Explaining the TCK’s Delayed Adolescence

What do we mean by delayed adolescence? The concept refers simply to individuals who take longer to develop emotionally and psychologically than the average young person.  The adolescence of many TCKs is often noted to be severely or slightly delayed, although that is not to say that they will not eventually develop fully but that for them it takes a little longer than ‘usual’.

Academic studies by Pollock and Van Reken help us understand some of the common themes that are associated with delayed adolescence. They conclude that ‘high cross cultural mobility and transient lifestyles’ during developmental years have a significant impact on individuals. It is at this time that young people are learning the real do’s and don’ts , pushing the boundaries as teenagers usually do, to find out what is socially acceptable or not. Once this phase has been explored cultural practises and values are accepted and integrated, building the foundation to transition into adulthood with a reduced amount of guidance. But when this phase is interrupted by moving into another culture, an alien culture, parts of this process begin again, as young people have to understand a new set of cultural rules and customs. This jeopardises and disrupts the process of natural development which others experience in a monoculture.

In ‘normal ‘circumstances cultural rules and customs are internalised during adolescence and the individual’s confidence grows. Children develop at a ‘normal’ rate into young, confident adults. However TCKs may linger behind in comparison to their peers back home, still trying to figure out what the rules are, what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t. Consequently, they do not have the ‘space’ to explore and discover more about themselves, what makes them who they are, what are their talents, or if they have any unique gifts?

Children who have been exposed to managing more than one set of cultural norms and customs do seem to have a different rate of development to their peers who have been exposed to one dominant culture only, a culture they regard as their own.

Some TCKs experience delayed adolescence because they have been subjected to an extended period of compliance to cultural rules. TCKs who live within an institution, for example on a military barracks or in diplomatic service, often do not have the freedom to test and break the rules because they are expected to adhere to the often strict regulations imposed by these institutions. Not doing so could jeopardise the parent’s careers or perhaps even their own safety. So in these circumstances the individual is exposed to an extended period of strict compliance in comparison to their peers’ freedom back home.  As mentioned above, some environments do not allow TCKs the liberty to make choices about what they want to do or where they want to go. If the individual is unable to have this freedom, it removes their opportunity to test societal and parental rules until later on in life when circumstances may have changed.

TCKs mention time and again that they can be reticent or find it hard to make decisions in life because they are unsure whether they will be able to complete or fulfil their commitments. This is understandable when uncertainty surrounds their lifestyle, particularly when there is a sponsoring agency able to change their existence at short notice. There is no wonder then that a TCK learns quickly to just ‘go with the flow’ rather than make any decision to commit and take responsibility for their own lives and their future.

Children who are separated from their parents during adolescence often have the opportunity to challenge and test out parental values removed. Those who have been separated from their parents at an early age often are frequently not ready to move away from parental nurturing and support and try and make up for their early loss by clinging on to whatever they can for as long as they can. Those who have spent many years away from home often view their parents through rose-tinted glasses and if they were to question anything about their parents they would be jeopardising that sometimes delusional bubble. For many TCKs this can extend into not distinguishing their own identities from that of their parents until much later, perhaps not until their twenties or thirties – again a delay in the normal adolescent process.

Social and educational dynamics can also influence delayed adolescence. For example, if an individual graduates from an international school and then returns to their home country they may find that they still are expected to do another one or two years before they can apply to go to university. This can be particularly distressing for the individual if they have been considered and treated up until now as someone who is older than their years and now they find themselves grouped with younger students in the name of accommodating home country rules.

Counter-intuitively, some of the drivers for delayed adolescence are often contribute to the great benefits of the third culture experience. Once the TCK and/or their parents understand and are aware of the process and how much of a paradox the TCK characteristics are, the easier the journey from adolescence (delayed or not) to adulthood becomes. The process of actually choosing to or having to consciously figure out some of these deeper matters can have a massively positive effect on the TCK by helping them gain a very clear and strong self-identity.