7 Ways to Teach Your TCKs to Process Grief

by Editor on October 23, 2017

By Lauren Wells

The topic of TCKs and grief is one that circulates often on online forums about TCKS, and there is a good reason for this: we know that TCKs deal with a significant amount of loss. In fact, they experience more losses in their first 18 years than most mono-cultural adults do in their lifetime (Misunderstood, Tanya Crossman, 2016). TCKs lose friends, family, places, things, culture, language, and familiarity all at once with a single airplane ride. The majority of TCKs will repeat this cycle more than once, and a survey by denizenmag.com, says that most will do so an average of 4 times. The grief that comes with moving from place to place and living in a world where most everyone around you does the same, is the storyline of many TCKs. TCKs not only endure the grief of anticipated losses, but they are also more commonly exposed to death, trauma, poverty, and corruption- an area of TCK grief that is not as commonly focused on.

According to Ruth Van Reken, unresolved grief is the most urgent mental health issue facing TCKs. 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, so let’s proactively teach them how to process that grief. Whether it is the grief of transition and goodbyes, the grief of death, or of exposure to poverty and 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?

 

1. Name past and anticipated losses. This step is a critical part of avoiding unresolved grief. Talk about both the losses that have already occurred, and potential losses before they happen.

Before a move, have your children write or draw the things, people, places, and events that they will miss. By encouraging them to begin thinking and talking about the losses, you will help them to begin the process of grieving those losses. 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 that they can begin to process the grief of transition.

If you are already living overseas, talk as a family about the things that you miss- people, places, foods, smells, etc. Your children need to know that it is ok to talk about what was lost and that their parents miss things too. If an unexpected event occurs that could be a source of grief such as the death of someone they knew, witnessing a traumatic incident, a friend moving away, etc., make it a point to talk about it.

Often, if simply asked, “How do you feel about…?”, children will respond with a quick answer alluding that they are “fine” and the conversation won’t continue. Instead, a great way to start the conversation is to first talk about your own feelings. “I heard that so and so from your class moved away today. That makes me very sad. How are you feeling about it?” Or “That was so heartbreaking when we saw that man beating his child in the market today. It makes me feel yucky on the inside when I think about it! Do you remember seeing that? How did it make you feel?”

 

2. Set the environment. Foster an environment of open and honest communication. Often children feel that it is 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. If they feel comfortable talking about the uncomfortable grief triggers before they happen, it will be much easier for them to be open with you after the fact.

 

3. 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. You can easily make naming emotions a part of your daily practice. Here are four basic ways to do this:

  • Narrate 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. Instruct your child by saying, “Instead of hitting your sibling say to him/her, I am frustrated because…”
  • Routinely ask your children how they feel and look for opportunities to 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 because sissy took your toy?”

 

4. Watch your language. Be very careful to not discredit or deny your child’s feelings. This will curb 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 instead with a question works well. “Why do you feel…?”, “Can you remember another time when you felt like this?”, or “I hear that you’re saying that you feel…” Remember, your goal at this point is not to fix the problem or change their perspective; it is to help them process their feelings.

 

5. 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…”

Don’t wait until a grief-inducing situation has occurred, but instead look for daily opportunities to name your emotions. “I feel frustrated that the market didn’t have the type of bread I was hoping for” or “I feel excited about our dinner with the Jones family tonight!” The key is to say, “I feel” instead of the more common, “I am.” This will teach your children that these are feeling words and are appropriate to talk about.

When your child is grieving, it will be critical that they have seen a healthy demonstration of how to talk about feelings, so practice now by naming your feelings!

 

6. Express anger appropriately. Anger is often the result of underlying grief and because of this, it is important to equip your children with appropriate ways to deal with those negative emotions. For example: “It is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to hurt people or yourself in your anger.”

A great tool for teaching your children to deal with their anger appropriately is to make a deck of “Get Out My Angry Cards.” Have your children brainstorm appropriate ideas for cooling down when they are angry. These could include: counting to 100, doing jumping jacks, listening to music, praying about it, drawing your anger, taking 5 deep breaths, talking about it, etc. Write and/or draw them on 3×5 cards, hole punch the cards, and clip them together with a binder ring. They now have a deck of choices for working through their negative emotions. Every child grieves differently, so providing them with a variety of healthy options can be very effective. When you see your child becoming angry, you can instruct him or her to choose a “Get Out My Angry Card.”

