The life of a Third Culture Kid is not a simple one. Wonderful, enriching, colorful, and filled with incredible life-altering experiences, absolutely. But certainly not neat and tidy, or without its share of troubles.
My dear friend and her husband have recently become global workers and are heading overseas next year with their 18 month-old boy in tow. This past summer they attended a training where they spent two weeks with a great group of people from their organization, which included families with other little kids around the age of their son. They developed close friendships in this short time.
As they left their training, my friend called me and said, "It was so hard to leave people that we just spent two weeks befriending, knowing that we might not ever see them again. And then I realized, this is the life that we're signing up for. And not just us— this is the life we are signing our son up for as well."
Around the same time, we (CultureBound) finished up our summer culture and language training for families. One of the little girls in my class, a 4-year-old, was having a difficult time during the first couple of days and didn't want to make friends. She had moved overseas and back to the US before, and though she is only 4, she knows what it feels like to make friends and then have to leave them. I think that she sensed this coming. But, sure enough, by the end of the week she was best buddies with the other girls in the class.
As she finally began to make friends, I felt the tension along with her. I was silently cheering her on, but also dreading the goodbyes I knew she would have to say in a few days. Her subconscious fears that kept her from making friends at first were not incorrect. In fact, they were incredibly accurate.
This tension is very real. By choosing the TCK life for your children, you really are signing up for a life of goodbyes. There is no sugar-coating it. It is hard.
So how can I endorse this?
This is something that I wrestle through regularly. Why do I think that this is a good idea? Why do I encourage parents who are signing their family up for this life?
In some ways, the TCK-life isn't something that I want to promote. Having been that child myself, I know how hard those goodbyes are. BUT, I also know that so many of the good things in my life can be traced directly to my time overseas.
I have experienced the most profound growth, the deepest relationships, the most incredible experiences, and the best opportunities because of my life as a TCK and nearly every TCK who I have met expresses a similar sentiment.
By signing up for a life overseas, and consequently signing your children up for the life of a TCK, you are not choosing the easy route for you or for them. BUT, you are choosing a life that will give your children a love for the world, for diversity, and for justice. It will give them a unique perspective, cultural savvy, great communication skills, and multi-cultural friends all over the world. Yes, signing up for a life of goodbyes is terribly hard, but if I had to go back and choose my own life trajectory, I would sign myself up for the TCK-life again. This gives me the strength and joy to encourage parents to do so also.
Babies communicate their needs with their first cry and continue to do so in different ways as they grow and develop more complex methods of communicating. When these needs are met by loving parents, children feel safe, secure, and are likely to thrive developmentally. When these needs aren't met, a breeding ground is created for behavior problems, relational problems, mental health disorders, and many other issues. It can seem like these "needs" are purely physical, but that is only a part of it. The other equally important part, is the more ambiguous realm of emotional needs.
The challenge that I often run into when discussing the topic of "unmet needs" with parents of TCKs is that they, most often, are wonderful parents who have done a fantastic job of meeting their children's emotional and physical needs and therefore, they don't think that this will be an issue. Unfortunately, I believe that this contributes to why the issue of "unmet needs" is so prevalent among TCKs. During high-stress seasons (such as transitions to and from living overseas), the children's need for emotional support goes up while their parent's mental and physical capacity to meet their children's needs (and even their own!) goes down. This often results in stressed-out parents who have children with unmet emotional needs. Even the most fabulous, attentive parents can run into this challenge if it is not consciously combatted.
When entering a new culture, the parents themselves are in "survival mode" for a while; attempting to find their footing in an entirely new culture. The children are simultaneously relying on these culture-stressed parents for assurance of safety, security, and emotional stability as they also attempt to find a new normal. Unfortunately, this combination can often result in the children subconsciously feeling as if their emotional needs are not met. Not only is meeting the emotional needs of children critical in the child's own health and development, but if a child's emotional needs go routinely unmet throughout their childhood, it is likely to affect their own parenting one day, thus creating a vicious generational cycle. (This is a common issue that we are seeing in Adult TCKs as they become parents themselves.) By looking at ways to address emotional needs during the child's life spent overseas and particularly during the transition to and from living overseas, parents can prevent this cycle from occurring and strengthen their relationship with their TCK.
So, how can you be intentional about identifying and meeting the emotional needs of your TCK?
1. Be Sensitive. You know your children and can sense when they are "off," but sometimes the stress of moving can cause parents to forget to pay attention to their children's emotions. Be sensitive and mindful to what they may be feeling and be willing to take the necessary actions to respond well to those feelings.
2. Know your children. Are they introverted? Extroverted? Independent? Anxiety-prone? How might these things play into their emotions during a move? Has your introvert had too much people-time? Does your independent child feel like they're expected to be strong and independent so they don't burden you? Does your anxious child feel stressed about the upcoming plane ride? Only by knowing your children can you really identify what their emotional needs are.
