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.


   – 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.


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?


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.


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



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 sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
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  • Tanya

    Well done, Jonathan. This is really, really good. Thank you for your deep care for TCKs!!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Tanya! I’m so glad our paths crossed and I had a bit of time to watch and learn from you. Can’t wait to read your book. : )

  • great article. can i just say i’m so jealous that you actually have a local expat youth pastor to go to… or really a youth pastor at all?? 🙂

    • Yes, you can say that. After all, I wouldn’t want to put your emotions off limits or anything. : ) That being said, tonight I’m heading to the airport with a bunch of teens to bid farewell to the one long-term youth pastor in our area. She has shown me, yet again, the power of presence. She has loved these teens well. She has simply been with them for the past seven years, and her impact has been massive.

  • Thank you so much for this article. My son told me yesterday, “Why do I have to be so different? I feel different everywhere, even in America.” I was ready to look up resources this morning when I saw this post. Appreciate your words and this site!

    • That’s awesome! A Life Overseas has done an amazing job of pulling together resources, and you’ll find tons more on the sites I linked to above. If you want more resources, just message me through Facebook (trotters41) and I’ll send you more lists of books and stuff. (I love lists.) Anyways, thanks for the feedback, and may God bless you deeply as you care for the heart of your son.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Fantastic Jonathan! From an adult TCK– thank you!

    • Ah, Marilyn, as you can tell from the links I included in this piece, I so appreciate your thoughts! And thanks also for your input on the draft. : )

  • Dalaina May

    Loved it. Adult TCK raising 4 TCKs, and all of it rings very true to me!

    • Thanks, Dalaina. Any thoughts or advice you want to share with the rest of us? I’m taking notes…

      • Dalaina May

        My best advice (from my experience as a kid) is let your kid be a part of the decisions as much as possible. The places of my deepest hurt from my experience are from the times that I felt totally out of control and blindsided by my parents decisions – especially about BIG stuff like moving. My parents literally announced that we would be leaving the country in 3 months and that was that. I was 11, and it didn’t go over well. I think with older kids and teens, it is critical that they have power too. I know of a family who wanted to move their 12 year old, when the began talking about it, she was very negative, so they just told her their reasons that they felt led to make the switch and asked her to spend real time praying and thinking about it because they would not force her. They would go as a family or not go. They just had to trust God to A couple of months later, she had a change of heart and they left with the whole family excited about going. She had an amazing experience and points to that as a time that God began calling her personally into overseas ministry. Obviously for babies, not necessary. But even for small kids, I think it’s important to walk them through the process. My boys are 5 & 7, and we switched fields last year. They were the first to be told that we were thinking about it. We asked them to pray with us and for us. We asked their opinions about it. After about 9 months, we made a decision and they were okay with it because they had been hearing to us talk about it for months with them and also had the chance to express what they thought and even had moments of telling us that they thought God wanted us to leave! It goes in your category of being heard, but I think you can even take it a step further and attach power to it as well. I think as parents we are fearful of losing control and not being able to do what we think is right, but delaying decisions in order to bring our children into BIG decisions that really affect them might be a really good call often. I have personally never seen it fail.

        • Thank you so much. I’m going to copy this comment into my “save” folder. Seriously. Thank you.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          This is excellent advice Dalaina. The hardest situations I’ve seen are those where there is sickness or infidelity and kids are unaware. The kids don’t have a clue why they need to move and are left with a sinking loss. Years later it comes out. And your challenge to parents to let kids have their say, that God is ultimately in control is huge. Thank you.

          • Elizabeth Trotter

            Wow, Marilyn, I can see how those situations would really be difficult, and hurtful.

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          This is awesome advice. Thank you so much for sharing! So practical and helpful for the kids — and ultimately, for the family as a whole.

        • Richelle Wright

          i agree! when there is time to make those decisions as a family after much prayer, seeking counsel and lots of discussion. that has helped so much as we’re in the middle of a huge transition with four teenagers.

          the other side of that is we don’t make decisions based off of what works best for one person… we are a community. so we’ve promised our kids that while sometimes the decisions we make as a family for our family may not be what an individual wants – they may even seem hurtful/painful for one in particular – we will not refuse to make the hard decision when it is the best/right one. at the same time, we will be there, we will walk through the hard and the great together, we will listen and we will grieve with our children. just as there is nothing more terrifying than watching my kids do something that terrifies me… there is nothing more heartbreaking than watching my child grieve and know that i could have prevented it but that i shouldn’t have… this life we’ve chosen and to which we’ve been called requires counting the cost – as parents – and sacrifices, for everyone. we don’t have to apologize for those sacrifices but we do need to acknowledge them, that they are difficult and grieve with and for our kids as they experience them.

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  • Viv

    Having just had a conversation about being an adult TCK the first sentence just made me cry! The pain of leaving what you consider to be home and returning to the passport country has never been forgotton. I felt no one ever truly understood how I felt. Learning about TCKs and the issues only a few years ago helped me understand my emotions and why I felt like I did. Would have been good to have known that tho 25 years ago!

