Using Art and Play to Help Your TCKs Express Themselves


The TCK life can be an absolutely wonderful and positive experience and most TCKs would not trade their TCK upbringing; however, it is also not an easy life. I write often about the issues that many TCKs deal with such as grief, identity confusion, anxiety, and rootlessness. In my time working with young TCKs, I've noticed that many often struggle with these complex challenges but don't yet have the words and maturity to understand and express their struggles. Because of this, I allow for a considerable amount of imaginative play and creative art in my program. I have found that this is often the best way to get a glimpse of what is going on below the surface, and often yields an entrance for deeper conversations. I believe this can be a useful strategy for parents of TCKs as well, as they navigate parenting during transitions and while living overseas.

Here is the basic method for doing this at home:

1. Construct Creative Art and Play Times. It is important that you, the parent, create these structured times so that you can be watchful, attentive, and follow up with your child. The play and art that you have your children do should have an underlying purpose and not simply be "free play" (though you may begin to notice themes in their free play time as well). Here are some examples of activities you can instruct you children to do:

  • Draw a picture of a time when you felt super happy and draw another picture of a time when you felt super sad.

  • Sculpt something that makes you feel excited and something that makes you feel scared or nervous when you think about moving (going on furlough, starting a new school, etc.)

  • Create a play with your siblings about when we moved to ____ and perform it for us!

  • Draw some of your favorite things about living here and some things that you miss about your passport country.

  • Choreograph a Dance about how you're feeling right now (how you felt when we moved, how you feel when you think about moving, how you feel about being a TCK, etc.)

  • Paint a picture of what your insides feel like right now.

  • Draw one of your favorite memories of our family.

There are many others that you can think up that are specific to your family and what your TCKs are currently dealing with. The point is to make it fun, but to also have a goal in mind - something to be watching for. A fun idea is to write these and/or other ideas on popsicle sticks, place them in a jar, and allow your children to select one to do from the jar.

2. Pay Attention. You don't have to be a counselor or psychologist to find deeper meaning in what your children display in their art and play. In fact, most children subconsciously want their parents to pick up on their deeper feelings, they just don't know how to properly express them verbally. As your children sculpt, draw, act, dance, or paint, you may notice things that surprise you. For example, when you ask your TCK to paint a picture of what their insides feel like right now, they may choose dark colors and paint jagged and twisted patterns. You might notice that their insides don't "look" very happy. Older TCKs might draw butterflies; a sign that your TCK might feel nervous or anxious about something. If your TCKs direct and perform a play about the move overseas, you may be very surprised to see that their perspective on what took place is very different from yours. When you ask your TCK to draw one of their favorite memories of your family, pay attention to the country where the memory takes place, the people involved, how long ago it took place, etc. Again, this is not "free play" and isn't something for your TCKs to do quietly on their own. Instead, you should be very attentive, asking questions, looking for things that surprise you, and looking for deeper meaning.

I once had a 5-year-old in my program who was moving to the Middle East. I had asked all of the kids to sculpt something that they were excited about and something that made them feel nervous or scared when they thought about moving. When they went around the circle to show the sculpture of what they were nervous or scared about, this little boy showed his sculpture of himself in a bed. When I asked what he had sculpted, he smashed his sculpture with his fist and said, "I'm scared I'm going to get bombed in my sleep." Obviously, this was a serious concern and I was able to address it with his parents who were very surprised as they had never heard him say anything about that. Art and play can bring many things to the surface that might otherwise never be said.

3. Talk About It. Ask questions about your children's art and play. Why did you choose those colors? That looks kind of scary! What is this picture of? What made that your favorite memory? Tell me about your sculpture!

This is where you may have the opportunity to engage in deeper conversations that you may not have had with your TCKs to this point. Art and play opens up the conversations like nothing else I have found. Take the time to talk with your TCKs about their art and ask elaborating questions. You will likely see and hear things that surprise you. Remember to never disregard or shrug off your child's feelings as this may keep them from sharing them again. Instead say, "I didn't realize you felt that way. Those are some big feelings! Let's talk about this some more."

4. Get Help if Needed. Because art and play can bring deep, harbored feelings to light, it is critical that they are taken seriously especially if they indicate thoughts of harm to self or others. If your child seems to focus their art or play on death, destruction, or physical harm of any kind, it may be necessary to seek professional counseling services. If there is nothing available in your area, you may resort to an online option. Unfortunately, I have seen parents shrug off serious concerns, saying, "She doesn't really mean anything by it" or "He's just trying to get attention." Anytime children express thoughts of harm to themselves or others, it needs to be taken very seriously.


Art and play is a wonderful way to help your TCKs express themselves for their own sake as well as yours as a parent. By giving them an outlet, you are helping them to process their complex feelings in a healthy way, and by paying attention to their art and play, you are getting a little window into your child's thoughts and feelings. What you see and learn from your children during these activities may surprise you and will hopefully open the door for honest conversations between you and your TCKs.

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