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International Mobility and Interpersonal Relationships among Adolescent TCKs

21 Mar 2020 9:35 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

Dr. Iris Hertz, FIGT Member and psychotherapist, describes some of the characteristics of adolescent TCKs and the challenges they face in forming social relationships.

An interview with Dr. Iris Hertz, who was scheduled to present at FIGT2020.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a psychotherapist and expressive therapist (PsyD, MA DMT), holding a doctorate in psychology specializing in family and couples therapy from the Professional School of Psychology, USA. 

I have been practicing psychotherapy since 2003—in Israel, Singapore and, since 2014, Thailand— working with clients from different age groups and cultural and social backgrounds. My services range from diagnosing and treating personality disorders or emotional and behavioral disorders to working with couples and families on improving their relationships. I aim to support people through the stages of relocation and cultural adjustment to a new country.


Please tell us about your research on international mobility and young TCKs’ interpersonal relationships

For my PhD dissertation, I undertook qualitative research on the implications of international mobility on the interpersonal relationships among adolescent TCK who had relocated to Bangkok, Thailand, and who were undergoing therapy. I looked at the nature of interpersonal connections between adolescent TCKs and (1) their peers and (2) their families, as described by the young people themselves.

The research was conducted through semi-structured interviews with five adolescent girls and four adolescent boys whom I see at my clinic. All of them were high-school students between the ages of 16 and 18. I also analyzed five counseling sessions with each. 

Before participating in the study, all interviewees and their parents were fully informed about the study and signed a consent to the use of information collected in the interviews and documentation from the counseling sessions (see Declaration of Helsinki).

Why are you interested in young TCKs and their interpersonal relationships?

Over the past ten years, I’ve been working as a Western foreign therapist in Asian countries. Over the course of my work, I meet TCKs on a daily basis and see that they need emotional therapy to help cope with day-to-day pressures and the challenges—in and outside their homes—that result from recurrent moves and separations. In particular, I found a gap between the way adolescents described their relations with their family members and that in which they described their social connections.

I wanted to look into this phenomenon further because I believe it will be of use to the global community of therapists who support globally mobile families with adolescent TCK and, ultimately, for the young people and their families themselves.

What are some things that you’ve found?

Adolescent TCKs often have difficulties creating and preserving interpersonal connections. They experience loneliness, stress over their studies, and lack of control over their lives. Sometimes these pressures become unbearable and the adolescent may face depression, resort to self-harm, or become suicidal. Emotional therapy can be a lifeboat for these adolescents. 

Through the study, I’ve found that adolescent TCKs

  • Build confident, stable, and strong connections with their families: It appears that, in most cases, the relations in the nuclear family were stable and meaningful. The young people demonstrate confident and stable feelings in their relations with their nuclear family, and the families were unified and spent a lot of time together.

  • Have difficulty in creating meaningful and good social connections with their peer group: Most of the adolescents who come to me for help report loneliness and great difficulty in creating social connections with their peer group. 

Noting that this was based on a small group of adolescent TCKs who were undergoing therapy and that they are not representative of all adolescent TCKs, here are some dynamics that came through the research.

Family dynamics

For this group of participants, the division of roles between the parents was dichotomous: the father was the provider while the mother was the ‘dependent’ (as defined in her residence permit).

  • Mothers: While the mother–adolescent relationships were generally good, empathetic, and healthy, the mothers were at times seen as interfering. The adolescents, aspiring to be independent, may be reacting to their perception of their mothers as dependent (as a personal characteristic), while the mothers may be moved by their sense of exclusive responsibility for the kids. Mothers’ lack of paid employment may also play a role, although this needs further study.

  • Fathers: Among the study participants, the connection with the father tended to be distant and hostile. The adolescents often saw the father as the main cause for the moves and blamed him for their feelings of alienation and loneliness. 

  • Siblings: In most cases, there was a close connection with the siblings, especially when they were of the same gender. It may be that the moves and life in a different country magnified the feelings and experiences shared by siblings, which, in turn, strengthened mutual understanding and the feeling of partnership. 

International school setting

  • The competitive academic demands of international schools may be making it more difficult for TCKs to adapt. Adolescents in their last two years of studies may not be free to invest in social connections, let alone new connections, making socialization extra difficult.

The most important thing to remember is: TCKs and adolescents gain a lot from their life experiences through relocation, but they also pay a price. The price is usually their ability to connect in a close and intimate way with others around them. We need to recognize that TCK youth need professional support and guidance from their parents and teachers. 

Therapists working with TCKs need to be culturally sensitive and intellectually flexible and show unconditional acceptance of every client. The therapist also has to make sure that their client understands what happens during the therapy process, even if they come from a completely different culture. Establishing a positive therapeutic relationship is especially important for TCKs because if that relationship is good, the TCK clients have a better chance to replicate it and establish close, trusting relationships with other people.

Anything else you’d like to share?

My research focused on the difficulties and negative influences experienced by Third Culture adolescents as a result of recurrent moves. It was conducted with a small group of interviewees who came to me for therapy. Future research could look into areas such as:

  • Experiences of specific segments of the TCK population. TCKs are not a homogenous group: families come from different regions of the world, parents may be of the same origin or not, TCKs may study in international schools or single-culture schools, etc.

  • Long-term effects beyond the adolescent period

  • Quantitative research with a much larger group of TCKs

  • TCK experiences in other countries, to compare with these results from Bangkok

  • The positive effects of global mobility and TCK development, such as cultural exposure, high-quality education, and the sense of safety and independence in a foreign country.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Iris’s paper is due to be published in early April 2020. Please visit her website to read the full dissertation.


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