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Attachment Disorder for Traveling Kids

Attachment Disorder for Traveling Child or Petra Becoming a Third Culture Kid OAXACA, Mexico- Petra sat on the floor of the apartment and whimpered, “Bubbie, bubbie, vroom, vroom, se fue,” with a frown on her face and a tear in her eye. It has been three days since her grandmother returned to Maine from her [...]

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Attachment Disorder for Traveling Child or Petra Becoming a Third Culture Kid

OAXACA, Mexico- Petra sat on the floor of the apartment and whimpered, “Bubbie, bubbie, vroom, vroom, se fue,” with a frown on her face and a tear in her eye. It has been three days since her grandmother returned to Maine from her week long visit to Oaxaca.


I want my daughter to miss people, I want her to cry when they leave, I want her to tell me stories about what she remembers doing together with them. I want Petra to be emotionally standard issue — I don’t mind screwing her up in other ways, but emotionally I want her to stay in tact.

A photo of Petra Shepard

Petra is growing up in a social context that is, quite obviously, very different from most other people on this planet: she is traveling perpetually without a community, with only old mom and dad at her side. She meets new people daily and she leaves new people daily; she makes friends just to see them fade away in the rear view mirror of onward travel. My daughter is not shy — she has this going for her — she runs up to other little kids in the parks and streets and starts playing. She is friendly and has made some extended friendships in the year and a half that she has been traveling, and, ultimately, she is able to leave people well. So well in fact, that I am a little worried:

I do not want my daughter to become blase, ambivalent about the people in her life; I want her to have sustained friendships and deep relationships with her family as I had while growing up.

But I must face the parameters of travel with children, I must measure the benefits against the drawbacks.

So as Petra moves through the world making and leaving friends I know that I need a strategy for her to be able to hold onto sustain relationships. I do not want her to come up with some minor form of attachment disorder where she eventually finds it difficult to make lasting friends.

Attachment disorder: This is when a child lacks the ability to form attachments to their primary care givers.

This is not Petra — she is very much psychologically, emotionally, and socially attached to her parents — but I do not want her to exibit any of the symptoms of this disorder in terms of making friends. In point, I want her to easily attach to other people besides her parents.

But how?

Petra with her bubbie

Ideally, I would like to travel yearly circuits for the next decade with a small community of other travelers with children.

I scoff as I say this as I know that it is not really a possibility. Even if I openly advertised invitations for other traveling families to join us, I do not foresee many takers on this proposition: in this world, adventure travel with a child means going to Disney World or, if the parents are really bold, a Caribbean resort.

We are going to Ethiopia.


So we are left traveling with or three person family unit. My wife wants to increase our size to four, but I know that this is a one way ticket to the woods of Maine. I am not getting on that bus.

So the best thing that we can do is to encourage Petra to develop transitional friendships, deeper ones where the option presents itself, talk regularly with family, invite them to visit, and, when we can, run through the USA on family visits. My daughter does not need much encouragement in terms of making friends — Petra is a social predator, always on the look out for other little kids to play with. Forming friends is not yet the issue, leaving them is. I would dread the day that my daughter views people as though they were just another part of the shifting seas of her childhood, as landscapes.

I want the map of her childhood populated with faces.

Petra making friends in Mexico

Skype has come in as a wonderful tool for maintaining family ties. Once or twice a week, we get Petra on Skype with her families in Maine and New York. She knows all of her family members by name, though she has only seen one of them in the brick and mortar world more than on two occasions. Sometimes Petra sits by herself and sings a little song that goes, “Meili, Seth, bubbie, zeyde, Mimi, Uma, gampa, Nicky, Shan Shan, Slick ” over and over again. Her Maine family has also been instrumental in providing Petra with reinforced home concocted picture books of her family. She is looking at one now point at the pictures and naming the people in them.

She is doing alright.

