Mental Health

Are You Meeting Your TCK's Emotional Needs?

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  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:

http://www.tcktraining.com/blog/narrating-your-childs-feelings/

http://www.tcktraining.com/blog/the-balancing-act-of-dealing-with-anger-and-grief/

http://www.tcktraining.com/blog/using-art-and-play-to-help-your-tcks-express-themselves/

http://www.alifeoverseas.com/7-ways-to-teach-your-tcks-process-grief/

Narrating Your Child's Feelings

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 I have found that my two year-old does better in unfamiliar situations when I narrate for her. When we are on our way to whatever activity it is, I explain, to the best of my ability, what she can expect and what I expect of her.

When talking with TCK counselor, Josh Sandoz, he mentioned the idea of not just narrating expectations, but more importantly, narrating your child's feelings. This is particularly useful when you are moving overseas and entering a land of many unknowns. Young children have not yet learned to reason through their thoughts and feelings, so when they are overwhelmed by them, they can act out or shut down. I have seen many parents surprised at how severely or uncharacteristically their child reacts when moving overseas. Sometimes these behaviors last well into the first year in the new culture or even beyond. Narrating your child's feelings is one way to help them work through the challenges that they don't have the words or maturity to work through on their own and it combats their natural response to act out or shut down.

So what does this look like?

Example 1:

"Wow! That was a really long flight and I'm sure you are very tired. I'm feeling a bit grumpy because I'm so tired, but I bet when we sit down and get some food we will all feel better. How are you feeling, son?"

Example 2:

"Your new school will probably be very different from your old school and that might make you feel a bit anxious and uncomfortable. After you have been there for a while it will probably start to feel more normal, but it is ok to not love it right away."

Example 3:

"When we go to the market, there will probably be a lot of people and because you have light skin and hair, they may touch you. I know that it makes you feel mad when people touch you who you don't know, so when you start to feel that, squeeze my hand and we'll find a place to go and take some deep breaths."

Some things to keep in mind:

1. Choose small, digestible feeling words that your children can grasp. Over time their feeling word vocabulary will expand, but when you are using narration in already potentially overwhelming situations, stick to words that they already know. When they are in more comfortable, predictable situations, look for ways to narrate for the purpose of expanding their feeling word vocabulary. If you do this regularly, then you will have a larger word pool to pull from when you’re in more challenging situations.

2. Don’t assume that you know what your child is feeling. For very young children, you may need to tell them what they might be feeling (see Examples 2 & 3), but with older children, take the time to ask them how they feel in a particular situation. In this scenario, narrating might be describing your own feelings with the intention of normalizing those feelings for your child (see Example 1).

3. Give them permission to feel. Narrating should normalize and validate feelings, not tell them why they shouldn’t feel a certain way. Look at Example 2. In the example, the child’s feeling is acknowledged, validated, and they are given permission to feel negative feelings. It can be tempting to instead say, “Your new school will probably be very different from your old school and that might make you feel a bit anxious and uncomfortable, but there’s no reason to feel that way! You’re going to love it in no time!” While this example may seem harmlessly optimistic, it communicates to your child that they are not allowed, or don’t have a valid reason to feel anxious and uncomfortable. This not only doesn’t take away their negative emotions, but may also keep them from sharing them with you in the future.

4. Provide a solution. See Example 3. The parent foresees that the child may encounter a situation that may be a trigger for anger, but instead of saying, “Don’t get angry.” (which may be difficult or impossible for a child to control and also isn’t healthy), give them a solution (“When you start to feel angry, squeeze my hand and we’ll find a place to go and take some deep breaths”). This teaches them to work through their negative emotions in healthy ways- a practice that has life-long benefits!

 

The purpose of doing this emotional narrating is to normalize and validate your child's feelings, give them an appropriate way to work through that feeling, and show them that you experience uncomfortable and overwhelming feelings as well. While you may not be able to predict what every situation will look like (especially when you are in an unfamiliar culture yourself!) you do know a lot about your child and may be able to anticipate what negative emotional triggers they might encounter. Not only will this help your child, but you may find that this practice helps you to expand your own self-awareness and adaptability, creating an even greater sense of security for your child.

