When Your Missionary Teen Struggles

by Editor on December 3, 2012

Today’s guest post comes from missionary mom Colleen Mitchell. Here, Colleen talks honestly about the struggle of watching a teenager battle isolation overseas.

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I have often written about how one of my greatest struggles in living life as a missionary is a battle with loneliness. After nearly a year in our current mission, I find that some hard growing up over the last couple of years has helped me to accept the burden of loneliness that comes with this life. But I’m facing a new struggle this time around, one that pains my heart worse than my own loneliness ever did. It is watching my teenage son adjust to the reality of life in this place, battle the unavoidable loneliness it brings.

In our past mission posts, I was always a mom to little guys, little enough that being with their mom and dad was all they needed to be content. This time around, we headed into the field with a much different dynamic. Our five boys are now fourteen, eleven, nine, seven and five. The middle two boys tend to pair into a nice friendship (when they’re not trying to kill each other) and the two youngest boys form such an adventurous little pair that we’ve affectionately labeled them our little hobbits.

My oldest is the one who is left without a built-in companion among his brothers. He also happens to be my most reserved kid when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things. Not so much an introvert, but a thinker and a reader who is a little slow to jump in.

This child has spent most of his life surrounded by a large and exuberantly loving extended family, a lively faith community and lots of like-minded families. Friends were built in to his life without much effort required. As he headed toward his teen years, we encouraged his participation in activities that allowed him to initiate new friendships and relate to a variety of people.

And just when he’d hit a social groove that I firmly believe would have carried him through his teen years with rewarding friendships, we made the decision to head back into the mission field. And I sometimes struggle with the cost this young man has had to pay. 

Making friends in a different culture is more than challenging. It seems impossible at times. And the majority of his life-long friends at home have gone on with lives that now seem exactly as they are, a world away.

I try to remember that fourteen was probably going to be hard and fraught with social issues wherever he found himself. I try to remember that there is much good to be learned in a slow, intentional and somewhat lonely life. But, this Mama Bear wants all to be well for her cubs. And watching this man-cub’s transition has been hard.

I find my heart constantly crying out for him, begging God to give him a friend at his side. I remind myself that if this life was God’s calling for our family, then it is God’s calling for this child as well, part of God’s plan for his life. And I cling to the notion that His plan is undoubtedly for this young man’s welfare and not for his woe.

He is noble and strong in this walk. He is learning. He is growing. Now for my mother’s heart to find the courage to let her son be the man he is meant to be.

Maybe that is the real challenge here.

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Do you have teens living abroad with you? How have you helped them make the adjustment to life in a foreign culture? What are some ways to help them find friendships? 

Colleen Mitchell is a wife, mother to five sons walking this side of heaven and one already home, and foreign missionary serving in the Chirripo mountains of Costa Rica. She has heeded her mother’s command to use her words when she needs to express something and blogs her missionary heart at Blessed Are The Feet.  She is actively engaged in the work of her family’s non-profit foundation St.Bryce Missions (www.saintbryce.org) and in founding the Mercy Covers initiative, a micro-enterprise cooperative for women reaching out to orphans and trafficking victims through its work.

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  • i think your oldest and my oldest would be friends… even though they are a few years apart in age. 🙂

    i still, really, have no idea how to help them with the adjustment except to be available and to find things they enjoy doing and do those with them, particularly if peers aren’t around. we’ve also gone the extra mile to give them opportunity to be with peers (expat and local). we’ve encouraged him to pursue hobbies that he truly loves (he plays the irish flute, is passionate about the history of the british isles, and has been teachng himself gaelic – while trying to learn more about those topics ourselves – right now we are planning a family trip to n. scotland as we travel home after he graduates this year). and i pray a lot – the God accomplishes His work in their hearts. his senior year has not, so far, been all that we hoped and prayed it would be – but he is learning contentment and choosing gratitude as a result.

    can i throw out another question? what about teenage girls – who’ve had lots of good, local friends – but in our culture, those local friends are now getting married, having babies while our girls are moving into high school, thinking about college, etc. not only is that hard as they feel they lose those friendships or lose what they had in common with people they’ve really grown to love and are left starting over.

    and then there is always the furlough/home assignment fitting in. i’d love to hear what others of you do to help them forge those relationships.

