Accessing the Power of Good Debriefing

A colleague of mine at TCK Training spent time preparing and travelling to facilitate a two-day debrief with a family who were on home assignment in their passport country. As they all introduced themselves and began to get to know each other, she asked what their hopes were for their time together over the next two days. The parents looked at each other and then back at her as they sheepishly admitted, “Actually, we have no idea. This is something our organisation requires, so we just signed up because we were supposed to. We have no clue what a debrief actually involves.” 

While debriefing has grown in popularity and more missionaries are at least familiar with the concept, the actual nuts and bolts of a debrief can be a bit murky. Because of that, it can be hard to even know, “What is a good debrief?” What should your expectation be of the debrief you signed up for? How do you know a debrief went “well”? 

As we’ve worked with hundreds of families at TCK Training, we’ve heard about a wide array of debrief experiences. There’s a vast mixture in what they received and how effective it was. We would love to see a broader understanding of the hallmarks of a good debrief, even if the execution differs.

In this article I am going to explore what a good debrief involves, why good debriefing can be so powerful, and how to access quality debriefing – no matter what services are (or are not) made available to you in your own situation.

Q: What is a good debrief?

1) A good debrief is preventive. 

That is, the debrief is not in response to a crisis situation but is part of a program of regular care. At TCK Training, we recommend that all families experiencing global mobility do a full debrief (two full days set aside for the sole purpose of debriefing the entire family) every 3-4 years and a check-in style “annual debrief” each year in between. While crisis situations also need to be addressed, this should not be the only situation in which a debrief occurs.

2) A good debrief crafts an intentional, open-ended journey.

Good debriefing is more than verbal processing, prompted with questions along the lines of “Tell me what happened? How did it go? What happened next?” A good debrief instead asks about all different facets of life, and is open to unexpected answers, not just looking to check items off a list. A good debrief asks intentional and purposeful questions that are crafted to lead you and your TCKs through a journey of discovery, finding things that need processing – even if you weren’t consciously aware of them.

For children, this element of a good debrief involves engaging in a variety of ways. Since we all know that sitting across from a child and asking them direct questions isn’t particularly effective, we need to make sure that movement and creativity are a central part of a TCK debrief. 

3) A good debrief creates a sacred space for hard things.

During a good debrief, you feel safe to explore difficult experiences and the difficult emotions that go with them. You are not shamed for your emotions, worried that your emotions might be used against you, or that what you share might result in you losing your job. In the sacred space of a good debrief, you know there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. 

4) A good debrief embraces both shared and individual experiences.

At TCK Training we believe in the power of families working through debrief materials together. We all have shared experiences as a family, and it is helpful and healing to process those shared experiences together. During the debrief, parents get the opportunity to model expressing hard feelings and doing the hard work of emotional processing, with expert guidance to support them. As their children watch this, it will help them recognize the importance of this work and how to do it, as well as give them permission to do this work with their parents, not only in the moment but in the future.

In addition, there will always be aspects of our lives as a family that are individual. Children and parents do not have the same experiences, nor does each child or each parent have the same experiences. Having individual sessions as well as family sessions is necessary to build self-awareness and for personal growth.

Q: Why is a good debrief powerful?

Making debriefs part of a regular program of preventive care leads to more beneficial outcomes. Reactive care – a debrief that takes place in the aftermath of a particularly stressful event – occurs when individuals are full of heightened and heavy emotions and aren’t able to fully engage in the debriefing process. During a preventive care-style debrief, individuals are less occupied with a specific need and can engage in the process of working through all the small things they have experienced over time. This leads to greater learning about themselves and their needs and greater likelihood of retaining that learning over time. 

As part of an individual debrief, teenagers and adults alike get the opportunity to work through their experiences with guided assistance. The crafted questions of a good debrief help us recognise things we didn’t even know were hiding under the surface of our hearts and minds. We debrief our emotions, identity, grief and loss, subconscious expectations, and more. 