    • Thanks for sharing, Viv. Wow, that’s a big statement about the pain that’s “never been forgotten.” Since that time, have you come across folks who’ve been able to help you feel understood? If you’re up for it, I’d love to hear what they did to help you feel cared for and understood. In fact, a friend of mine is writing a book about her decade of working with TCKs; the title is “Misunderstood.”
      And yeah, I’m so grateful for all the resources that are available now for TCKs and their parents!
      Thanks again for sharing. God’s richest blessings to you and yours.

  • Mary Lou Bryan

    Jonathan, any advice for a broken hearted missionary mom who finds herself back on the field after 5 years in the states, without the kids as they have moved on to college and adulthood after being raised on the field. Broken hearted because some of our four are not walking with The Lord after their HARD transition back into American life…? My husband and I just came back to Russia to our church plant that was started 15 yrs ago because their is a crisis here and almost splitting etc…I know this is Gods will for us now but after a week here I just cannot move out of my depression. Everything reminds me of the kids and the good life we had and then all the sadness of their choices now flood me with regret and confusion about how we did not nurture their TCK’s hearts? I want to get past this but I find myself in this sadness everyday. I feel like such a failure as their serving The Lord was all I ever dreamed of and gave myself to training them their who
    E lives…I am disappointed maybe at God as well? It just seems that coming back here is bringing all of this up and I literally do not know who to talk to…
    Our kids are all home staying in our house in the states for the summer, all really great kids working, with great hearts for us and one another….just not for God. I find myself with no motivation to do the work here. I want to support my husband but feel too broken to do this….? Sorry for this sad post.

    • Oh, please don’t apologize for the comment. I am so glad you shared this part of your story; it sounds like the pain is very real and very overwhelming right now. I’ve never been where you’re at, but it sounds like, in some ways, you’re upset with your own feelings, wanting to “move out of [your] depression.” You’ve been back in Russia just a week, though, right? Perhaps you could give yourself permission to grieve a bit. (Although my situation was vastly different from yours, and you may not find this helpful at all, I did write about Outlawed Grief here at A Life Overseas several months back. You can see that article here: http://www.alifeoverseas.com/outlawed-grief-a-curse-disguised/

      I just finished reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and if you haven’t read that book, I HIGHLY recommend it. He does an amazing job of balancing the Biblical truths of “rejoicing in all things” with the Psalms, and Job, and so many other examples of grief in the Scriptures.

      Of course, I realize that those two meager suggestions don’t address your initial question. I am ill equipped to offer that type of advice, but I will say, if you’d like, please feel free to private message me through our Facebook page, “trotters41.” Also, my wife and I have both been extremely blessed by Christian counselors who were also very good listeners. I know of a few counselors who are available via Skype as well. Let me know if you’d like those references.

      May God comfort you deeply in this time. May God surround you with caring listeners and friends with tender hearts. May you feel his presence.

      • Mary Lou Bryan

        Thank you Jonathan for your post and response. I read your article and sent it to our kids as well. Praying about all you and others shared and feeling hope return..thank you again.

        • You’re more than welcome. And again, please feel free to keep in touch. God bless.

    • I will add one more thing.

      You mentioned your kids having a hard transition back to the States; if they didn’t have adequate debriefing, and if you think any of them would be interested, it might be worth it to gently suggest debriefing. If the return back to the States wasn’t processed adequately, debriefing, even years after the fact, could still be extremely beneficial for them as individuals and for your entire family.

    • karph63

      Mary Lou, I feel for you and understand your pain. Our oldest is not walking with the Lord and it is very heartbreaking. He has a decent job and gets along with us (now) and with his sister, We had a rough few years dealing with him and some extended family (who decided to meddle). Then our youngest graduated and we returned to the field without either of our kids. That was very difficult, since caring for them and home schooling were my main ministries. I know you have been back on the field for a week, and it’s been very hard for you. My main advice would be to stay close to God – spend extra time reading His word, praying, reading articles (Revive Our Hearts). This is helped me so much that I don’t even have words to describe it! What are you involved in there in your area of Russia? Be involved in a few ministries, but don’t overload yourself. For your own personal care, set some goals for some things you want to do – reading, crafts, hospitality, etc Make sure you are taking care of yourself – spend time with the Lord, exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep. Get on Skype or Facebook and keep in touch with your kids. Today’s technology is so helpful! If a few more weeks go by and your depression doesn’t lift, please talk to your pastor or a counselor. Praying for you! ((HUGS))

      • Mary Lou Bryan

        How kind of you to write and encourage me. Sometimes when I walk through this valley the only thanks I can give is that I might be a comfort to others, moms going through similar trials. When the kids were small and under my wings, I felt that all I had to do was home school and nurture them in our precious faith and they would follow Jesus simply with their whole lives. I just never thought I would have to face this kind of trial. But amen Lord..I have comforted myself in the amazing conversions of Hudson Taylor and Adornium Judson, have you read their conversion stories? George Muller as well….all very powerful and faith building seeing the amazing power of prayer and the faithfulness of God. I am glad to have found friends on this same missionary journey…also empty nesters going back on the field. I would love to keep in touch and learn about your lives in the Ukraine. I was also born in PA in Philly!
        BTW, what is your name?
        In Jesus arms,

        • karph63

          Mary Lou, my name is Karen, email karo63@gmail.com. Please keep in touch!

