This time of year tends to be a "mass exodus" as many overseas workers return to their passport country on furlough or "home assignment.” This can be an exciting time as you and your children anticipate seeing old friends, visiting grandparents and other family members, going on mini vacations, and more. But, it can also be a challenging time for both you and your TCKs, as it is yet another transition.
It may seem unnecessary to prepare your kids for furlough, after all, your just going "back home,” right? Unfortunately, no. It is much more complex than that, and it would be to your child and family's benefit to be equally as vigilant about preparing your children for home assignment as you were in preparing them to move overseas. No matter the length of your home assignment, it will likely still be another challenging transition for your TCKs.
Here are some ways that you can prepare your TCKs for home assignment:
1. Be clear about your expectations. Home assignments are often filled with church visits, business meetings, support raising dinners, visits to friend's houses, etc. Make sure that you and your children know what is expected of them. Do you expect them to go on stage with you every time you speak at a church? Are they expected to be at every dinner with supporters or business colleagues? What manners do you expect when they're at grandma's house for dinner? Make sure that your expectations are first decided upon with your children's best interests in mind (not your ministry or job's) and then make sure that you articulate those expectations to your children. This not only helps them to mentally prepare, but also helps you as parents to be able to remind them about those expectations if an issue arrises.
For example: Your expectation for visiting churches could be, "you have to come with us to church, but you can choose whether or not you come up on stage with us and you can choose whether you sit in the adult service or go to children's church." By doing this, you limit the chances of having a major battle on Sunday morning because your children already know that you expect them to attend church with you. By also giving them choices, you give them a sense of control which can be very healthy in this season when they likely feel like that they have very little.
2. Talk about how things in their passport country may have changed. Young children have an especially difficult time understanding that life goes on after they have left a place. It can come as a shock to them when they return to their passport country to find that their friends have made new friends, old games or movies aren't popular anymore, friends don't enjoy doing the same things they did before, people moved away, grandparents moved into a different house, they hardly know anyone at church anymore, etc. Before you leave, your children will likely talk about all of the things that they are looking forward to doing and people they are looking forward to seeing. Encourage this, but also gently remind them that things may be different than they were when they left. This will help them to mentally prepare and be less likely to receive an unwelcome surprise when things aren't as they had expected.
Here is an example of what you might say: "I know you're really excited to see your friend Josh. Just remember that Josh probably made some new friends while you've been gone, just like you have made new friends since we've lived here! Maybe you will get to meet Josh's new friends and all of you can play together! "
3. Give them some input. Let your kids have a say, where possible, in the things that you do while on home assignment. Give them choices of who they spend time with, let them have input and participation in a church presentation, ask for their destination preferences for mini vacations, etc. Allowing them to take some ownership in the decisions about what happens while on home assignment can be very healthy for TCKs. This goes back to the importance of having some control. Your children will experience reverse culture shock to some extent, and an excellent way to positively combat this is to help them feel a sense of control. Give them choices where you can.
4. Prepare them for reverse culture shock. Reverse culture shock is a real thing and it is often worsened by not expecting it. Many TCKs are very excited for home assignment. They are excited for all of the people they will see and all of the things they will get to do. They likely don't realize how different "home" will feel than what they remember leaving. After living in a new culture, things won't feel the same and this may bring disappointment, especially if it is their first time returning to their passport culture after living overseas. Again, gently reiterating this possibility can soften the blow, so to speak, when they experience reverse culture shock.
5. Remind them how much they have changed. Since living overseas, your children have become TCKs. One of the biggest shocks for TCKs is returning to their passport country, where they supposedly belong, and discovering that they don't fit in. This can lead to a bit of an identity crisis. Before you go, talk with them about the ways they might have changed because of living in a different culture. Remind them that they may not feel like they fit in, even though they are supposedly going "home",and that this feeling is normal. If you have used the term "heritage" instead of "home" as I suggest in a previous post, you have already begun to prepare them to combat the disillusionment that their passport country will feel like "home".
I remember our first home assignment after living in Africa for two years. We attended our American church's annual "family camp", to which we had gone each year before moving to Africa. I was so excited, but quickly realized that I didn't fit in with the girls that I had been friends with as a child. We didn't talk about the same things, value the same things, find humor in the same things. I remember sobbing in the tent wondering what was wrong with me. I wish I had known that I was simply a TCK and was experiencing a very normal TCK experience. I may have had more confidence in myself had I known that what I was feeling was typical for many TCKs, instead of assuming that my personality was the problem. If I had known what to expect, I would likely have felt less surprised and crushed by the fact that I didn't "belong".
6. Be their advocate. Tell your TCKs that you will be their advocate. Reinforce that if they are having a difficult time at any point during home assignment, they can talk with you about it and you will listen. Your TCKs need to know that you are on their team, will be a listening ear, and will stand up for them whenever necessary. For some TCKs, it is incredibly difficult when people in their passport say, "welcome home!" upon arrival. Be willing to advocate for them. If people say that, and you know that your children don't feel that their passport country is "home", gently explain to people that it doesn't really feel like home for your kids. If your long-time supporters want your whole family to come over for dinner, but your kids have had 3 supporter dinners that week and are exhausted, kindly tell your supporters that you will absolutely be there, but the kids won't be joining. Home assignment can be a very busy time, filled with many expectations from family, supporters, churches, friends, and more. Decide before you leave that you will ensure that your family's needs are the first priority and inform your kids of this decision.
While intentionally preparing your children for home assignment won't take away the challenges, it will keep your TCKs from being as blindsided by them. Children fare better when they know what to expect and by preparing them as best you can before your home assignment begins, you can increase the likelihood that your time in your passport country will be a refreshing and positive experience for your whole family.