Debriefing as a family helps us see where these different facts do and do not line up with each other – where we have different perspectives on the same events. Children are provided a safe space and a mediated opportunity to share emotions they have struggled to express. Parents can help fill in the gaps where children were missing part of the story. These can be powerful family moments.

One Adult TCK shared with me that as a child, their missionary family had something called a “debrief” every four years through their parents’ missionary agency while on home assignment. Yet this experience never included anything individual for them as a child or teenager, where they could explore their feelings. In addition, they felt constrained to not speak about certain events. A debrief that created sacred space and acknowledged their individual journey would have been far more powerful. It would have combatted the loneliness far too many TCKs struggle with and instilled the value that they are worth being individually cared for.

Q: How can our family access a quality debrief? 

If your organisation offers (or requires) a debrief, try to get some information about what debrief means to them. You might ask what the debrief consists of, how children are involved, what the goals/aims of the debrief are, and how the debriefers are trained. 

If your organisation does not provide debriefing, or the debriefing offered is not comprehensive, you could ask them to outsource these services to another organisation or to cover the cost of your family procuring a debrief elsewhere. Knowing what a good debrief is and why it matters will help in explaining why this is important to you.

Our priority at TCK Training is ensuring that families have access to quality debriefing, both inside and outside the missionary world, and we are not the only group with this goal. Other sources of quality debriefs include MTI (Mission Training International), Alongside Ministries, TRAIN, and Safe Place Ministry. 

TCK Training provides debriefing services (both in-person and virtual), and we also train others to provide good debriefs. (We have trained hundreds of people in how to conduct quality debriefs, including staff at various mission organisations.) To make quality debriefing even more accessible, we now offer a resource to help parents lead their own family debrief at home. We also have a FREE processing worksheet with great questions to ask yourself or someone else to help work through emotions. This free resource is a great place to start if you want to learn more about what a quality debrief can look like.

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Trauma. What does this word make you think of? Does it worry you, even scare you? Does it bring to mind certain events from your own life? Have you seen it used so often that it’s beginning to lose meaning for you? 

I found the definition of trauma Shonna Ingram shared in her post The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does very helpful:

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Over the years, A Life Overseas has not shied away from difficult topics – including trauma on the mission field and how it impacts missionaries and their children. Together we have written about how to understand trauma and heal from it; specific experiences of trauma and how to process them; the long-term impact of trauma on the field, including on mental health; theology of risk; toxic positivity; moral injury; and more. I have also shared research insights from my work with TCK Training, looking at the experiences of missionary kids and their families over time.

Today I come with new data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) together with the collected wisdom of A Life Overseas’ authors. I’ll discuss data on potentially traumatic events witnessed by TCKs and reference excellent articles from the A Life Overseas (ALO) library. I’ll list these resources at the end.

Why do we need to talk about trauma?

In TCK Training’s research, which involved over 1,000 missionary kids (MKs), exposure to potentially traumatic events was one of two key risk factors linked to high ACE scores. High ACE scores in turn are linked with increased risk of a range of negative outcomes in adulthood. (The other key risk factor was high mobility, which I wrote about in Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help.)

It’s important to start by recognizing that trauma can, and does, happen everywhere all over the world. Staying in your passport country does not make you immune to trauma, and leaving for the mission field does not guarantee a traumatic outcome. Abigail Follows explained this nicely in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, where she wrote that “disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere.”

In addition, there is a difference between potential trauma and actual trauma. Witnessing a potentially traumatic event does not mean an individual will necessarily experience it as traumatic.

As Kay Bruner wrote in Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma, “The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.” 

In fact, lack of control means that sometimes children feel a deeper sense of trauma from an event than an adult might in that situation. In other cases, not understanding the full impact of what is happening might mean a child is less impacted. The important point is that we cannot know how each individual will respond, so assumptions are unhelpful.