 

Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

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  Everyone who's traveled knows the spiel.

"In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person."

You know you're a TCK when you can write that from memory.

This protocol is not only useful for decompressed aircrafts, but is also an important illustration for parenting children overseas. Parents are often concerned about the wellbeing of their children, as they should be, but it is equally as important for parents to be concerned about their own wellbeing.  If your own oxygen mask is not secured first, then you are not going to be helpful to your child. If your own emotional and physical needs are not well tended, you will not be able to be the parent that your child needs you to be. This is particularly true when you are moving and living overseas.

It can be very easy to sacrifice your own emotions and needs on the alters of productivity and caring for everyone else.  It might even seem more godly, or holy, or selfless, or strong to forgo your own struggles for the sake of your children, but not only is this not sustainable, it teaches your children to do the same.

"An infant’s ability to imitate simple actions, such as sticking out her tongue, comes from the same part of the brain that allows young children to develop empathy." parentingcounts.org

Children are the world's best copy-cats. How you process your own emotions and work through challenging situations directly impacts how your child will do so. This doesn't only impact their "little years" but sets the patterns for the rest of their life. Because adult TCKs deal with a significant number of unique challenges, the way that they learn to deal with emotions at a young age is incredibly important. If a child who lives overseas watches her mother or father ignore their own needs and emotions, she will be more likely to do the same as a child, teenager, and adult. As they imitate you, they are not only learning how to work through their own feelings, but are also developing the ability to empathize with others.

In traumatic or uncomfortable situations, like moving overseas or sitting in a oxygen-leaking airplane, you have the opportunity to choose how you are going to respond. As a parent, the natural response is to get the oxygen mask on your kid, to make sure they are transitioning well, to tend to their grief as they move to a new country, and to help them wade through the uncharted waters of living in a new culture. However, it is critical that this natural response is consciously and continuously reversed and you first take stock of your own emotions and needs.

So, what does "putting on your own oxygen mask" actually look like? 

1. Pause and listen to your thoughts.

2. Name your feelings. Are you frustrated, anxious, nervous, sad, afraid?

3. Ask the "Why?" What is the source of these feelings?

4. How is that feeling affecting you? Are you more short with your children? Are you slamming doors? Is your tone of voice different because of your feelings?

5. Respond. Now that you have taken stock of your current emotion and how it might be affecting you, work through it. Do you need a good cry? Some alone time? A cup of coffee? Find a way to tend to the emotion in some fashion. Avoid ignoring it, and instead work through it in a healthy way. Perhaps even say to your child, "Mommy/daddy is feeling a bit frustrated right now and needs to take some deep breaths and drink a cup of tea. Would you like to do that with me?" This is the process of putting on your own oxygen mask, so to speak, so that you can then tend to your child's needs more effectively.

 

When you, the parent, are going through the transition of moving to a new country or working through the challenges of living overseas, don't hold your breath and push through it for the sake of helping your child. Instead, put on your own oxygen mask first, take a deep breath, and then tend to your child. The chances of long-term emotional survival are much higher for both the parent and the child when the parent is willing to do the work of tending to their own needs.

 

A TCK's Struggle with Depression- Guest Post

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  By Aneurin Howorth

I grew up in East Africa to British parents. Despite how much I loved being a TCK, not everyone was so fortunate. A significant portion of my international school, comprised of  mostly TCK’s, were struggling with mental illnesses. As a result, every year we sat through seminars on mental illness. These covered the basics of what depression was, how it is a physical illness, how to get help etc. There was more to it, but bad memory is one of the symptoms I struggle with, so that is all I can remember.

These seminars really helped me get through my first brush with mental illness. I had had a concussion playing rugby and one of the symptoms was depression. In the space of a second I had gone from naively optimistic to someone who couldn’t stop feeling the weight of misery. All I wanted to do was cry. I felt so lonely. This ended abruptly after two weeks, but was a valuable experience before going to the UK for university.

