Numbing Emotions and Feeling Feelings


“We cannot successfully numb emotion. If we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and other emotions that give meaning to our lives.” – Brene’ Brown, Dare to Lead


Numbing emotion is a skill I mastered as a young TCK during the years of transition, loss, and traumatic events. I became excellent at being strong and independent and was seemingly unphased by events that would be grief-inducing for most. The great thing (I thought) about this approach to not grieving, is that it looked very successful. I looked like I was doing quite well despite all that I had gone through. I was not an angry child or teen, I was not turning to substances or unhealthy behaviors, I seemed to be a parent’s dream child – holding it all together through the difficult times, easily adaptable, very good in school, well behaved, etc. I felt like I had successfully usurped the challenging TCK life and had maintained my persona of the perfect missionary kid. Fifteen years, marriage, and two kids later, I realized that my skillful ability to not feel emotion while looking like I was successfully handling life, was actually a very unhealthy coping mechanism that my brain never learned to switch off.

A few years ago, in an interview with a therapist who works with TCKs, he said something that stuck with me. He said that it is not the child who is acting out behaviorally or emotionally that he is usually concerned about - though that child is usually why the parents come to him. It is the child who seems to not be struggling, is very independent, and who the parents aren’t worried about that he is most concerned for. The child who is obviously acting out is at least releasing grief and emotion in some way. The other child, however, is not grieving at all and while that seems fine (and is even easier on the family) at the time, sooner or later it will catch up to them.

Emotional numbing is a common trend for TCKs, especially those who:

  • Feel the need to be/look successful

  • Are naturally independent

  • Are the firstborn and/or have firstborn tendencies

  • Feel they don’t have permission/opportunity to grieve

  • Feel they will let people down if they are not strong

  • Have a deep need and desire to have it all together

  • Have parents who do not demonstrate a healthy grieving process


Some, like me, struggle with this only internally and are able to keep it hidden and contained… for a while. Others may turn to addictive substances and other unhealthy behaviors.

One adult TCK said to me, “I couldn’t handle the intense emotions any other way than by sleeping with any guy that would take me. My emotions were just too intense for me to deal with and I had no other release.”

Like that TCK, the emotions, no matter how well you stuff them, have to eventually come out at some point in some way.

For me, it was the realization of my tendency to turn off emotion during difficult times as easily as flipping a light switch.

As I continue go through the hard process of learning to feel feelings, I am reminded of the importance of caring for young TCKs. By helping TCKs learn to process grief while they are young, you are setting them up for a healthier adulthood - one where they can experience all the feelings: joy, sadness, love, belonging, angst, excitement, etc.

If you are an adult TCK, it is never too late to resolve your unresolved grief and learn how to manage the coping mechanisms that got you through the hard times. Join me in learning to be ok with being in process.

Ready, Set...Wait.

You decide to move overseas.

You make the announcement.

You plan your kid’s schooling.

You sell your stuff.

You rent out your house.

Your friends throw a going-away party.

You go to CultureBound training (shameless plug).



The financial support hasn’t come in.

The visa application is taking forever.

Your son in college isn’t doing well.

The visa was denied.

Your company is reassigning you.

Your house isn’t selling.

Your parent is ill.

For many globally mobile families, this scenario is all too familiar. Plans for relocation are made, the family mentally and physically prepares for a major life change, and then things don’t go according to plan and life is perpetually on hold.

This season of waiting can be one of the most challenging for expat families and especially for the children.

What does raising healthy TCKs look like in this season of waiting?

Create Routine. Child Psychologist Danielle Kaufman says “Building routines with your children helps them feel safe…and provides them with clear boundaries, expectations, and consistency.” This is particularly important when life seems to be out of everyone’s control. The kids know that things are not going according to plan, and don’t know what that means for them. It is important that they have a certain routine that they know they can expect no matter how unpredictable their life is or where in the world they are. This routine is equally as important when you finally move and begin to settle into the new place. Keep in mind that the goal is stability, not rigidity. For this reason, keep the goals general so that they can be replicated anywhere. Examples: Going to play outside each morning instead of going to the park each morning, special breakfast instead of pancake breakfast.

