affected go unrecognised as a priority group for therapies. Come to that, we would need more bilingual & multilingual staff in our counselling services in the first place!

Because of my PhD research our daughter spent some time abroad with the grandparents as a toddler. Later on, she integrated well into the UK educational system. Between the ages of 7 and 12, however, she started to cope very badly with what came after the ‘family reunions’. Saying goodbyes and not being able ‘to just pop in’ to your grandma’s suddenly became a huge issue that the Skype could not possibly resolve. My Mum came up with an ingenious solution to the problem – she drew a beautiful image of a guardian angel as a reminder that she is always with her. Now the guardian angel is a screen saver on all the possible gadgets that a teenage girl may need. That worked for her, as well as a good deal of ‘talking about it’ and occasionally ‘crying into her pillow’.

So my advice to the public sector colleagues is this – yes, we do need some creative arts and lots of guardian angels! But we also need teachers, nurses and counsellors able to recognise these patterns as part of the normal child development that can be overcome with the right insight.

If you are aware of any recent UK research in this area please share it. I fully recognise that the topic is by no means exhausted by one article.

Worth to look at:

TCK World – Official Home of Third Culture Kids – http://www.tckworld.com

I CAN – The Children Communication Charity http://www.ican.org.uk

Rasim Somer Dilera, Ayse Avcia, Gilsah Seydaoglub – Emotional and behavioural problems in migrant children

Krista M. Perreira, India J. Ornelas – The Physical and Psychological Well-Being of Immigrant Children

Katherine Milton and Jack E. Watson – Distance Education for Mexican-American Migrant Farmworkers


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