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.