  • mique

    Interesting to read your article and comments. With my husband we are missionaries for 35 years now. A lot that we have gone through. The last 15 years we´ve had a lot less international contacts in our environment. We´re practically the only missionaries in the church network we started in Chile. We have TCK´s as you call it. Our 3 daughters have 3 nationalities but were raised in Chile. Now we live for some time in Brazil. Quite a lot of challenges but God is truly and he cares for us in many details…

  • Alfred En Belinda Paetzold

    Hi! Thanks for this post! We live in a very small in the middle of nowhere African village….with nearly 3 teenagers. Kids needs are always changing and i am trying to be on the lookout for those subtle changes that mark the beginning of huge ones!! Thanks for your insights! One thing that i realize even in myself is that if we feel we have no choice we feel trapped and that spirals down to really bad attitudes. So we try and give our boys choices so that they feel they have some control over their lives. To give them some freedom to just be themselves and not to be the perfect MK and have to do Everything All the time. 🙂 Thanks again!

    • That’s so true! Even having a “little” choice goes a long, long ways. May God richly bless you and yours. Peace, Jonathan T.

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  • Christie

    As a TCK teenager, who is still going through the pains of transitioning back home and into college (in another country different from passport country), I do indeed feel heard by this article.

    Thank you for this. The first paragraph- oh my word. I’ve been having a hard time with not feeling understood. I grew up in China, spent 6 months of my gap year in New Zealand and Vanuatu (missions), and then am now in England. Over the past few months I’ve had to say bye to so many people and yes- the first paragraph was the cry of my heart. And when I read it, I sobbed because I felt understood.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that as a TCK, the experiences you had are invaluable and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But to parents and to TCKs out there, please know you’re not alone. The biggest thing is feeling truly understood. And even when people fail you (yes, even your parents, pastors, siblings), know that God sees you and He knows your heart and what You need. He has the right words.

    Love to all the TCKs out there! You guys are an amazing bunch :’)

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Christie. May the God of all peace continue to be with you during these times of transition, and may you continue to feel deeply heard and understood.

  • Jen

    I think the hardest thing for me was that I didn’t even begin to realize the stores of grief I held inside until I was in my early twenties. I just didn’t want to think on those things or deal with them; I didn’t want to burden my parents (although I’m sure they would have listened), so I lived in denial for quite a while. It was difficult to know how to talk with my parents about TCK issues because I didn’t want to make them feel sad or guilty. One thing I think would be helpful are resources to help MKs/TCKs know how to approach this with their parents, no matter what their age. 🙂 Another thing is that parents need to make the effort to draw those feelings out because sometimes we just don’t realize we’re struggling or we need help. In fact, I probably would have resisted such conversations at first, but had my parents persisted I think I would have answered questions honestly. The problem for some of us is that we want to be strong for our parents or siblings, or even just for ourselves. I really appreciate this article!

    • Great suggestions, Jen! And I think what you said is so true for many of us; we might balk at first when someone brings up something painful or something we don’t really want to discuss, but loving persistence may be a good road. Thanks!

  • Stuart Weaver

    Any ideas on how to help a child who struggles with living in China and misses his passport country? He is 12 and misses things like the freedom and safety, fishing and camping, having freedom to go for bike rides on safe roads, etc…. I can see an inner resentment towards our field country….. I’m open for suggestions……..

  • Edurne Mencia

    I loved the article! But I´ve always felt my family is not in any categories like “TCK”. My family and I are missionaries to tribes in Amazonas, Venezuela. I come from Spain but my husband is a local and my 3 kids were born here too. They have Venezuelan and Spanish passports and have been in Europe several times. My culture is totally different and it shows in our daily life too so my kids are exposed to both cultures. I always try to take things out of your articles and apply them to my family…but our situation doesn´t fit most of the time. Any advice for “cross-cultural marriages”? I don´t even know how to call ouselves hehehe Blessings!!

    • MikeP

      Hello Edurne! Please, please get a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds by Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock. 😉 Many people would call your children ‘cross-cultural kids’ CCKs. They have much in common with the rest of the TCK population but also some key differences. Chapter 3 of the book is all about them and many other things apply. it can be a little confusing to identity and to belonging, but that cross cultural upbringing is also a marvelous gift to your kids! If you want to contact me, I’m at http://www.daraja.us and also on Facebook at DarajaTCK. (I just heard about a resource of TCKs written in Spanish but don’t know the name yet…

      • Edurne Mencia

        Thank you so much!!! I will grab a copy of that book right now!!! Headed to your site 🙂 Blessings!!

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