3. Them-Care. This is the best phrase that I can come up with for doing self-care for your children. Young children are not in tune with their emotions enough to know what they need in order to recharge, and older children may need to be coached through self-care. Figure out what your children need to recharge themselves and then help them to do that. This is particularly important during transitions. Does your introvert need some alone time? Is your other child recharged by quality time with you? Does another need some extra snuggles? Time exploring the outdoors? Do you all need a restful pajama day?
4. Listen for the needs. It can be easy when you are under stress, to hear what your children say, but not realize the underlying meaning to their words. Often, emotional needs are communicated very indirectly. So, when your child says, "Will you play with me?" Perhaps what they really mean is, "I need quality time with you." Or, when your other, introverted child has an outburst because they don't want to go to another event in the new place, maybe they are saying, "I've met so many new people and that makes me so tired! I just need some alone time to recharge!" Listen for the needs and then find ways to help them with their own self-care.
5. Don't forget yourself. In order to meet your children's emotional needs, it is important that you are also in-tune with your own emotions and needs. Your children need to see self-care modeled in order to understand the importance and process of meeting their own emotional needs. I've written more in-depth about this here.
It takes extra time and energy to tune in and be sensitive to your children's needs, especially when you yourself are struggling to find your footing in the midst of transition. But, it is so important that you are meeting their emotional needs. Not only does it help to foster your relationship with your children, but it sets them up to be people who can identify their own needs, and eventually the needs of their own children. So, what do you need? What do they need? How can you be intentional about meeting your children's emotional needs during transition?
Read more about working through emotions with your TCKs:
The term "hidden losses" is one that I have seen circulate abundantly and frequently in the Third Culture Kid world. The concept is that much of the TCK's grief stems from losses that are neither obvious nor acknowledged. These hidden losses often remain buried in the underground parts of the TCK, creating a toxic soil that results in unresolved grief, another all-to-common TCK phrase. Unfortunately, the sprouts of these seeds of hidden losses inevitably spring up to the surface sooner or later in destructive and unhealthy patterns. This most commonly happens when a TCK reaches adulthood.
As always, my question is: How can we prevent this???
How can parents of TCKs (and those who work with TCKs) uncover these "hidden losses" so that they can be called out, acknowledged, and productively and preventatively worked through?
First, we need to realize what these hidden losses commonly are. (The following list comes from the 3rd Edition of "Third Culture Kids" by David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock.)
Loss of their world. TCKs lose everything they know, all at once, with an airplane ride. This often happens repeatedly and sometimes without warning.
Loss of status. Not only to TCKs lose their world, but they lose their sense of place in it. They no longer know where they fit and what they have to offer as a person in each new culture.
Loss of lifestyle. The daily routines, housing type, and way of life often change nearly instantaneously with each move.
Loss of possessions. This doesn't only include favorite toys that are left behind, but also "things that connect TCKs to their past" (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, pg. 88). These could be dishes, their bedding, the Christmas table cloth that signaled the holiday season, Dad's favorite rocking chair, etc.
Loss of relationships. Whether they are the ones leaving or being left, TCKs often lose friends routinely. They are also more likely to have disrupted relationships within the nuclear family (siblings at boarding school, parents traveling for work or ministry, grandparents a continent away, etc.)
Loss of a past that wasn't. Birthday parties missed, not graduating with the high school class they started with, not being close with friends and family in the passport country. All the things that they would have been a part of if they hadn't moved away.
Loss of the past that was. Being unable to go back to the past as they remember it. People have moved on, the physical place may no longer be accessible, there is no tangible way to remember the life that happened in a certain place.
"The real issue is that in these types of invisible losses, where the tangible and intangible are so inextricably intertwined, no one actually died or was divorced, and nothing was physically stolen. They were all surrounded with so much good." (Third Culture Kids, 3rd Edition)
Hidden losses often remain hidden in the TCK's life because they go unacknowledged by the parent either purposefully (to avoid talking about the "sad stuff") or unintentionally (because they may not be as obvious or impactful to the parent).
While parents cannot prevent these losses from taking place-they are an inevitable part of the TCK life, I believe they can be intentional about bringing them out of hiding and thus, preventing the unresolved grief issue that is the result of letting these losses remain hidden.
Here are some simple, but key ways you can gently shed light on the losses that your TCK has experienced.
Talk about it. I have worked with many parents who were afraid to talk about these losses for fear of reminding their children of the sad things, bringing up a loss that their child hadn't even thought of, causing their children to wish they weren't TCKs, or causing their children to blame them (the parents), the work their doing, or God for the challenges. Unfortunately, by not talking about them, you only enforce the subconscious idea that they aren't significant losses and should be ignored. By bringing them up gently with your child, you can help them to connect their feelings of grief to tangible (and valid!) reasons for that grief. Many times, TCKs simply need to know that there are legitimate reasons behind their seemingly intangible sadness, and thus, know that it is ok to be sad.
