3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid

by Jonathan Trotter on June 14, 2014

Jesus loves Third Culture Kids. He knows their needs and he hears their hearts’ cries. He can tell the difference between normal teen angst and deep emotional pain. He feels their searching and longing for home, and he cares. Jesus knows the right thing to say at the right time, all the time. As parents, youth workers, family, and friends, we’re not always so, um, Christ-like.

Yet, in spite of our weaknesses, we have the great honor and privilege of parenting and loving TCKs. So may we, with great tenderness and sensitivity, care for the hearts of the kids we’ve taken with us.

If you’re not raising kids abroad, please know that our TCKs need you too. They need extended families, peers, friends, team members, and churches who care.

So, with great deference to the TCKs who’ve shared their hearts with me, the experienced youth workers who’ve coached me, and the older parents who are busy providing such great examples, I want to consolidate a few ideas, and ask for yours.

1. Allow ALL Emotions.

One of the quickest ways to damage the heart of a TCK is to outlaw negative emotions (grief, anger, disappointment, etc.). Tell them they shouldn’t feel something, or that they just need to suck it up, or that their feelings show a lack of gratefulness. Yup, that’ll do it.

But, and this is the great part, allowing a TCK to experience the full range of emotions is one of the most caring things you can do. It’s also one of the healthiest things you can do. IMG_0250

One TCK told me, “We were never allowed to show any sadness. Even when my siblings left the Lord, we still couldn’t show any grief.” She was hurting deeply, but her family had placed all negative emotions off limits. She locked her pain away and kept it private for years.

Another TCK said, “My parents were often busy, and would give me lines like, ‘Living here is good for you! It’s something few other people ever get to experience. When you get older and look back on this time, you’ll be grateful for what you learned here.’ Their comments were well meant, but they didn’t know the depth of my pain.”

After listening to TCKs and others dealing with loss, I’ve come to believe that Romans 8:28, although true, is often used as the perfect “anti-grief” verse. Please don’t use it like that.

Often, a TCK who is not allowed the full range of emotions will cope by stuffing negative emotions (which is extremely unhealthy for their long-term emotional development). Alternatively, they may cope by removing whatever it is that outlawed their emotions; and if religion was the eraser used to remove emotion, religion may be the first thing they throw away.

Resources:

   – Not convinced this is an issue? Read the comments on Outlawed Grief. They wrecked me.

   – Learning to Grieve, by Marilyn Gardner.

   – On being with someone who is experiencing loss, Don’t be Afraid of Me, Please.

   – God Can Heal Our Broken Potatoes, by an adult TCK who served TCKs.

 

2. Ask Heart-Focused Questions.

Recognize that your TCK’s experiences will be vastly different from yours. Maybe more positive, maybe more negative. They may not identify with your host culture as much as you do. They may identify with it more than you. Are you ok with that?

When our family drives by the US Embassy and sees the flag flying, my kids feel nothing. When the President visited Phnom Penh and we saw Marine One (the President’s helicopter) flying over the Mekong, I stood there and cried like a baby. My boys looked up at me and said, “OK, can we go eat now?”

If you really want to care for the heart of your TCK, you have to ask questions. And you have to care about their answers. But not just their answers, you have to care about the heart behind the answers.

Try asking questions like:

What’s something you like about this country?

What’s something you don’t like about this country?

What did you enjoy about our last visit to (insert passport country)?

What was frustrating or annoying about our last visit to (insert passport country)?

Where do you feel like your home is?

Is there anything that scares you in this country?

Is there anything that scares you in (insert passport country)?

If you could change one thing about your life in this country, what would you change?

Here’s an example of how this might pan out. Prior to our first trip back to the States, we asked our kids, “Where is home for you?” Two kids said, “Cambodia’s home.” One said “America’s home” and one said, “I feel like I have two homes; one in America and one in Cambodia.” We took their answers at face value, without trying to convince them that they should feel differently.

We also preemptively asked our friends and families in the States NOT to say things to our kids like “Welcome Home!” and “Isn’t it great to be home?” Typically, it’s very hard for a TCK to identify one place as home, so we gently requested that folks ask instead, “What do you like about America?” or “What are you looking forward to doing in America?”

It was a pleasure to see our kids allowed to identify Cambodia, America (or both) as home. An older TCK once said, “The problem with Facebook is that you can only list one hometown.”heart1

Again, the goal is not just to complete a checklist; it’s to see into the heart of your TCK. So be sure you’re ready to really listen when they began answering. And again, if they say something you disagree with, or something that seems negative, so what?! This is about their feelings, not about how your feelings are superior or more developed or how you see reality more clearly.

You want your TCK to feel heard, and that won’t happen if you discount or disqualify their feelings. It doesn’t mean you can’t parent them or try to correct bad attitudes, it’s just that first and foremost, you’re aiming to hear their heart, not fix it.

Resources:

Some Thoughts from Adult TCKs to Those Who Raise Them, by Marilyn Gardner.

 

3. Study Your Family’s Culture

I’m sort of a spy. (Not really, but we’re towards the end of the post, and I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.)

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, with kids aged 8, 6, 3, and 1, I knew I needed help. So I called up the local expat youth pastor and started asking questions. I asked, “What are the main predictors of healthy TCKs in Cambodia? Have you seen any commonalties among the families who seem to have healthy teens? Any commonalities among the families who seem to NOT have healthy teens?”

And then I asked my real spy question, “What families seem to be doing really well?” She gave me her top three, and I’ve been collecting meta-data ever since. (Just kidding! Who do you think I am, the NSA?)

“What it all boils down to,” the she told me, “is the family’s culture.” She said, “Generally, if the family culture is emotionally healthy, the TCK will be emotionally healthy.”

So, if you want to care for the heart of your TCK, consider your family culture as much as you consider your host country’s culture. You live abroad, you study culture. So, what’s your family’s? What are your rituals and habits? How do you deal with grief and celebrations? Do you value saving face, or do you communicate very directly? Is there a lot of physical touch? Laughter? You get the idea.

Parts of all cultures are holy and reflect the wonder and beauty of God. Parts of all cultures should change when they come into contact with the Gospel. What aspects of your family culture are awesome and wonderful? What parts need to be redeemed?

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May our TCKs be the most loved, most cared for people on the planet. May they never doubt our love or the love of the Father. And in their search for Home, may they find Him.

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Since MKs are a unique subset of TCKs, we thought we’d give them their own post:

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

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Help us make this a longer list. What are ways we can care for our TCKs?

If you’re a TCK or an Adult TCK, we’d love to hear your perspective. What did folks do that really helped you

feel loved and valued and cared for?

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of eighteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years and as an inner-city ER/trauma nurse for three years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41

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