As we start to look at some difficult numbers together, let’s keep in mind these two pieces of wisdom:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

Witnessing Potentially Traumatic Events

The 1,904 ATCKs who took our survey were asked both if they had witnessed a certain type of event at all, and if they had witnessed this ‘regularly.’ The events we asked about included:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Serious traffic accident
  • Armed conflict
  • Traumatic death (human)
  • Traumatic death (animal)
  • Physical violence

86% of missionary kids witnessed at least one of these potentially traumatic events; more than half of missionary kids witnessed potentially traumatic events regularly (53%).

Extreme Poverty

77% of missionary kids reported they had witnessed extreme poverty at least once, and 61% said they witnessed this regularly. Living among those experiencing extreme poverty and knowing you cannot fix it can lead to what Rachel Pieh Jones labelled ‘moral injury.’

In her article on the topic, she writes: “All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit. And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.”

Witnessing extreme poverty was the only item on the above list not linked to higher-than-average risk. That is, MKs who only witnessed extreme poverty (18% of the group) had an ACE risk similar to that seen in the general TCK population.

Serious Traffic Accident

In some countries traffic accidents are more common, and where cars regularly share badly maintained roads with motorcycles (and helmets are not worn), accidents can be particularly traumatic to witness. As Anna Glenn writes in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries, “[When] you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.” 

Three out of every five missionary kids (40%) had witnessed a serious traffic accident by age 18. Nearly a quarter of those (9% of all missionary kids) witnessed serious accidents regularly. 

When originally crafting this survey, we made sure to ask about serious traffic accidents because we’ve seen the impact of ongoing struggles related to witnessed accidents, even when TCKs were not directly involved in the accident themselves. A variety of reactions, including fear, anxiety, nightmares, reluctance to drive/learn to drive, and PTSD, can be involved. 

Witnessing Violence

More than half of missionary kids (59%) witnessed one of the final four types of potentially traumatic events we listed: 

  1. armed conflict
  2. human death
  3. traumatic animal death
  4. physical violence

For the purpose of our survey, we defined armed conflict as “two groups fighting with weapons.” We found that 20% of missionary kids had witnessed armed conflict.

One quarter of missionary kids had witnessed the traumatic death of a person (24%), including 4% who witnessed a murder. They had the same increased ACE risk as those who witnessed armed conflict (28% of the group had high-risk ACE scores). The risk was higher again for MKs who regularly witnessed any kind of human death, with one third of this group having a high ACE score (33%), nearly double the rate for MKs overall. 

In our work with adult TCKs, we have often found that animal death comes up as an event requiring debriefing as it had not been processed effectively at the time it occurred. More than one third of missionary kids (35%) reported witnessing the traumatic death of an animal. Witnessing animal death came with an increased ACE risk, especially when it happened regularly. The risk associated with regularly witnessing traumatic animal death was the same as the risk associated with regularly witnessing human death.

What do we do about this?

Based on the research around trauma, including the data we have on what MKs are experiencing, I have four suggestions about what we should do next. In my next article, I expand on these four ideas with practical suggestions and more quotes from the ALO library: 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

The Good News

Not all TCKs, and not all missionary kids, witnessed these types of potentially traumatic events. When we review the data on those who were not exposed, we find some wonderful news!

Looking at the missionary kids who did not regularly witness traumatic events, only 9% had a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score (4 or more out of 10), compared to 12.5% of Americans and 17% of MKs overall.

Looking then at missionary kids who did not witness ANY potentially traumatic events, only 6% of recorded 4 or more ACEs – lower than seen in any study we could find in any country using the same question framing.

This is really good news. It suggests that when MKs grow up in environments where they are not witnessing these types of potentially traumatic events, their families are healthier overall. 

Read part two: What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Resources referenced:

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (TCK Training)

Moral Injury

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Photo by Nimrod Persson on Unsplash

 

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Why is it so hard for missionaries to say “I’m not fine”?