Routines could be:

  • Waking up at the same time each day

  • Eating breakfast together

  • Taking a bath every other night

  • Going to play outside each morning

  • Having an hour of quiet time each afternoon

  • Special breakfast on Saturday mornings

By creating a simple and flexible routine, it can be implemented no matter where in the world you are, and thus create a sense of security and consistency for the children (and the parents) during an inconsistent season of life.

Sign Up. After living in Africa for two years as a young teen, we returned to the US for what we thought was going to be the summer months. When returning didn’t go as planned, we waited, thinking each month that we would be moving back to Africa the next. For a year, this meant moving from place to place (18 houses total), and not getting involved in the community, or signing up for any activities because we “knew” we would be leaving next month. After that year, we realized that we couldn’t keep living in transit and I was finally allowed to sign up for a dance team. Though we were still tentatively going back to Africa, and did a year later, it was so healthy for me to spend that year building community, dancing, and having a routine.

If you are in the waiting period and don’t know how long it will last, let your kids get involved in sports, dance, theater, whatever activity they are interested in. If you end up having to pull them out to move, that is ok. It is better that they were able to do it for a time then not at all. And if, like me, your waiting period goes from one month to two years, you’ll be glad you let your kids sign up for something.

Have fun. Fun is the antidote for stress. The waiting period is no doubt a stressful time and is typically also a time when having fun is not the first thing on your mind. Your kids can feel the stress, tension, and anxiety, and few things relieve it like having fun. During this challenging time, make it a point to have fun with your kids. Play on the floor with them, go outside and run around, go to a theme park, or on a road trip. Bring play, humor, and fun into your waiting period. Stressing won’t decrease the wait, and having fun can certainly make it better for everyone.

A family came to our training after three years of waiting to move overseas. The wait was long and hard. When they finally made it to their destination overseas they realized how essential that waiting period was in their preparation for living overseas. They said,

“We were not ready to live overseas. It was the years of waiting that truly prepared us and we are living healthier lives overseas because of it.”

The waiting season is so hard and I ache for the many families I know who have waited and waited and faced disappointment after disappointment. It can seem, or genuinely be, an endless season of waiting. But, during this season I have seen and experienced the benefits for children of creating routine, signing up for activities, and having fun as a family. I hope these add to your toolbox of raising healthy TCKs - especially during the wait.

Dear Young Adult TCK, What is the Price of Adapting?

“I was a chameleon because I knew that to be exposed, to change to the wrong color at the wrong time, to momentarily forget (or genuinely not know) how to go about life like a competent young adult in my passport culture would be incredibly shameful. “

- The Hidden Shame of the TCK, Lauren Wells

Dear Young Adult TCK,

You are an excellent adapter. But, you know this. You have been praised for this skill your entire life. You are great at adjusting and adapting and you have probably found your chameleon nature to be a valuable and necessary trait. It is one of your many superpowers. But, what is the reason behind this constant adapting? I know for me the reason was shame.

When your adapting is fueled by shame, your primary motivation changes from learning how to live in the culture to constantly hiding any trace that you don’t already know how to live in the culture.

Unfortunately, this shame has consequences.

If your goal is to look like you fit in, to look like you know what to do, to look like you are confidently and competently navigating the culture, then you are simply striving to portray and uphold an image. Not only is this exhausting, but it often prevents true connection and support.

Michele Phoenix, a writer and MK advocate, started a wonderful ministry called the “Harbor Project.” The ministry connects MKs (ages 17-24) with people who can support them, show them how to navigate life in the culture, and to simply offer help and hospitality. This seems like an excellent resource, but even as I was listening to her describe it and thinking “I wish this would have been around during my college years.” I simultaneously thought, “Even if it was, I probably wouldn’t have reached out.” Evidently, I am not alone.

In a podcast interview on TCK Care, Michele said this in regard to the Harbor Project:

“The challenge, I’m finding, is getting MKs to reach out for this kind of connection.”

The Harbor Project has over 200 “harbors” around the world (people who have been vetted, interviewed, and are ready to love on TCKs.) Yet, only about 20 MKs have reached out for connection (Michele Phoenix, 2019).

