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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 

5 Tips for Leaving Well With Teenagers

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  Moving overseas with teenagers can be daunting for both the teen and their parents. Having personally moved overseas as a young teen, I can speak to the challenges of uprooting and rerooting during that season of life. One of the most significant factors to making that transition as healthy and smooth as possible, is being intentional about leaving well. Unlike small children, teens will vividly remember the leaving process and I believe that, for this reason, doing so in a healthy way is critical for them to grow into healthy Adult TCKs.

1. Say Goodbye Well. Help your teenagers to say goodbye well. I have noticed that this doesn't often happen with teenagers because the assumption is that they will return to their passport country before long. It is important to keep in mind that while your teenager may only live overseas with you for short time, in that short time, a lot is happening both for them and their peers back home. They will not return to the way that life was and that is a significant loss. Their friends will likely be starting at different colleges in different places, they will likely not be returning to the home that they left, they will be returning as an adult, and their peers will also have recently "launched". They are leaving during one of the most change-filled seasons of life so while it may be a short time-period, it is an incredibly significant time-period. Saying goodbye to their current life well will help them to start a healthy life when they return as an adult. 

The RAFT concept, written about by Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds is a great tool for leaving well. Marilyn Gardner presents it beautifully here.

2. Make it a Family Conversation. If possible, talk with your teenagers about the move overseas and ask for and listen to their input. While you, the parents, will make the final decision, it is important to let your teenagers know that you care about their opinion on this significant life-changing decision.

3. Don't Blame Hormones. While it can be easy to think of teenage hormones as the culprit for their moodiness or extra-emotional state, remember that while hormones may accentuate the grief of leaving, they do not make that grief any less real. Teenagers are experiencing an extreme loss when they move overseas and often aren't simply "acting like a teenager" when that grief  comes out in seemingly exaggerated ways.

4. Take them Seriously. Along with not blaming hormones, it is important to take your teens seriously when they express points of grief or concern to you. While missing Junior Prom might not seem like a big deal to you, it very well may for your teen. Be careful to not downplay their sources of grief or worse, make fun of them for it.

5. Provide Options for Goodbyes. I worked with a teenage girl who was about to move to Asia. She wanted to do something special to say goodbye to her best friend and after talking through some options, she decided that she wanted to make her a scrapbook. We printed pictures of the two of them, shopped for scrapbook paper and stickers, and she made a beautiful keepsake for her friend. Other teens might want to have a pizza night with their close friends before they leave, go to the movies with a group of friends, have a sleepover, etc. Encourage them to think of a way to say "goodbye" to their friends and help them to make it happen. It is incredibly important.

Teens are not only moving overseas and becoming TCKs, but they are doing so at a complex time in life. The success of their transition has a direct effect on their health as Adult TCKs when they are no longer living under your roof. By being intentional about leaving well, you will strengthen your relationship with your teen and ease the transition overseas for your entire family.

10 Questions to Routinely Ask Your TCKs

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  It is important for parents raising children anywhere to be continually engaging and checking in with their kids. When you are raising TCKs, this is even more important.  TCKs are privy to struggles that mono-cultural children don't often have to face, so being aware of that and taking time to routinely ask questions such as these can strengthen your relationship and show your kids how much you love and value them.  Set aside time routinely to talk with your TCK. Ensure that this time is not tainted by distractions and that you are not attempting to multitask, but instead be fully engaged and interested in their answers. If these types of conversations are not something you have had with your TCKs in the past, it may take a few times before they truly trust that you care about their answers and that they are safe to answer honestly. For this reason, it is critical to create a safe space for them to speak openly. Listen and encourage them to explain their answers or elaborate, but be careful to not be too pushy or to respond in a way that invalidates their answer. Remember that the purpose of asking these questions is not to provide a solution, but to open up the communication between you and your child. You might ask your TCK all of these questions, or just have them on hand to ask one or two when you're spending time with your child.

1. How are you doing?

It seems simple, but asking this question is one of the best ways to show your kids that you care. Make is clear that there isn't a right answer and that it is ok if they really aren't doing "just fine."

2. What are some things that you enjoy about living here?

Their "favorites" may be different than you expect!

3. Do you ever wish that we lived a different life? 

It's important to help your TCKs process the life that they are living. It is unique and it wasn't of their choosing. It's healthy for them to think through this question and for you to hear their answer as it may reveal some deeper struggles that need to be worked through.

4. What is something that you're looking forward to?

This gives your TCK the opportunity to share their excitement about an upcoming event. Perhaps you didn't know about this event or didn't realize how important it is to your child. Now that you know, you can share in their excitement!

5. What is something that you're not looking forward to?

This question often provides the opportunity to dig deeper and discover why a certain event, place, task, etc. is unenjoyable or uncomfortable for your child. Avoid a positive comeback such as, "But that will be so fun!" and instead explore the question further by saying something like, "Wow, I didn't realize that place made you nervous. What is it about it that is uncomfortable to you?"

6. Do you feel like we spend enough time together? 

TCKs can often feel like they are second to their parent's work or ministry. This question allows them the opportunity to say so if that is the case. If their answer is "no," be vigilant about finding ways to spend more time with this child.

7. Where do you feel most at home? 

The question "Where is home?" is a common, confusing question for TCKs. Working through this idea at a young age prevents it from becoming a surprising realization when they are older and feel that no places feels completely like "home."

8. Is there anyone or anything that you miss right now? 

It is important to give TCKs the permission to reminisce and grieve their losses. Bringing these up for them can help them to do this in a healthy way.

9. Do you feel like people understand you? 

Being a TCK has many challenges and one of them is a constant feeling of being misunderstood. While you may not have a solution to their perceived uniqueness, it can be insightful for you to hear your child's answer.

10. What's your favorite thing about yourself? 

Again, identity issues are common for TCKs so asking them to think through things that they like about themselves is a good way to promote self confidence. This is also a good time to tell them a few of your favorite things about them!

 

Do you have any questions to add to the list? I'd love to hear them in the comments below!