Petra also remembers her friends and family as well as the things she did with them. Her vocabulary is limited — being a patchwork of simple English and Spanish words mixed with a few onamanapia, but she often says things like, “Emi, Emi, shh, shh” trying to tell us something about her friend Emiliana from San Cristobal de las Casa taking a nap. Or she repeats things like, “Bye, bye, Bubbie, bye, bye, bebe.” This means that she wants Bubbie to sing her some new song that she taught her. Whenever she walks by the place in the street in Oaxaca where she saw her bubbie get on the bus for the airport, she tells us the story by saying, “Bubbie, vroom, se fue,” over and over. Or she sometimes say, “Ella, ‘lota,” which means that she remembers playing with Ella from Zipolite’s ball. She, clearly, misses her friends and family already.

She is doing alright.

Petra with Mexican kids

Petra truly developed socially faster than I expected. At the advent of traveling with a family, I gave myself three years before friendship cultivation would become and issue, but at only one year old, it became clear that I need to develop some stronger social strategies fast. Though I must remind myself that this lifestyle is the only one that Petra has ever known — I did not pull her out of a regular and constant setting and throw her into the cultural, geographic, and language blender of world travel. No, this blender is regular life to her.

Petra will more than likely be one of those third culture kids, but I view this as being a positive attribute of a life spent meeting and befriending the people of the world.


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Filed under: Family, Mexico, North America, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel Psychology, Travel With Family

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

19 comments… add one

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  • Nicky January 26, 2011, 5:01 pm

    Great Article. The main and most important factor in a child’s life while forming attachments is to have a solid, reliable caretaker…she has two and that is more than a lot of young children! So what if a child has stable ‘friends’ and a house – if they don’t have that primary caretaker, that is when they are most at-risk.

    IMO, she will learn who will stay (her parents and extended family-even though visits are far and few between) and who she can have fun with…temporarily. Kids are incredibly adaptable and Petra looks to be doing just fine! It is very obvious that she has bonded with the both of you.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 26, 2011, 11:40 pm

      Thanks Nick,

      This means a lot coming from a child behavioral psychologist. Right on about the dichotomy between long term relations and short term. It seems as if Petra can already make the distinction.

      I suppose there are benefits and drawbacks to any lifestyle. Petra has her parents with her almost all day long. Very few kids can claim this.

      Kids are really adaptable, and you have to be a real clutz to break them haha.

      What is your advice as to how to get her some longer term friends?

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  • mike crosby January 26, 2011, 10:02 pm

    I agree with Nicky. She’s got a great Mom and Dad, she’s way ahead of the game. I also think she’ll grow up way more adjusted and mature than the average child.

    I used to room with a black family in LA. My son had befriended one of the sons. Years later we went back to visit. I’ll never forget how those two kids hugged each other and expressed overwhelming joy upon reuniting.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 26, 2011, 11:37 pm

      Thanks Mike, we really appreciate it!

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  • mike crosby January 26, 2011, 10:10 pm

    Wade, Just noticed how I am able to edit or delete my comment. I love that. And I’m really excited for you. I might be wrong, but I think with that feature, you’ll be getting a lot more comments. I also like the font–inviting and friendly.

    If I may trouble you, my blog is a wordpress blog like yours, except mine is wordpress. com, where I think your’s is wordpress.org. Is that right? I’m not able to make my comments like yours, and I think you’re able to do a lot more with your blog than I can.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 26, 2011, 11:29 pm

      The comment form is done with a plugin called wp-ajaxcomments or something like that. I am unsure the extent to which you can use plugins with the hosted Wordpress.

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home January 26, 2011, 10:51 pm

    Very interesting post, of which I know little. I can only comment on what I have seen with expat children.
    Many move every 2 years when their parents jobs change. I’ve seen these kids over compensated with high end education, lots of spoiling and soon they grow egos and an attitude which is deplorable.

    I am not saying for an instance that Petra is on this road. What I am suggesting, and I am sure you might have already seen, is to look at some of these expat kids, and try to avoid what they are doing.

    Somethings will always be missing like that childhood “best friend” How to cope with this, I don’t know. And, I would margin a guess and say a kid brother or sister is not the answer.

    Skype is good.

    I think you are on a pioneering path here. Maybe you can reach out to some other travelers with children and see how they are managing.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 26, 2011, 11:36 pm

      Yes, good points.

