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June 17, 2009

As globalized market forces increasingly lead families to temporarily relocate to other countries, parents should be aware of the challenges facing the youngest family members upon their return home.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Children who live abroad with their parents on extended sojourns may experience a setback to their psychological wellbeing, say researchers in a recent study. But not in the way experts initially thought.

Traditionally in the United States, large companies, Christian missions and the State Department considered regularly repatriating back to the country beneficial for children in helping them retain their national identity and a sense of “home.” Some missionaries are even required to spend a year in the U.S. for every three or four abroad.

However, a recent Smith College study of 170 children of American parents found that multiple repatriations to the U.S. seemed to compromise childrens’ adjustment abilities as adults. Meanwhile, the total number of years the children spent living abroad did not affect their ability to ultimately adjust to life back in the U.S. 

The study examined American citizens aged 18 to 25 who had returned to the U.S. For men, researchers found, multiple repatriations earlier in life were related to a less positive psychological wellbeing. For women, multiple repatriations were associated with higher levels of prejudice, lack of introspection and feelings of moral superiority.

“It seems that while periodic return to the U.S. may sound good in theory, in reality it may be something that parents should not take for granted,” said Bill E. Peterson, associate professor of psychology at Smith. “Vacationing in the U.S. is probably fine, but coming back to live in the U.S. for a more extended time between sojourns may be bad for the later adjustment of their kids.”

Peterson co-authored the paper, “Third culture kids and the consequences of international sojourns on authoritarianism, acculturative balance, and positive affect,” with Laila T. Plamondon, a Smith undergraduate at the time. It is available online in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Third culture kids – or TCKs – is a term first coined in the 1950s to designate the numerous cultures these children inhabit – the “first culture” being their country of origin; the “second,” their host country; and “third,” the transient community of expatriates, said Plamondon. Importantly, while a parent makes a conscious decision to go abroad, the children accompany them whether or not they want to.

Instead of transitioning back and forth between the U.S. and foreign assignments, it may be better for children to stay abroad in a larger chunk of continuous time.

“For example, it might be better for someone working in business to take her family to India, Japan, and Korea in succession rather than come back and live in the U.S. between sojourns,” said Peterson. “This, of course, has serious implications for sending agencies and families living abroad.”

More research needs to be done to replicate the findings, according to the researchers. “TCKs provide a fairly unique opportunity for psychologists interested in studying the effects of globalization on culture and identity,” added Peterson.


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