    • Yes, Richelle. We have a trip home scheduled in February. Initially I had thought it would be a great opportunity for him to reconnect with friends and we were going to let him stay longer than us in order to participate for a season in the theater group he was so connected with before leaving. But he confessed to me the other day that he really doesn’t want to reconnect with those friends because he was disappointed in the way they totally forgot him after a week or so of being gone and that he doesn’t want to go through that hurt again. Because of that, we have changed out focus and decided to hit the road after spending some time with family, going to visit friends in other parts of the States, hoping it will give him time to really relax and connect with new people. I wonder if some of us might connect our kids via e-mail or Facebook of they have it. I know it has been so nice for me to find people here who get the unique aspects of our life. It might be the same for our older kids.

  • I’ve got twin 12-year olds, a boy and a girl. So not quite teens yet, but soon. They have spent their entire lives here and love this country and their friends. But as we all looked ahead, at their options and at the realities (some of which are similar to what Richelle mentioned in a comment), we felt led to try boarding school. I can’t go into all the reasons why here, but one significant reason was socialization/peer relationships. For about 5 years our daughter was the oldest believing girl we knew in the country. Though older women (20’s or 50’s or whoever was here) invested in her and hung out with her, she needed/wanted more. I know boarding isn’t an option or a choice for everyone and I’m not suggesting it as an answer, just something that we are growing into this year. And of course it comes with its own set of challenges.

    So far, by grace, they are both thriving in this new phase. One thing that has also helped over the years has been to intentionally develop a few deep, consistent relationships on both sides of the ocean. With kids we will see on a regular basis, kids whose parents understand expats. So they are able to help their kids help our kids through cultural adjustments or clothes/books/movie trends, etc, and our kids feel welcomed whichever direction we are flying.

    But we haven’t had any new moves, we come and go from the same two cities and that helps too, helps our kids feel rooted because the people and homes we stay in are familiar. I think moving often, or a fresh move at this stage would bring unique challenges.

    • Thanks, Rachel for sharing this. While boarding school might not be an option for everyone, I think your perspective helps me see that thinking outside the box can yield good results and that we need to have the courage to let go of them sometimes. We have some friends in the city who have offered to let our oldest live with them and go to the American school there. I never really thought of it as a valid option. Maybe I should open my heart to a wider list of choices for him.

      • I was one of the parents who said, 10 years ago, “No way,” to boarding school. But I didn’t know then what I know now, I didn’t know what my kids would want/need/ask for, etc. I didn’t know what our reality would look like. It hasn’t been easy (hardest on me, I think), but so far (only 1 term in), God has proven himself faithful and good and there have been so many answers to prayer. I can only say that as much as I know and can sense his leading, this is what he has for us, for now. One thing we have always tried to do is to keep talking with the kids, asking hard questions, pushing for deep answers that don’t always come easy, been honest about my own struggles with these choices, making them feel a part of the decision making. Probably you are doing that as well, it is, as always, nice to know I’m not the only mom with a broken yet rejoicing heart.

  • Michelle

    Oh, I feel your pain. Though my daughter is only 9 she is struggling with the same thing…it breaks my heart as her mom. We have been overseas for a year and a half but only into our 6 month on our filed. I am home schooling and girls her age are a rare. As for the local children girls are really outside playing. This is a huge struggle as I am seeing some of her creativity and spark starting to dwindle. I agree my loneliness is easier to walk through but when it’s that of your child it is incredibly difficult to walk through. thanks for sharing your heart…you will be in my prayers!

    • Michelle, We were homeschooling when we arrived, but made the decision to send them to school. It has been really good for all of them. My oldest enjoyed the challenge and independence of going to school (he takes the public bus into town and back again) but didn’t really find a friend he clicked with there. It’s an international school, so we hoped he’d meet some other expat kids, but there were only local kids in his grade. It was good for him nonetheless. And the younger kids have definitely benefited from the language and social immersion. School here goes by the calendar year, so they finish up this week and we are still deciding about next year as we have a trip to the States planned at the start of the new school year. It is so hard to watch them struggle. I will pray for your little girl as I pray for my boys.

  • LW

    Thanks Colleen. Sometimes I find myself second-guessing some of our time overseas and how we parented our teen on the other side of the world. I really appreciate your transparency and wisdom. Thank you for the reminder that God’s call was for our whole family and that His call is for our son’s welfare and God’s glory… Why do I forget that?!