“Why do you think it’s so hard for missionaries to say, ‘I’m not fine?’”

I recently posed this question to author and Third Culture Kid expert Ruth Van Reken. Her answer came swiftly and without hesitation, an answer that can only come from deep, personal experience.

“It can take your whole faith apart.”

Ruth is in her seventies, a missionary kid who learned in boarding school how to copy “I’m fine” from the template on the chalkboard for every letter she sent home. I’m in my twenties, a missionary kid who’s been an expert-smiler since as early as I can remember.

In different ways across different decades, we both learned that being a missionary and not being “fine” is, well… not fine at all. How has this belief snaked its way through the missions community and persisted across the generations?

One reason is that missionaries have historically been misconceived as spiritual superheroes among our Christian communities. I mean, how can superheroes not be fine?

Another reason is the fear that our hardships might cast an uncomfortable sense of uncertainty on the goodness of the God who called us. We sacrificed everything for Him, right? Why is life so excruciatingly difficult?

These subtle questions and misconceptions littered my childhood and contributed heavily to the “I’m fine” theology that I began to live out. To help you fully grasp how these messages contributed to always being “fine,” I’d like to invite you into a snapshot of my story (taken from my new book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams).

From the time I was a little girl, I went to church every Sunday. My dad was a pastor on staff, so it’s what we did. On Saturday nights, I always washed my hair for church the following morning, and I’d lay out something nicer than the clothes I’d wear on a typical Tuesday. I was often known by our congregation as the good girl who recited her memory verses perfectly, was always polite, and never complained. Although these were good, God-honoring things, some of the micro-messages that crept into my heart were not good. Or true.

These micro-messages told me that being a good Christian meant always smiling and never talking about how you really felt.

I learned that putting yourself together and making sure you smelled nice is what you did before you went into God’s house. Although I knew these measures were typically heeded out of respect, I noticed that other people appeared especially happy with the polished version of me.

Is that how God felt about me, too?

When I was nine, my family sold our home and moved to East Asia. My parents planned to partner with local churches in efforts to advance the gospel. In the months leading up to our departure, we sold nearly everything we owned. One Saturday afternoon, I spread out all my toys, with parental instructions to choose three. Everything else ended up in a pile at our garage sale, sporting fifty-cent stickers.

I didn’t really know how to feel that day. I stood in the corner and watched strangers carry out our couch and kitchen table and silverware. I felt okay until a woman with short, spiky hair carried out my green bedspread. That was new bedspread. My throat tightened with a shiver of emotion. I loved that bedspread. I loved my room. I loved my home. I loved my life.

I suddenly really didn’t like this moment.

The losses just kept rolling in. But people kept telling me how excited I must be and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. I chalked up my grief to discontentment and determined to be fine. Wasn’t it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?

Besides, I was the good little girl who never complained. The micro-messages seeping into my heart sounded something like this: Anger and sadness are not allowed. These emotions are bad. Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.

So, I learned to be fine until the lights went out.

Curled up in bed at night, those pangs of loss would overwhelm me. No one told me point-blank that I shouldn’t cry, but the last words whispered to nine-year-old me before boarding that first flight overseas was, “Be a good little girl for your mommy and daddy.”

I wanted to be good girl, and everyone knew that good girls didn’t cry. No wonder Ruth told me that saying “I’m not fine” can take your faith apart. If you can’t hold faith and pain together, then being fine becomes your only option.

As missionaries, have we fastened the value of our faith to the faulty condition of being fine?

I’ll be the first to raise my hand here. As an MK, I wanted to please. I didn’t want to hinder the advancement of the gospel. But those honest hopes and fears eventually suffocated any sense of authenticity from my personal relationship with God. I forgot that the gospel of grace is for “I’m not fine” people. But I couldn’t go the Father in my pain and sorrow when I thought I had to hide it from him.