      Many of the expat traveling families that I have observed tend to be pretty wealthy — with parents traveling for work in business or government — and, it is my impression, that these kids are often raised as rich kids in sort of subdivided foreigner communities. I think that I can learn a few things from observing these families, as you said, learn what not to do. But I think a lot of the problems arise from spoiling and from distance from the local and non rich communities of the countries they are in.

      I don’t think we could get Petra into this sphere even if we tried. Although Chaya is talking about joining the foreign service — I think she may be getting sick of being poor and is taking things into her own hands haha.

      Right on about finding other traveling families. But, unfortunately, there are not many Craigs out their traveling on a small budget with their families. In fact, Craig is really the only person that I have ever met traveling the world with his family besides hippies in Central America and Mexico. Though I know that I need to start integrating more with other traveling families to find Petra some form of longer term community. It is slim pickings though.

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      • Bob L January 27, 2011, 7:26 am

        “Although Chaya is talking about joining the foreign service — I think she may be getting sick of being poor and is taking things into her own hands haha. ”

        Listen to the Woman. Women are almost always right. For tens of thousands of years, while we were hiding behind rocks waiting for something to kill to walk by, they were actively finding food to feed the family. If we failed at our task, there is a good chance that there would still be something to eat because of them. As a team, a man and woman work pretty good, where on our own, things would not work out so well. We may not always like what they tell us to do, but it is often the right thing to do.

        Maybe that is why I am still single. Doing the right thing when someone tells me to has never been my strong suit. I resist and revolt like a toddler.

        Bob L

      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 27, 2011, 8:38 am

        Haha, right on, Bob, truly right on,

        Though I believe that Chaya’s occasional mention of the foreign service is a clever threat of sorts telling me to make some money. Though she is very tolerant, we do need to up our earnings two fold.

  • David Jacobs January 27, 2011, 1:43 am

    I see a glaring, and very specialized need/ gap here. Once again, vagabondjourney can be groundbreaking in bringing long term (juvenile) traveler friends together…

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    • Bob L January 27, 2011, 7:37 am

      This is a good point. There are all kinds of groups out there for RV travelers in the US to hook up with like minded families. There are Sailing groups for those on the high seas. Maybe Vagabond can start up a specific forum for families on the move. Get some locations around the globe where people can gather. Let each other know about special deals. Maybe certain hotels that would cater to families. Do this also for non families, but for travelers that are not looking to party or flash pack or whatever. I could see a large group of nomads traveling the world, meeting up with friends, old and new, in various places.

      Every month or so, you write a post as to where major groups are gathered, or what posts in the forum are most interesting. I know of a few motorcycle groups of various sizes that have ride to eats across the US, Christmas parties and gatherings in various locations around the world, scavenger hunts that require someone to figure out where in a country your photo is from, then take a photo of the same place, and adding the next photo location. Your site could be the Go-To sight for low budget travelers (already is for many).

      The only major glitch to this that I see is that most long term travelers are rather unique and independent. Hard to pin them down.

      Bob L

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 27, 2011, 8:42 am

        Great idea, especially since you nail down both sides of the plank: the desire for travelers to meet up and have some sort of community while being fiercely independent and strong minded. I will try to get something going on this site for low budget traveling families, but there does not seem to be too many out there. I will find them though.

      • Bob L January 27, 2011, 7:34 pm

        “but there does not seem to be too many out there.”

        Quite often, the smaller the group, the more loyal they are. The drive to be part of a unique group is strong in the human race. The problem is, as you say, to find them in the first place.

        Bob L

      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 31, 2011, 12:58 am

        Very true, Bob, very true. You have to find them first and then get along after haha. Two difficult things to do.

    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 27, 2011, 8:36 am

      Thanks David,

      That is what we are trying to do — bringing some little travelers together.

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  • Zablon Mukuba January 28, 2011, 10:34 am

    thanks for the tips, i never knew that children could suffer from attachment disorder

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  • soultravelers3 February 2, 2011, 11:47 pm

    We have been traveling with our child for the last 5 years ( 38 countries on 5 continents so far) on 23 dollars a day per person. We have been traveling with her since she was 2 weeks old, but we didn’t start our open ended world tour until she was 5 because our main motivation was her education and having more time together.