 

7. Start family meetings. One of the best ways to create a space for open and honest communication is to have daily family meetings. Set guidelines for your meetings to encourage a respectful atmosphere. It may be uncomfortable at first, but family meetings are a great way for your family to practice talking about feelings. If you begin doing these daily, then it will become a normal part of your routine. When your children are experiencing and processing grief, there will already be a set time and place for the family to process it together. During your family meetings, talk about your favorite, and least favorite, parts of the day. Practice using feeling words like excited, sad, uncomfortable, scared, worried, thrilled, etc. This will naturally create a space for open communication about deeper subjects than just the cheery parts of the day, and that is critical when processing grief.

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 proactively set your children up for success, not only while living overseas, 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. Instead of fumbling through these methods when you and your children are in the midst of grief and transition, make them a part of your family’s routine now so that when a difficult season inevitably comes, processing grief is already a natural practice for your family.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.

{ 1 comment }

Should Debt Disqualify a Missionary?

by Jerry Jones October 20, 2017

I don’t usually start a blog post with an “I’m sorry” . . . but I’m not above it. I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies to anyone who clicked on this link looking for a solid, definitive answer. I don’t have one . . . but maybe you do so I would love to […]

Read the full article →

6.5 Myths About Expat Life

by Rachel Pieh Jones October 18, 2017

(this is a repost from Djibouti Jones) Myth 1: Adventure I’m an expatriate! Cue the Indiana Jones soundtrack, give me a whip and a cool hat, and let’s have an adventure! Okay my husband does have an Indiana Jones hat and I have used an Ethiopian whip, but life as an expatriate is not all […]

Read the full article →

Pregnant On The Field

by Amy Young October 16, 2017

Today I’m excited to talk with author of A Story of Pregnancy and Faith: In hope of what we cannot see. Dorette Skinner is from South Africa and lives in Thailand and she has shared at A Life Overseas before. Read to the end for a surprise. Without further ado, my conversation with Dorette. Thank […]

Read the full article →

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Anisha Hopkinson October 13, 2017

One of my favourite stories of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you haven’t read it, you really should! This post is written with thankfulness to Judith Viorst, the author of Alexander’s bad day, who taught me many years ago that, “Some days are like that”. The […]

Read the full article →

7 Signs You Need a Sabbath Break

by Editor October 11, 2017

By Karis Piawong There’s a race that we inevitably sign up for when we answer the call to mission work. Whether we like running or not, we find ourselves a part of a marathon. The race goes on for many years, and it’s all GO, GO, GO. We are careful to live as good Christians. […]

Read the full article →

When You’re Sure God Loves Ann Voskamp More Than He Loves You…

by Marilyn October 9, 2017

”I’m pretty sure God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.”  I wrote this to a friend recently. I don’t even know Ann Voskamp, but I was still convinced that when it came to actual love, I was in the dog house and Ann was in the castle on the hill. I mean, what’s […]

Read the full article →

Ask a Counselor: faith shift edition

by Kay Bruner October 5, 2017

It can begin any number of ways: Burnout leads to a need for better boundaries And you ask yourself: “If Jesus offers rest for my soul, why does everyone else want me to work harder?” Social justice issues move to the forefront And you ask yourself: “People here are literally dying, while American Christians sit […]

Read the full article →

Leaving (and Arriving) Well — what to do when your time comes

by Jonathan Trotter October 4, 2017

You’re probably going to leave the field. Someday, somehow, the vast majority of us will say goodbye, pack up, cry tears of joy or sorrow or both, and depart. How will that work out for you? Well, frankly, I have no idea. But I do know that there are some things you can do to […]

Read the full article →

Will Moving Overseas Make Or Break Your Relationship?

by Lisa McKay October 2, 2017

Relationship cliches about living abroad There’s a well-worn line in expatriate circles that goes something like this: “Moving overseas will either strengthen your relationship, or break it.” And here’s another one that gets rolled out regularly: “If your relationship was strong before you moved, it will become stronger. If there were already problems, moving overseas […]

Read the full article →

Support Teams, Vulnerability and Applause?

by Abby Alleman September 28, 2017

My hands are shaking in a jerky vibration. My legs are unsteady as they threaten to give way. There are one hundred people in front of me. It is a group from a church which has just begun to support our ministry. My husband just introduced me. Now they are waiting to hear a part […]

Read the full article →

A Note from the Leadership Team

by Jonathan Trotter September 28, 2017

May of 2013, A Life Overseas co-founder Laura Parker wrote an article celebrating the site’s six-month anniversary and its first 100 posts. At that time, our Facebook community numbered about 800 folks. As of this writing, regular and guest writers have published 742 articles, with a community on Facebook exceeding 11,000 people! Thank you for […]

Read the full article →