  • Colleen, this is a great article! Thank you for being honest and gracious. Thank you, too, for inviting people to converse about this very important topic.

    I appreciate what you said at the end: Now for my mother’s heart to find the courage to let her son be the man he is meant to be.

    Our kids did not choose this life. But rarely does any child get to choose their childhood. We walk a very fine line in being sensitive and aware of our kids’ condition as opposed to fueling the potential for depression with pity. I have found that pitying the children doesn’t help them. Rather, we can empower them, as you alluded to, with gratitude and a listening ear.

    • Thanks for this response, Angie. I do have to guard against a temptation to pander to these kids because I some times feel guilty about the sacrifices they are called to make. Once when I was wanting to run because dengue had hospitalized one of my little ones and it was scary and he was so pitiful. A missionary friend gently reminded me, “Don’t let your fear rob your kids of their opportunities to be heroic. God is using them too.” I can’t tell you who often I have repeated that to myself over the years in a wide variety of situations.

  • Tracie Breaux

    I often think of and pray for Q and hope he continues to grow and prosper in friendships no matter where his feet touch ground at. What an amazing young man!

  • Shay Ballew

    Thanks, Colleen :o) I can’t help but think you wrote this especially for me…after begging you to in my comment on another post! The best thing for me to realize is that we are not alone. My son is not alone in his struggle. He sounds so very much like your oldest, in some ways. Also, like your others, my other 2 sons form a nice, tight, almost twin-like bond and really are each other’s best friend. And then, there’s my daughter who always does her own thing and isn’t the least bit interested in hanging out and playing with her pre-teen/teen bros! So that leaves my oldest, typically alone and isolated and “left out”. I just have to know, in my heart, that God is using this time to shape him and make him into the young man he wants him to be. Who am I to interfere with that?! Thanks, again, for a very needed post! Blessings.

    • Shay and Colleen and Other Brave Mothers Here,

      I loved this post, too. And think it is such a hard LISTENING that just has to take place regarding our kids and their hearts and what the ministry has “cost” them.

      Thanks for your honesty and vulnerability about the struggle here. I only have littles, so I can’t relate to the teens, but I can imagine it would be a tricky road to walk.

      Prayers for all of you, and your wonderful children, from here tonight.

  • We are only 5 months into our time here in Nicaragua, but I can say without a doubt that friendships for my girls weigh so heavily on my mind right now. My oldest (13) has been blessed with another MK the same age right here in our neighborhood. They have become fast friends and it is beautiful and so rewarding to watch. But my 11 year old is the only non-National girl in her class (even though it’s an International school) and has really struggled. We’ve tried having dinner with some of the other missionary families with girls somewhat close in age, but so far she hasn’t clicked with any of them. I have been praying for a friend for her for so many months… and then last night we met a new family with a home-schooled girl the same age, and also found out about another girl that age moving here in January. Neither will be in her class, but both will live close, so I’m really hoping at least one of them might click with her. I think we just have to keep trying, but also be on the lookout for the signs that things might be going downhill (into depression)…

    • Wendy– you make a great point about watching for depression in our older kids. And the importance of fighting against that, in exercise/prayer/eating well/etc, just like an adult would.

      Sorry your girls are struggling a bit now. Prayers for your entire family from here, right now.

      And prayers that these new friendships with your daughter will flourish quickly.

      Laura

  • I sent one off to college from here and have one 18 year old ready to go next spring … it is so much harder for them to find and keep friends than the younger kids (we have others all under 11). I think there is a lot of trepidation when people come and go from here so often. (You make new friends and they leave often.) This last year has been really difficult at our house, our teenager is lonely and we’re excited to help her move to college next year and have more friendship opportunities than she knows what to do with.

  • Rachel Lee

    As an adult missionary kid who is now 25, and grew up in a highly transitional environment until I went to college, might I suggest seeking out other former missionary kids (Not necessarily me, but I’m happy to take questions) who have been through what your teens went through, and talk to them what they wish they would have had, the support they wanted? It’s not an easy thing that you’re doing, but it can be done well with effort, patience, and honesty and God’s help. 🙂

    • Hi Rachel,

      Thank you for offering yourself for questions. Are you a missionary now? Are your parents still missionaries?

      I like that you recommend that missionary kids talk with former missionary kids. Good advice.

      So true that we can trust God’s help.