Why is this?

What keeps you from reaching out?

There could be many reasons, but I would imagine a primary one is the underlying shame. By reaching out, you are admitting that you are not quite as confident and competent as you let on. When your mission is to always look like you know what you are doing, reaching out could only feel like defeat. I understand this feeling.

In my college years, I would have thought, “If I reach out for support, I am admitting to myself that I am not as good of a chameleon as I thought I was.”

Not only is that uncomfortable, it is shameful - especially for a TCK who is praised throughout their life for enviable adaptability.

But, dear TCK, the price to pay for looking like we have it all together is the love and support of someone who knows that we really don’t.

We need people to whom we can ask silly questions about how the post office works, how to use the self-checkout at the grocery store, and how to use (or if you even should use!) the public transit. Someone who lets us hang up our chameleon-suit in exchange for a homemade dinner and great, non-threatening conversation about our many global adventures.  

One of the greatest gifts for a TCK is finding people with whom they don’t need to put on a flawless show of brilliant adaptability.

But, I don’t think the challenge is necessarily finding these people.

The challenge is overcoming the shame that says that reaching out to them is weakness.

So, I challenge you. Consider the reason behind your ever-adapting nature. Then, humbly take advantage of the resources available to help you find your people - the people who will get to know the you underneath your adapting-self.

I know it’s hard, but you can do it. After all, us TCKs are always up for a good challenge.

An Adult TCK who wishes she would have had a harbor.

TCK Care (the podcast) is a platform for increasing awareness of TCK issues by encouraging TCK’s to tell their stories and inviting TCK care providers to share their wisdom, providing expert advise on navigating life as a TCK or caring for members of the TCK community. Visit to listen to the podcast with Michele Phoenix. 

Copyright © 2019 TCKTraining, All rights reserved.

The Hidden Shame of the TCK

TCKs are often referred to as cultural chameleons. They have a wonderfully complex ability to morph into the present culture, environment, and situation. They blend in in a way that makes them look like a native, though they are often anything but.

This trait is a valuable form of protection. It keeps them from always looking like the outsider (though it may not keep them from constantly feeling like one) and it helps them to be successful and accepted in any culture.

I have noticed in my work with TCKs, that it is typically between the ages of 13 to 25 that they take on the most chameleon-like form. In this time period, they are uncomfortably aware of the peering eyes of those around them (real or perceived) and they are simultaneously not yet comfortable in their own skin.

OR, they don’t even know what their own skin looks like because it has changed colors so often.

While this adaptability can be helpful, I have realized in my own life that the reason behind it, especially during those years, went far deeper then just wanting to fit in.

I was a chameleon because I knew that to be exposed, to change to the wrong color at the wrong time, to momentarily forget (or genuinely not know) how to go about life like a competent young adult in my passport culture would be incredibly shameful.

The underlying reason for mastering the trait of adaptability was shame.

For many teenage and young adult TCKs, this shame dictates their life. They put an incredible amount of energy and emotion into looking like they belong out of fear that they will be found out. Out of fear that they will misstep and someone will see it and mentally shame them for their cultural faux pax. Out of fear that people will silently applaud the inner voice that tells them they truly will never fit in.

Shame is not often talked about in the TCK world, though I believe that it is a significant issue for this growing population.

If you are a parent of a TCK, or are working with TCKs, consider bringing “shame” into your vocabulary. Spend a significant amount of time helping your TCK to wrestle through the things that are core to who they are. How do those core traits play out in their life? What do they do because it is a part of who they are, and what do they do out of fear of not blending in with everyone else?

As TCKs mature, they begin to discover their color - the color that doesn’t change out of fear of being found out, but instead the color that they are proud to be wherever they are.

Because of their diverse background, this identity may not look exactly like any one place or people, but it is instead a beautiful and healthy mixture of all the cultures that have made them who they are.

In my own life, this shedding of the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors has been an incredibly shame-reducing, self-esteem building process, but it had to begin with realizing the true reason behind my chameleon nature. Shame.

Let’s work together to expose and tenderly love-out the hidden shame of the TCKs in our lives.