“There’s a difference between resignation and submission to God’s will,” Ruth wisely told me. “Submission is when we wrestle and eventually say, ‘I will believe that you are good and faithful and true even if I don’t feel that way today.’”

This truth is etched throughout Scripture, resounding of a different, more honest way of engaging in the Christian walk. Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane. David’s gut-wrenchingly honest laments in the Psalms. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the truth (not our tidiness) is what truly sets us free.

Today, perhaps the invitation for you and me is to breathe in grace. Breathe out honesty. To allow ourselves space to wrestle. And to recognize that, in the end, a whispered admission of “I’m not fine” is what oftentimes actually holds our faith together.

Quotes from Ruth Van Reken taken from personal interview with her, August 30, 2022.

You can read more of my story in my new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams.

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

Taylor Joy Murray is an MK, author, and speaker passionate about serving her generation in the areas of emotional health and spiritual formation. Her first book, Hidden in My Heart, which gives words to often unexpressed experiences and emotions of missionary kids, was published when she was just fourteen years old. Her new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine, was just released. She currently lives in Lynchburg, Virginia while completing her Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Connect with her on Instagram @__taylorjoy__ or on her website at www.taylorjoymurray.co.

 

“I am a Professional Christian” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 3)

As an MK, I often dreaded going to Sunday School.

Whether I was going to local church overseas or a supporting church during Home Assignment, the feeling associated with Sunday mornings was often one of pressure.

You see, all of the other kids usually had a least one Christian parent who chose a “normal” profession. A Christian who was a doctor. A Christian who was a dentist. A Christian who was a banker. But in a sense, being a Christian was my parents’ profession, and with it came a host of expectations and assumptions.

I often felt the sting of being different. I was in a different category of Christian. 

Aren’t missionaries supposed to be professional Christians?

With the do’s and don’ts associated with that perception, I often lost sight of God. Along with many MKs, I lost sight of truth.

Here are four lies that MKs commonly believe.

 

Lie #1: “I should be at another level of spiritual perfection.”

I should already know.

That was the subtle belief that often pervaded my thinking, especially on Sunday mornings. I should already know that passage. I should have already memorized that verse. I should already have made that connection. Timothy Sanford describes a common pattern in his book I Have To Be Perfect (And Other Parsonage Heresies). Looking back, I see how frequently it unfolded in my own life:

 – People knew that I was an MK and assumed that I knew more than the other children.
 – I picked up on these assumptions and concluded that maybe I was supposed to know.
 – Instead of looking stupid, I pretended like I did know.
 – They saw me pretending, concluded that I really did know, and continued to assume.
– I continued to pretend.

 

Lie #2: “Other people’s needs are more important than my own.”

When reflecting on her overseas experience, one adult MK recently told me, “I was convinced everyone mattered above me and that I was at the bottom of the totem pole.” 

I often watched my parents’ serve long hours. I saw their exhaustion, stress, and sacrifice. According to my nine-year-old thinking, I didn’t want to get in their way. In a skewed sense, I believed that my contribution to their ministry was to take my needs out of the equation. 

“I felt like if I demanded their time, that I would be hindering my parents’ ministry,” an adult MK said. “I felt resentment building up and internalized it. It was toxic to me and our relationship…also to my spiritual growth. I felt shelved and not considered.”

 

Lie #3: “God is only for others.”

The essence of missions is taking the gospel to the unreached. Much of my childhood consisted of serving alongside my parents in their ministry. We shared the gospel with others. We taught the Bible to others. We organized outreaches for others. It was a truly beautiful experience that I would never trade.  

However, I recently asked one MK if she felt like her parents valued time with her more than building relationships with nationals. This was her response: “I did not feel it was. I’m sure they cared very much, but no… I did not believe that at all.” 

Although I never personally felt that way about my parents, my experiences often painted a version of God that was only for others. I knew God as more institutional than personal. He was for the Great Commission. He was in pursuit of the unreached people groups, the tribal villages in Africa, and bustling cities of Asia and Europe.