      • Rachel Lee

        I am not a missionary now, I work at a law firm here in the states. My parents are still missionaries, though they spend far less time overseas than they once did. (Grandkids are a big pull back to the US, and my parents are around retirement age)
        I’m happy to help any way I can. 🙂

        • Cool, Rachel. Your parents are in the sandwich age… feeling drawn to the grandkids and the great grandparents at the safe time and they are in the middle. I am happy to hear that they are able to get back more often.

          • Rachel Lee

            As am I. Their health after the stress of the mission field for so many years has been somewhat precarious from time to time, and it’s a big relief to us kids that they’re here stateside where medical treatment is readily available.

          • That is a great point you raise. You are a good daughter.

          • Rachel Lee

            To be frank, I’m not so sure I would call myself a good daughter by my parents’ definition. The many years of stress have broken down my parents’ health drastically, and it’s hard to see them suffer so stubbornly. As their physical problems worry and frustrate their children, it’s difficult to not blame their years as career missionaries for their poor health. As their daughter who watched their health suffer throughout my childhood and teen years, and on into my adult years, the question that frequently comes to mind is, “At what cost?”
            Something I personally think every missionary has to ask themselves is What am I costing my children? Your children do not have a choice,t hey are seldom allowed to be merely children with how their lives are inextricably linked with their parents’ choice as a career. Not to be a doomsayer, but I’ve seen many families go down in flames on the mission field because they believed that their work came first and their children came second. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a mother or father say, “As long as I am doing God’s work, God will take care of my children…” I’d be a rich, rich woman.

          • Now we are getting to the nitty-gritty. I don’t see it as a doomsayer to give an honest look at how the decisions of the parents affect their children. Yes, the question comes back to, “At what cost?”

            I have often heard the missionary life compared to the lives of those who serve in the armed forces. How many stories of embittered children who grew up hopping around from base to base have we all heard? How many widows and fatherless children have heart wrenching stories of sacrifice and loss?

            How can we, as missionaries, evaluate the worth of the work we feel called to? Our children, our parents, and all the other relatives pay a dear price, involuntarily.

            You are also right in that I don’t know the intricacies of your relationship with your parents. What I do hear through these comments is a daughter who cares very deeply for her parents. I hear a daughter who may have some tough questions knocking around in her soul, but I don’t hear that you have abandoned your mom and dad. And to me, that is the definition of a good daughter.

            I prayed for you and your parents today. May the God of Peace grant you wisdom as you walk this season with your family. May the grace of our Father fill you all with the empowerment to face every hardship presenting itself to you now. May you all come to a greater knowledge of intimate friendship with our dear Lord each day, more and more. Amen.

          • Rachel Lee

            Cruel to be kind-at what point am I enabling my parents to maintain their worldview that they, as missionaries, are infallible? That’s the real hypothetical question here for myself.
            You ask how you can evaluate the worth of the work you feel called to,b ut I don’t think that’s the question for you. What it comes down to is, “God has given me the blessing and responsibility of children, and at what point does the work I feel called to take a backseat to the children I am responsible for raising?”

          • Rachel, I’ve really loved your honest wrestling with this. It’s brave and true and something lots of missionaries definitely need to hear. I guess like so many things in parenting it’s a case-by-case basis.

            I was overseas two years and a major factor of us returning was my son. He hated living in Asia. Hated it. We saw him wilt and suffer and struggle and turn into his shell and become this fearful kid. And there were lots of factors, but his heart was one of the main ones for coming home.

            On the other hand, I have friends there in Asia whose kids LOVE living there and don’t want to come back to the States. They adore Asia and have great friends, etc. For them, it’s positive.

            But, I think you are right, I would hope that parents understand, everywhere, that their kids are their first “ministry” priority. I guess the hard bit is, wrestling that out in the flesh . . . . and understanding that each situation is different.

            Thanks, again, for your honesty here, Rachel. It’s been a beautiful conversation to watch develop.

            Laura

          • Rachel Lee

            I appreciate your openness to discuss this, as I think mission work is often so gilded and glamorized and dare I say saintly that it’s difficult for a lot of people to wrap their heads around the idea that they could possibly be doing something so noble and yet have such ugly questions to address.

            I hope this comes across as constructive criticism of yoru thinking, but I feel saying “I have friends there in Asia whose kids LOVE living there and don’t want to come back to the states. They adore Asia and have great friends, etc. For them, it’s positive” is… somewhat shortsighted.