17-year-old me had never appreciated the stress that transition causes. I moved to a country where I didn’t know anything about the culture. I didn’t know how to make friends or even how to greet people. Should I shake their hands? Everyone else had grown up knowing these things and so took them for granted, they were just ‘natural.’ One of my friends hugged people when she first met them. This totally freaked me out because it would not have been culturally appropriate in some of the places where I had lived. Despite the challenge, things went fairly well. I knew transition wouldn’t be easy, and I had been prepared.

However, my second year in university was filled with torment and anguish. After about four weeks into my second year, I realized that I was constantly sad, tired, had no appetite, and was feeling hopeless. Thanks to those depression seminars at school I picked up on what was going on, but that didn’t stop the pain.

I felt trapped. All of my emotions revolved around anger and hatred. This wasn’t what I was like before and it was a horrible change. I was constantly angry with others. I wanted to be free of it, but didn’t know how. Happiness became a distant dream which had been exchanged for a torrid nightmare.

As a TCK moving into a new environment, it can be difficult to make deep, meaningful relationships. It can seem pointless because we might just move again. It can be easy to look forward to the next move in life which means we forget those in our current place. We can close off as defensive mechanism. Whilst we might have great social skills, like I did, we can still struggle to be satisfied in our relationships. All of this becomes even more challenging if we are heading to a country, usually our parents, where we are hidden immigrants. Where we look the part, but don’t actually belong.

Depression seemed to pick up on each of these challenges and make them far worse. I started to hate the people around me and grew frustrated with them daily. I longed for the next move when I could be finished with the UK and see my friends from school again. The relationships I had at university paled in comparison to the ones with my TCK school friends, so why bother with them? I was probably going to move anyway. I kept trying to make friends with people, but it seemed futile. I felt that they would never understand me, which only added to my despair.

I resented that I was British. My depression latched on to this and made it far worse. I slipped into hours of sitting there pondering all the ways in which I hated British culture. I could no longer see the positives of a culture like I had done for years- only the broken, evil parts seemed visible.

Being ill with depression gave me an excuse to be isolated. I grew incredibly bitter towards all of my friends at university who didn’t understand me. These negative thought patterns usually led me to think lies about how narrow-minded and arrogant everyone was in the UK. As you can imagine, this didn’t help me make friends, but pushed them away.

I knew I was different as a TCK. But until I had depression I had seen that as a blessing. When mental illness struck, my mind twisted my difference into a bad thing. Either I was arrogantly dismissing everyone else’s’ experience, or I was looking at myself as a monster for the pervasive indifference that now characterized my life. I felt overwhelmed and scared. I couldn’t articulate emotions or understand what was happening in my life.

I was lucky to have good friends who were worried that I was ill all the time. They kept bugging me to go to the doctor, even when I hated them. After a year of this, I managed to start doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which helped stop the negative thought patterns. Medical and professional care is crucial when it comes to mental illnesses.

One of the most significant points in my life, both in terms of understanding being a TCK and suffering from mental illnesses, was being put in touch with a 50 year-old surgeon and TCK called John. I learned from him that suffering from mental illnesses is ok. It is normal and not just for weak people. In a caring and gentle fashion, he articulated some of my torment whilst acknowledging the depths of its challenge. He shared his own story which was tough but encouraging. He helped me understand how trying transition is. I had been trying to dismiss it, but he helped me face up to it. He was the first person I had met in the UK who could understand me as a TCK struggling with mental illness. After years of isolation this was immensely encouraging.

I now know that mental illnesses are common like a cold. I also know that TCK’s are more prone than monocultural people to suffer from them. These illnesses are often our body’s response to traumatic events. The curse of our international lifestyle is that it is almost always filled with trauma. Every move cuts us off from relationships, languages, culture, places, potential etc. Any of these on its own is difficult enough and leaves lasting damage, but all of them together is brutal. And this is just the trauma caused by transition, not including any trauma we have individually experienced.

