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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 [...]

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.

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

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 87 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3342 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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