            I loved the mission field too. I loved my country. I was born there, raised there, I called it mine and to this day when I slip up, I still call it mine. Not in a missions sense, in a cultural sense. These were my people-not because I was ministering there or called there (for goddsakes, I was a child), but because this is where I associated all my feelings of home, of wellbeing. This environment is what I considered normal when in reality, it wasn’t. I never wanted to come back to the US, but guess what? I was an American citizen. there’s where the real education was, that’s where the opportunity to be anything besides a missionary was. But being a missionary, by 18, was all I knew how to do. In fact, my being raised in another country and another culture drastically limited my ability to go on to do anything else in America because in American culture, I was a child. An immigrant, except expected to have the knowledge and cultural grasp of an 18 year old, not a five year old, making it incredibly difficult to have a positive experience making friends in the US when you have precious little cultural basis to identify with them on.

            Please try remember that you get to walk away from the mission field with a culture that you still identify with and have a cultural basis in. Your kids don’t get to do that. They have to walk away from the only culture they’ve known. Your kids leave the mission field at 18, but in reality the real work for them is still ahead. I’m sure my parents are not the only missionary parents who refuse to take responsibility for the fact that their children are still bearing the burden that they didn’t choose, of the glorious purpose that their parents were called to.

            I apologize for this coming across as a rant, or perhaps a touch bitter. I’m sure you will keep right on praying for me like you did before, and that’s very sweet of you, but I feel I would be doing you a disservice if I stayed quiet on this subject.

          • Thanks, again, for your honesty.

            I really appreciate you stepping in here. Sounds like transition was pretty traumatic for you, and I hate that. i think you bring up really valid points about cultural identity and a sense of belonging for a child, especially when they hold a US passport.

            And, you know this, there just are no easy answers. Oftentimes, not lots of black and white, but a whole lotta grey. And I guess, as with anything that happens to us, the circumstances of our childhood shape us and God is big enough to speak through and reach our hearts, regardless of the situations.
            I guess there comes a point when you do have to rest in that.

            Seems like it’d be great for us to do a post about this very issue and the effects of being a TCK.

            Thanks, again, Rachel.

          • Rachel Lee

            You are most welcome! I’d say my transition was actually fairly average as far as most other TCK’s I know-far better than some, that’s for sure.

            There are no easy or black or white answers for parents or for kids regardless of where they come from or where they are raised. I wish you the very best with your post on the effects of being a TCK-so many advantages and disadvantages!
            A great place to hear more thoughts on the issue is the website tckid.com – they have forums and discussions there!

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  • Karen Phillips

    When we moved to Ukraine, our kids were 10 and 7. The oldest was more active in doing things and making friends, while the younger was more reserved. They both spent part of their teen years here in Ukraine and another part in the US. Our son, after graduation and return to the states, felt that he would have done better if he had grown up in the states, went to high school (instead of being home schooled), and was able to get a job and a drivers license at 16 instead of waiting until he was almost 19. He was quite bitter and rebellious at the time, and, sadly, also walked away from the Lord. We also had some extended family fall-out due to all of this, because they really do not understand what was going on, and appear not to want to really understand.

    Our more reserved child is now 18. Though she made some good friends in the US, she seems to be blossoming here in Ukraine. She is involved in youth group and youth choir. It is a bit harder for her to make new friends since she is quiet, but she is doing okay with the friends she already has. She definitely loves the freedom of being home schooled. She enjoyes getting together with other MKs. She has her US drivers permit from our last time in the US, but she is willing to wait until she graduates to get her license and a job. Her faith in God is strong.

    So, to me it is hard to really know what is best for any child, when we have two complete opposites in our family. One would have been happy to return to the states and go to high school there, and the other one would have been crushed.

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  • Amy Pruett

    This is so good to read 🙂 I have 4 children and we are missionaries in the Philippines. 2 of mine are in the teen years and really struggling with lonliness and wanting friends. My prayer is similar to yours in that I pray for them to have God given friendships, but also know this is part of the call on their lives too. It’s was much easier 10 years ago when they were little guys than to watch them feel the challenges as young men and women. But praise God for He is faithful!!! He knows just what they need and I trust Him. I will continue to pray for the kids and learning to pray for myself too like you shared, for courage!!! Good word 🙂

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