    We found that is is easy to get around these problems and I wrote about it here:


    I don’t believe 3rd Culture kids exists any more as the term was coined in the 50’s when there was only snail mail and super expensive calls which led expats to greater isolation.

    A perpetual traveling family is VERY different than an expat family as well. Money is just part of that equation, they are also not in control of their moves and itinerary. The kids usually go to international schools.

    We purposely waited until our child was 5 and reading well before we started traveling as we wanted her to have strong roots of home, so she has that.

    I grew up moving around a lot and thrived on it, but I also know the down sides first hand, so we do all we can to encourage the good and eliminate the challenges.

    We don’t depend on other traveling families for friendships as that would be too hard as we rarely run into them. We almost never run into other Americans even and we’re lucky to even find English speakers. 😉

    We like having several homes that we return to over and over. We build relationships that way with locals, some expats and some travelers that way. I think it is important for kids to have long term friendships ( more so at school age than in babyhood like your child) as well as being able to make friends easily with kids and people of all ages, speaking many languages etc as we roam. My child is outgoing by nature, but has become an expert now on making friends instantly as well as finding her way on any transportation around the world from subways in London, Paris, NYC to cargo ships and camels.

    We think languages are important and kids can pick them up easily as the brain is more open to them then, but they can also lose them just as quickly. Being fluent in a language conversationally is not the same as being proficient in them for a school or life.

    We are eclectic unschoolers who are big believers in attachment parenting and not fond of schools, but we find dipping into them over a thought out period of time, can be spectacular for deep immersion into a language and culture as well as helping with social attachment for life.

    My child went to a local school in Spain in a tiny white village for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade for 5 months for 5 winters in a row. Most of the kids are Spanish, but there were a few expat kids. She will be bonded with these kids forever as will we all with this village as it is one of our “homes”.

    We also spend a lot of time in Barcelona with a local Spanish speaking family and she is best friends with their child. We’ve been to Barcelona I think 14 times now in our world travels ( it’s a ideal spot price wise and travel jump off place) often for a month or two, so we hang with our friends there each time. When we’re not in Spain we keep in touch with friends online.

    We return to the US about every 2 years ( and family tends to visit us on the off year). My child is still friends with the same kids there that she went to K and 1st grade with ( she started K at 3 so got an early start). On our most recent visit she had a sleep over and many play dates with her best friend there..who carry on as if they were never apart.

    Now we are starting to winter in Malaysia at an all Mandarin school. My child has dear friends here already both in the school and in the neighborhood where we live. She will have these friends forever and we’ll return for many winters until her Mandarin is as fluent as a native in reading, writing and speaking.

    One DOES have to consider these type of things if you choose to travel with a child. There are many ways to do it. Like most things that one “tweaks” for this lifestyle, with thought, research, out of the box thinking, planning etc, it’s easily solved.

    What we do with our children even while they are in the womb DOES impact them. Loving parents are indeed the most important element in attachment, but there are things one can do to support long term friendships as well. These things will become more important as she gets older.

    Most of her memories now will be forgotten. How many baby/toddler memories do any of us have? But building a secure foundation on every level is important and worth the effort. Not many people have a best friend from babyhood through life, but once she gets school age, she will appreciate and benefit from some enduring best friends, especially as she is an “only” and a girl ( who tend to be more interested in relationship issues).

    There are actually some advantages to traveling with an “only” compared to siblings as the siblings tend to just play with each other and the single child is more likely to connect with others as you travel ( and they don’t fight with the sibling) 😉

    Good luck with your inner and outer journey!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 3, 2011, 10:02 pm

      This is a truly great overview of what traveling with a child entails. It seems to me a great strategy to have bases around the world to return to each year so that the kids CAN have lasting, in person friendships. The internet is truly making the traveling family lifestyle a real possibility for more and more people — as it provides not only a way for parents to earn an income but also a way for the children to communicate regularly with friends and family. Video Skype calls have allowed Petra to get to know all of her family members well, though she has only saw most of them in person once or twice.

      I like your approach to schooling as well — using it as a way for a child to learn culture and language but not as the end all of their education. My wife is very opinionated about unschooling or independent education and occasionally works in free schools.

      Thank you very much for sharing this advice, you 3 have pioneered family travel in the modern era.

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