The topic of TCKs and grief is one that I see circulating often. We know that TCKs deal with a significant amount of loss. They lose friends, family, places, things, culture, language, familiarity, all at once with a single airplane ride. The majority of TCKs will do this more than once, and most an average of 5 times. This grief of moving from place to place and living in a world where most everyone around you does the same, is the storyline of many TCKs. Then there's the other type of grief that many TCKs endure. TCKs are more commonly exposed to death, poverty, and corruption. Unresolved grief is the most urgent mental health issue facing TCKs, according to Ruth Van Rekken. I believe that educating parents of TCKs is a critical part of the solution to this issue. Often, we look at how to fix problems after they have occurred, but I am convinced that if we arm our TCKs with skills before they need them, they can be used more effectively when the issue arises. We know that nearly all TCKs will experience grief of some sort. Whether it is the grief of transition and goodbyes, or the grief of death, or poverty, or corruption, children need to be equipped to process it in a healthy and effective manner.
So what can you as a parent do to help your child learn to process grief before they are grieving?
Name the Losses.
This is a textbook counseling technique, but I would like to suggest that you, when possible, talk about the anticipated losses before they happen. Before a move, have your children write or draw the things, people, places, events that they will miss. Get them thinking and talking about it. This will help them to begin the process of leaving well. I have noticed that parents often avoid talking about the sad parts of leaving and instead focus on the positives of the destination. There is a time for that, but your TCKs need you to first acknowledge the loss. This is the only way they can begin to process the grief of transition.If you are already living overseas, talk as a family about the things you miss. People, places, foods, smells. Your children need to know that it is ok to talk about what was lost and that you, parent, miss things too.
This step is a critical part of avoiding unresolved grief.
Talk about it.
Foster an environment of open and honest communication. Often it feels taboo to talk about loss and especially death. Your kids need to know that it is an appropriate topic of conversation and they need you to teach them how to talk about it appropriately. They need to feel comfortable talking about the uncomfortable things before they happen, because it will be much more difficult for them to be open after the fact.
Give them Language.
Teach your children to identify emotions. Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child is a fantastic book for this. If they learn from a young age how to identify and name their emotions, it will be significantly easier to do so when they are in the midst of grief. Make naming emotions a part of your daily practice. Here are four basic ways you can do this:
Name your child's emotion. "You seem like you feel....", or "I can see/hear that you are feeling...".
Name the emotions of others. Children's books are great for this. "Look at (character in book's) face. What do you think he/she is feeling?" Or in real life. "Your friend is crying, what do you think he/she is feeling? Is there something you can do to help?"
Replace actions with words. Instead of hitting your sibling say to him/her, "I am frustrated because..."
Routinely ask your children how they feel and help them develop a larger "feeling word" vocabulary. For example, if your child says, "I'm mad!" Say, "Are you just mad? Or are you maybe feeling hurt and frustrated be cause so and so took your toy?"
Watch your Language.
Be very careful to not discredit or deny your child's feelings. This will shut down their willingness to share them with you, especially when they are grieving. Listen, listen, listen. When you respond, be careful to not say "You shouldn't feel..." or "There's no reason to feel..." Often, responding with a question works well. "Why do you feel...?" Remember, your goal is not to fix the problem, it is to help them process their feelings.
Be an Example.
Practice being open with your children about your feelings, when appropriate. Show them how to identify their emotions by identifying your own. "I feel..."
When your child is grieving, it will be critical that they see you demonstrating how to process that grief well, so practice now!
Express Emotion Appropriately.
Equip your children with appropriate ways to deal with their negative emotions. For example: it is ok to be angry, but not ok to hurt people or yourself in your anger. This is an essential skill because, often, anger is the result of many other suppressed emotions. Most of these emotions arise in the midst of grief. In my pre-field children's program, I have the kids make a deck of "Get Out My Angry" cards full of ideas for cooling down when they are angry. Some ideas include: counting to 100, doing jumping jacks, listening to music, praying about it, drawing your anger, taking 5 deep breaths, etc. The idea is to give them helpful tools for working through those negative emotions. Remember that every child grieves differently, so providing them with healthy options can be very effective.
Start Family Meetings.
One of the best ways to create a space for open and honest communication is to have daily family meetings. Have guidelines for your meeting to ensure everyone respects one another. As uncomfortable as it may be, this is a GREAT way to practice talking about your feelings. If you begin doing this daily, then it will be a normal part of your routine, which will make it less of an awkward ordeal when your children are experiencing and processing grief. Talk about you favorite and least favorite part of the day. Practice using feeling words like excited, sad, uncomfortable, scared, worried, thrilled, etc. This will create a space for open communication about deeper subjects than the cheery parts of the day and that is critical when processing grief.
Instead of fumbling through these things when you and your children are in the midst of grief and transition, make them a part of your family life from the beginning. Doing this will make processing grief a much more natural process for your family when a difficult season inevitably comes.
Grief is a tough topic that requires a lot of vulnerability - which most of us are uncomfortable with. However, fostering an environment of trust where your children (and you) can be vulnerable and support one another will not only proactively set your children up for success on the mission field, but also for the rest of their lives. If you are part of raising a new generation of TCKs, let's break the cycle of unresolved grief! Teach your kids how to process their grief in a healthy way so that they can avoid this serious issue and teach their children to do the same.