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.
I've noticed a lot of hype lately around the idea of having a "Family Mission Statement." At first I chalked it up to an unnecessary trend among millennial parents, but as I listened to a podcast this morning (Parenting Great Kids by Dr. Meg Meeker), I suddenly realized that this "Family Mission Statement" idea may be of tremendous value for TCKs. The family mission statement is a short description of the purpose of your family. For example, "The mission of our family is to love each other and to love and serve those in the community around us."
Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and parenting expert says that having a mission for your family to get behind gives children a sense of purpose within the family. It shows them that they belong and are a part of the team.
Purpose and belonging are trigger-words for many TCKs.
When families move overseas, all too often the children feel like they are being pulled along to a life abroad so that their parents can do work or ministry. They are simply extra baggage, or worse, are an inconvenience. This translates to a lack of purpose - a feeling that "I am not needed."
Many TCKs also express a felt lack of belonging. After living overseas, they realize that they don't completely fit into their passport country anymore, but they are also still foreigners in their host country. The question, "Where do I belong?" resounds. Feeling a sense of belonging in the family is a critical component to a child's developmental process.
"Belonging lays the foundation for a strong and resilient sense of self – a self which can be sustained through transitions into the wider world and through subsequent experiences that may be less affirming and inclusive" (Woodhead and Brooker, 2008).
This "strong and resilient sense of self" is a key component of a healthy Adult TCK. By being intentional about giving your TCKs a sense of purpose and belonging within the family unit, you are helping to lay that foundation. Creating a family mission statement is a great, simple way to begin that process.
Creating a Family Mission Statement
1. Hold a family meeting and explain what you are trying to accomplish.
Example: "We want our family to live overseas as a team and for us to have a united purpose that we can all work on together."
2. Brainstorm your family values. Simply start listing them and write them down.
Example: Respecting each other, loving our neighbors, being responsible, being kind, etc.
3. Work together to turn it into a one or two sentence statement.
Example: "The mission of our family is to love and respect one another and our neighbors, to practice responsibility, and to be kind to everyone around us."
4. Put it on the wall
Write your mission statement and put it in a frame, on a bulletin board, on the bathroom mirror - somewhere where you all can see it.
5. Implement it!
The mission statement is pointless if you don't put it into practice. Remind each other of it as you go throughout your days.
Family Mission Statements can be a great tool for any family, but they are particularly valuable for families living overseas. TCKs need to know that they have purpose and that they belong and inside the family unit is a great place for that to be instilled in them.
For more information on family mission statements visit:
Woodhead, M. & L. Brooker. (2008). A sense of belonging. Early Childhood Matters. Bernard van Leer Foundation: Netherlands. - See more at: https://www.familiesforlife.sg/discover-an-article/Pages/The-Importance-of-Family-Acceptance.aspx#sthash.3v5u9ysd.dpuf
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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:
Last week, my husband, myself, and our two kids traveled to the Midwest to visit family and attend the wedding of a good college-friend of ours. The wedding took place near where my husband and I both went to university and this was my first time back to that place since our college days several years ago.
There is something about going back to a place that makes you see it in a new light - through new eyes. If I'm being honest, my memories of our college town are stormy and dark. The thoughts of my time there have always been accompanied by an anxious, sick to my stomach, thank-goodness-I'm-not-there-anymore feeling. If I'm being honest, I was really dreading going back to that place. I was excited for the wedding and elated to see old friends but was not thrilled with the geographical location.
But, Indiana surprised me. As we spent the weekend exploring Indianapolis with our kids, I kept saying to my husband, "Wow! Indiana isn't as horrible as I remembered!"
So why did I remember it that way? Why did I picture a dark, dreary, lifeless place when I would think back on my time in Indiana?
While I do believe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be for university and wouldn't trade the great friendships and amazing husband that I found there, I realized that there were some things that made my college experience very difficult. Things that I never would have considered before arriving at college. Things that I think are likely relevant to most TCKs.
So now, when I talk with parents and their TCKs who are starting to think about and apply for universities, these are the things that I recommend that they explore.
1. A school with a TCK program or group. Because I went straight from Africa to school in Indiana, I was considered an international student. I quickly realized that, in that group, I was the odd one out. The international students were those who came from different parts of the world, but were not American and had, for the most part, never lived in the United States. I, on the other hand, was very familiar with the United States and knew how to grocery shop, open a bank account, dial 911, et cetera, so it was hard to be required to attend these "American Life" classes. While there were great people in that international student group, I didn't feel like I really fit, and it seemed like they didn't think I fit with them in either. Likewise, I found it hard to connect with the majority population of the university who were mostly from the midwestern states and hadn't traveled outside the country. These were the main two groups and I didn't feel like I really belonged in either one of them. Though I did end up making some great friends, it was a difficult process trying to figure out who I was and where I fit. I later found out that there were a few other missionary kids at the university who had similar experiences, but we never crossed paths during our college years because we were all TCKs trying to blend in. I think that things could have been so different for all of us, had we had a TCK group to associate with.
2. A diverse population. Having lived in international communities overseas, I missed being surrounded by people from all over the world. The university had some international students, but there were not very many, and the American student population was not very ethnically diverse. I would also have loved to have had professors from different parts of the world who could offer a more globally-influenced perspective on the topics they were teaching.
3. A multiethnic location. Along with the previous point, the Midwest is not incredibly diverse. Location wasn't something I had ever considered when deciding on a university, but I wish I had. I think that I would have felt more comfortable and less of an outsider had I been in a city that was more culturally diverse. The fact that I had to drive an hour to find an international grocery store and that ethnic restaurants were few and far between, was painful.
4. An option that minimizes debt. Most TCKs end up going into a helping profession, according to David C. Pullock and Ruth Van Reken, (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, 2017). Unfortunately, many helping professions are not the most financially lucrative. This works fine for TCKs (who are generally not interested in wealth), but it does create a problem when they graduate from university with an average of $60,000 in student loans and a career path that can't pay those off in fewer than 25 years.
The bigger issue with this, and something that I wish I would have considered when choosing a university, is the fact that student loan debt ties your feet. Tied feet is many TCK's worst nightmare. No longer are you free to travel, because you have lead ball of student loan bills chained to your foot. Paying bills requires a job, and maintaining a job requires sticking around long enough to avoid looking flakey on a resume. I ended up switching to a community college and finishing up at an online school to reduce the amount of student loan debt I accrued, but if I would have thought to do that from the beginning, I could have significantly reduced the debt that I graduated with and thus would be more financially free to travel.
5. A school and major that allows for travel. I didn't consider, as a young college student, the fact that my TCK-self would have a need for change and travel. If I had, I would have chosen a school and major that required some sort of overseas study program, or an overseas university entirely. I would have also made sure that my degree was one that would yield a career that allows for travel. I ended up changing my major and now am in my dream career that does involve travel and cross-cultural work, but, if I was to go back, I would have started with that trajectory from the beginning- considering that I would want to travel.
Third Culture Kids experience an intense and challenging transition when they leave their globally-mobile lifestyle and head to university. Considering these few things could have eased that transition for me and allowed for a university experience that catered more to my TCK nature. If you are a TCK or parent of TCKs starting to think about university, keep things things in mind as you sift through your university options. While they may not be essentials for all TCKs, I do believe that they are worth considering, exploring, and having conversations about.