Reverse culture shock (also called reentry stress) can occur when you return to your “home” country after spending time in another country or countries. For Third Culture Kids (TCKs), this process (and stress!) can be more challenging and protracted than for monocultural/mono-place individuals (such as a study abroad returnee) who return to their home country because for TCKs it’s sometimes difficult to identify what “home” they’re returning to or (re)entering. Is their “home country” their passport country, their parents’ country/countries, one of their childhood homes, or their country/countries of citizenship? Home for a TCK can be conceptualized in many ways. For a TCK returning to their passport country (for this article referred to as “home country”/ “home culture”), there are several challenges to negotiate including cross-cultural, social, and even developmental (depending on what age they re-enter/enter their passport country).
For TCKs, the losses of community, place, roles, and even purpose can compound the stress of returning to a passport country. Feeling out of control, frustrated, confused, and alienated can lead a TCK to go through the stages of grief when negotiating reentry.
- Flight/Denial Stage
Because the TCK is experiencing the painful stimulus of not belonging or finding it difficult to connect with peers in their new community, they may withdraw from others, fantasize about moving to another country or previous home, or sleep a lot. The feelings of disengagement and disconnection can create more alienation and TCKs therefore want to leave the community and/or country.
- Fight/Anger Stage
When in this painful situation and TCKs don’t think they can escape from it or resolve it, they may experience internalized anger (depression), helplessness, and hopelessness. Increased cultural intolerance can lead TCKs to become more critical of their home culture. For TCKs, when their home country is no longer just a place they visit for vacation or brief stays, the home culture or country is not romanticized any longer. This stage becomes a defense mechanism for TCKs who ultimately fear rejection by their country peers.
- Filter/Bargaining Stage
In this stage, the TCK distorts, denies, or simplifies the complexity and reality of their painful situation of trying to adapt. Extreme expressions of this stage could be that TCKs may refuse to discuss their TCK upbringing, or they may only associate with other TCKs in the community. Or they may deny the fact they need to buy different clothes appropriate for the weather or eat certain foods needed to survive in that environment.
- Flex/Acceptance Stage
This stage involves the productive response to reverse culture shock. To overcome the challenges of this transition, TCKs need to anticipate and accept this a normal process and that it will take time to process. In this stage, TCKs need to acknowledge that it’ll take time to understand how values, beliefs, and thought patterns may clash with their home culture. Through negotiating this stress, it’s vital for TCKs to develop healthy ways to cope including resting well, eating well, and exercising enough.
- Finding Meaning Stage
David Kessler has popularized the final stage of grief: finding meaning. TCKs who take the time to consider how they can tell their story in a way that people understand is one way to intentionally connect with and find meaning in their home country community. Every human being is hardwired to connect with others. So, (re)building relationships in a home country for TCKs can be a root of healing and wholeness to the place and country at large. TCKs who can appreciate and respect that people from their home culture also have a story can initiate an invitation to hear those to learn more about the history and culture of the place. Another basic human need for any person – TCK or not – is to be validated, so TCKs need to honor how they can listen to and validate others as deeply as they want to be heard and to receive validation.
For many TCKs, there will always be tension between their “worlds” or “homes” and loving each one can be expressed in different ways. Love can mean being loyal to multiple places and to people. Loving each home is a both/and for TCKs as several places, people, objects, and traditions can produce feelings of safety, belonging, and comfort.
Rooting or settling in a “home country” does not mean being disloyal to past homes. Loving it means choosing to be present and to engage locally. TCKs’ past homes are always a part of them; they are a foundation in their life and it’s important for TCKs to realize that foundations are meant to be built upon. It isn’t wrong if past homes aren’t a part of their life in a conscious way; it’s a matter of degree sometimes depending on the intensity of the experience and the degree of impact it had on their identity.
In loving a home country, TCKs need to remember that love is a verb. Being in love with self, with community, and with country will produce connection, desire to explore, and a sense of belonging. Nurturing, respecting, and leaving love as a legacy will ultimately showcase how TCKs are building a world as lovers, not fighters and as connectors, not leavers.