I think being a TCK is amazing, but it needs to be done well. There are many challenges that need to be navigated, things like the challenges of transition or unresolved grief. We are a remarkably resilient people group, but we always need to get help from others, particularly when it comes to mental illnesses.

Aneurin blogs regularly at noggybloggy.com 

The Challenge of Subconscious Expectations (Part 2: Conversations to Have with Your TCKs)

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Read Part 1 here We have identified that subconscious expectations are the root cause of many issues that adult TCKs deal with, so how can we proactively address those hidden expectations in young TCKs?

Overseas living is not "better than" 

It is easy for children who grow up overseas to develop a "better than" mentality. This may present as a quiet (or obvious) arrogance and thus, fostering humility in your young TCKs is incredibly important. The other, more hidden side of this, is an instilled belief that their lifestyle- living overseas- is superior to any other way of life. TCKs are often told their whole lives how lucky, blessed, unique they are because of their global upbringing. They are constantly reminded of the incredible opportunity that they have to live in different places around the world and not be "normal" like someone who has been raised in only one country. While overseas living is absolutely a unique and wonderful experience for TCKs, what happens when they grow up and are expected (either by themselves or by parents) to flawlessly settle into a life lived in a single country? Or they expect to recreate their overseas upbringing and find that it is not what they had expected?

There are Pros and Cons

Have conversations with your children about the benefits of different lifestyles. Emphasize that while your family is living overseas and is enjoying many aspects of that lifestyle, that does not mean that it is "better than" any other. There are absolutely challenges that come with it as well. Your goal with these conversations is to simply level out the expectations by talking about the pros and cons of different ways of life.

"Yes, it is wonderful that we live overseas! What are some of your favorite parts about living here? What are some hard things about living here?" "What would it be like if we lived back in our passport country and had never lived overseas? What would be some good things about that? What things might be hard?"

Talking about the positives and negatives of different lifestyles helps your TCKs to not settle into a belief that if they eventually live one lifestyle and not another they are missing out. They are simply trading one pros and cons list for another. Many adult TCKs, after realizing that they are unsatisfied with how their life is playing out, think, "If I just moved there, everything would be better." But, then they move there and realize that there are still challenges. Or, they realize that they do not have the ability to move "there" and resort to the fact that they will just never be happy. Subconscious expectations about the "ideal" lifestyle will ultimately zap the joy out of any lifestyle. TCKs stuck in that rut will always be searching for the "better than" way of life that they felt they had growing up and will ultimately find that they cannot recreate it. They have to create their own and accept (and expect!) that there truly both positives and negatives to any.

Growing Up

It is also important to talk with your TCKs about what life might look like for them when they grow up. What are they interested in pursuing as a career? Does that career lend itself to living overseas again? If not, is that truly a door they want to close? Do they want to live in one place long-term? What happens when their mental alarm clock goes off after 3 years in the same place and they have the itch to move and start over? What happens if they marry someone who never wants to move? Children and teenagers can be fickle and short-sided and that will likely affect their answers to these questions. That is ok! Your goal is not to help them create the perfect trajectory for their life, but simply to get them thinking about how career choices, college choices, relationship choices, etc. will have a direct impact on the lifestyle that they end up living. These conversations are meant to bring these subconscious expectations out of hiding so that they are easier for your TCK (and you) to identify when they start to creep up in adulthood. If they have thought through these questions at different points throughout their life, it will be less of a shock and less of an identity crisis when they have to answer them in adulthood.

Subconscious expectations, because they often go unnoticed, can wreak havoc on the life of an adult TCK. It is, therefore, most important to bring these expectations into the light so that they can be considered and managed well. As you raise up your TCKs or work with TCKs, having conversations about lifestyle expectations can be hugely beneficial to helping them mentally connect the dots when they, one day as adults, realize that they really do have expectations about how their life "should" go. It is incredibly freeing for many adult TCKs to realize that there isn't one perfect lifestyle that they have to find in order to live a fulfilled life. Instead, they learn that any lifestyle has both its benefits and challenges and that their life just might end up looking different than what they had subconsciously expected.