Comfort. Comforting is not providing encouragement, but rather sitting with your kids in the midst of their pain. Depending on your child's personality, the most comforting things can be as simple as a hug, a meaningful gift, or a listening ear. The purpose is not to fix, but to let them know that you care, understand, and validate their feelings.
Be Aware. By simply being aware, parents can prevent unresolved grief from accompanying these hidden losses. Parents may have never thought about these losses being so grief-inducing for TCKs, or perhaps just never connected words and specific losses to the struggles they have seen in their TCK. Awareness does not take away the losses, but it does give the parent a more clear window into what their child might be going through.
Be open about your own losses. The losses that you have experienced through moving and living overseas may not be the same as those your children have experienced but, by you talking about them, it tells your TCK, "It is ok to be sad about these things!" This is also a great way to spark conversation about the hidden losses. As you are folding your new bed sheets, fresh out of the dryer (or off the clothes line) say, "Sometimes I really miss the sheets I had back in California." "Do you ever miss your bed and your old bedroom?" These simple conversation starters tell your child that it is ok to think about these things, talk about these things, and cry about these things.
Unresolved grief most often occurs because of lack of awareness of the losses, lack of permission to grieve (believing the losses aren't or shouldn't be a big deal), and lack of example (people in their life showing them effective ways of dealing with grief). Parents can and should be intentional with their children in each of these areas. By putting words to your child's losses, communicating to them through comforting words and actions that it is ok to be sad about these things, and displaying what a healthy version of coping with grief looks like, you can help your TCK bring these "hidden losses" out of hiding.
We are wrapping up our first teen pre-field training program after a fantastic two weeks of practicing culture and language-learning skills. At the end of last week, we had an intense and wonderful lesson, full of deep conversation, about leaving and grieving. One topic that came up was the difference between diffusing anger and processing grief. There was some confusion about the difference between the two. The concepts may look similar, and may use similar methods, but they are absolutely not the same. In fact, doing one at the expense of the other can lead to a host of unresolved grief issues, a leading mental health issue in adult TCKs according to Ruth Van Rekken. As a parent of TCKs, it is critical that you understand and practice both.
Diffusing anger takes your mind off of the negative emotions; processing grief allows for time to dwell on the negative emotions. Both are important and teaching your kids to do each strategically can be a bit of a balancing act.
Anger is often the outpouring of deeper, more complex emotions such as loneliness, stress, tiredness, sadness, etc. When your child is acting out in anger, keep in mind that there is very likely a deep, underlying cause for their outbursts. While anger is an allowed and acceptable emotion, it is not acceptable to hurt yourself or anyone else in your anger. Thus, it is important to have a toolbox of ways to diffuse that anger. The "Get Out My Angry Cards" are a great tool for this. Here are some other ideas:
- Do 15 jumping jacks
- Take a walk
- Listen to music
- Take a shower
- Read a book
- Work on an art project
Remember, the purpose of diffusing anger is to get your mind off of the trigger that is causing the anger. The above suggestions are meant to help your child "cool down" and distract themselves from whatever is making them angry so that they are mentally ready to delve into those deeper emotions.
Thus, diffusing anger can be a first step to grief processing. Often grief is realized through anger. Your child may express anger without acknowledging the deeper underlying emotions and in order to successfully process those deep, more complex emotions, they first need to diffuse their anger so that they can calmly and rationally begin the grief processing. It is almost always ineffective to try to help your child work through their grief while they are actively angry.
The reason that so many TCKs suffer from issues related to unresolved grief is because they never move from the distraction techniques of diffusing anger and onto the more introspective, more difficult, grief processing. They spend their childhood and young adult life getting their mind off of the negative feelings when they arise and never take the time to strategically dwell on them in order to process their grief.
Grief processing sounds complex, but it is a simple concept that is just as important and effective for a 4 year old as it is for a 60 year old. It is simply allowing yourself to think through the "whys" of your negative emotions. Your young TCKs will need more hands-on help to process these big emotions and there are some ideas for that here. Your older TCKs will likely be inclined to process more independently, though it is still critical that you intentionally encourage them in this as it will not likely happen naturally. Here are some ways to process grief:
- Find a quiet place to sit and think
- Write a song
- Talk with a friend or parent
- Pray about it
- Take a walk and think
The point of grief processing is to take the time to think about the negative emotions, why you feel that way, and if there is anything that needs to be done to move on. It is not a fun process and most of us try to avoid those hard, deep feelings, but it is so incredibly important. If you are intentional about teaching your TCKs to diffuse their anger, process their grief, and the difference between the two while they are young, you will be well on your way to setting them up to be emotionally healthy kids, teens, and adults.