The Theory of Prolonged Adolescence in TCKs

One of the observations researchers have made about TCKs is the phenomenon of “prolonged adolescence” or “uneven maturity”. (This is mentioned in the first book about TCKs that received wide recognition, the Pollock, Van Reken and Pollock book, Third Culture Kids.) In order to be well-adjusted adults, psychologists identify four distinct life skills that need to develop sufficiently during adolescence:

  1. Establish a personal sense of identity (centrality of identity, which I write about here)
  2. Establish and maintain strong relationships – with family, friends and the community around one (workplace, neighbors etc.)
  3. Develop competence in decision making
  4. Achieve independence – i.e. the ability to care for oneself and one’s future, financially, logistically, emotionally and physically

Researchers note that young and teen TCKs seem to exhibit many behaviors that are generally considered mature and desirable, compared to their non-TCK peers.  Examples of these behaviors include a global awareness of the world, ease in interacting with adults, multi-lingual communication skills and autonomous travel (e.g. flying by oneself to another country for boarding school).  Because TCKs seem to excel in these areas but struggle with the four life skills areas, the struggle has been called “prolonged adolescence”.

Given all the psychological factors outlined above, that all TCKs experience during repatriation, the question begs to be asked. Are TCKs really “unevenly mature” or are they just dealing with so many significant issues internally (loss of identity, loss of friends, loss of family, loss of familiarity with cultural norms, rejection by desired peers, a completely and unexpectedly unfamiliar new cultural context etc.), that there is no psychological bandwidth available for anything else?  Research into grief, trauma and negative life experiences has consistently demonstrated that there is only so much people can cope with before they begin to shut down psychologically, like an overloaded power system that shorts out.

               I think it is more helpful to frame the negative behaviors that repatriated TCKs may exhibit as an indication of their struggle to cope with so many difficult issues all at once, than to label the struggles as “prolonged adolescence” or “uneven maturity”. These terms unfortunately reinforce the message TCKs so often get that they are “not normal”.  TCKs are perfectly normal and feeling grief at the loss of something they loved (a home or friends) is a perfectly normal response.  It is far more useful and validating to the TCK to define and describe the experiences that go along with a TCK childhood so they can figure out how to best process these experiences for themselves, than it is to imply that there is something wrong with them and their feelings.