Why Does It Seem So Difficult For So Many TCKs To Find A Sense Of Identity?

At a conference in 1984 Sharon Willmer, a TCK and therapist, spoke about one of the most common and challenging issues she repeatedly came across with her TCK clients: they did know what it meant to be ‘a person’. They struggled for a sense of identity.

Willmer explained that every single individual – regardless of nationality, race, economic status, education, or background – is a physical, creative, intellectual, emotional, relational, volitional (capable of acting according to one’s own will and choosing) and spiritual being.  When we are born and before we are influenced culturally, these are the building blocks of what it means to be human and every single one of us has genuine, particular, and unique needs.

The need for solid relationships, a sense of belonging, being cared for and nurtured, the ability to make decisions and choices, to know who we are and be known by others and to be able to express emotions are all ways that define us as human and should not be denied in any way.

Culture then comes in and teaches us how we can have these needs met in a way that is most acceptable to our community. We are all unique in the way we satisfy or express these needs and the way we do it gives us our own personal identity. But the question is why does it seem so difficult for many TCK’s to find that sense of identity? This need for a sense of identity of course is not exclusive to TCKs, it is important to everyone.

At a quick glance an explanation perhaps may be found in the diverse cross cultural experiences that are experienced. Am I Brazilian or Swedish? Do I prefer living in an urban or country setting or both? Knowing our nationality or culture is only part of having a strong sense of self. Questions of a deeper nature need to be answered, such as ‘what are my strengths and weaknesses’; ‘where do I fit and belong’; or ‘what gifts do I have’?

For TCKs a few more layers can be added to this already complex issue because of the benefits and challenges of the TCK experience. Because of their experience, to many adults TCKs can appear mature for their years, whereas to their peers in their country of origin, they remain comparatively immature. The TCK therefore battles with who they are really. Are they a capable and worldly person oozing confidence and competence or are they in fact insecure, immature, and less sophisticated individual? Or are they a bit of both? This common issue is described by Pollock and Van Reken as ‘uneven maturity’.

‘Uneven maturity’ means that in different situations TCKs appear either mature or immature for their years. The observation by others is manifested in the TCK, creating a sense of confusion. To help decipher this, Pollock and van Reken interpret the five known psychological and emotional development stages that are commonly defined from birth to adulthood  as:  Establishing a personal sense of identity (where one fits into the family group); Building relationships (begins with bonding with family members then as one gets older with a wider set of people); Learning decision making (starts with the support and protection from family until one makes decisions on one’s own); Achieving independence (once the child is competent in making their own decisions and is sufficiently knowledgeable about the do’s and don’ts of the family, they then can transit into adulthood); and,  Adulthood (the child is ready to take responsibility of choices and actions that they have made).

These stages are often taken for granted but because of the TCKs lifestyle of high mobility and cross-cultural existence, many of them are interrupted or accelerated thus creating an ‘uneven maturity’. This struggle with their perceived level of maturity is a common characteristic in TCKs.