But was I as important to God as those He had called us to serve? Was He in pursuit of me? 

 

Lie #4: “I have to protect God’s reputation.”

This skewed belief fueled my internal pressure to be happy all of the time and often caused me to envision God as disappointed with me when I wasn’t.

As one adult MK described, “My perception of God was based on rule-following and tightly-held levels of unrealistic faith devotion. I can still hear my mom say, ‘If you exceed the speed limit, God will not bless your journey.’ Fortunately, I have since come to reshape that view and see Him much differently.”

My fake happiness for God often prevented me from experiencing fullness of life with Him. This mindset of protecting God’s reputation acted like a spiritual defense for me, shielding me from feeling the brunt of my emotions, doubts, and questions.

******

While these lies often swing between unhealthy extremes, I’m learning that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The truth isn’t an either/or situation, but a healthy understanding of the word “and.”

The truth is that MKs are missionary kids AND they have spiritual journeys. They need reminding that there is space for them to grow in their journeys, apart from their parents. 

The truth is that others’ needs are important AND their needs are important too. MKs need reminding that it’s okay to have needs and to express them.

The truth is that God is passionately for others AND He’s passionately for MKs. He is the God of the institution and also the God of the individual. 

The truth is that God doesn’t need MKs to protect His reputation. They aren’t the poster children for modern missions. They are His sons and daughters AND they are allowed to be completely honest with Him. God can protect His own reputation. 

The truth is that MKs aren’t that different from all of the other kids in Sunday School. While missionaries may be professional Christians, MKs are aren’t and shouldn’t be. 

They are just missionary kids beginning their Christian walks, and that is exactly where they are supposed to be.

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

“I am a Professional Adapter” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 2)

“Where are you from?” is the most difficult question for MKs to answer. However, I’m convinced that the second most difficult question doesn’t fall far behind.

“Who am I supposed to be?”

The MK life is filled with expectations that can cause many of us to feel the weight of responsibility for our parents’ ministries. During my childhood overseas, I felt these pressures from decades-old missionary theology and from my own internal expectations to please others and make God “happy.”

In many ways, these expectations shaped my perception of God and others. They became deeply embedded in my sense of worth, causing me to develop certain ways of coping. What did I do?

I learned how to adapt to whatever expectation I was feeling most strongly in the moment. 

When I became an MK, I learned the art of reading a room, picking up social cues, and subtly morphing into whomever I needed to be in order to fit in. I learned how to laugh at jokes when I didn’t understand them, adjust my body language to the group’s norm, and imitate the vocabulary used around me. I learned which pieces of my life were acceptable to share in certain social settings and which pieces of my life were not.

The question that silently began to surface in these spaces often filled me with anxiety: Who am I supposed to be with financial supporters? With locals? With God? 

With financial supporters? I learned to share the glowing, spiritual stories that highlighted my parents’ ministry. 

(And with my U.S. friends, I learned not to joke about my travels or getting lost in Prague or the time monkeys raided our hotel in Hong Kong. I quickly discovered that these stories were often perceived as prideful.)

With locals? I learned to talk selectively about my American childhood, especially the large cups at restaurants, juicy hamburgers, and spacious houses of my birth country.

(And I learned to leave out the stories that made me ache for my childhood home.)

With God? I learned how to smile, thank him for His blessings, and use Christian lingo like a professional.

(And I learned to avoid talking with Him about my hurt, anger, or pain.)

MKs are adept at becoming the person they believe will keep them most safe.

The dictionary defines “putting on a brave face” as “behaving as if a problem is not important or does not worry you; to try to appear brave or calm.”

If MK life could be summed up in a definition, “putting on a brave face” could be an accurate reflection. Wearing my brave face became the means by which I coped with all of the outer and inner expectations of my world.

Wearing my brave face became the means by which I learned to hide inside myself.

Only with other MKs would I let my brave face crack. Here, the pressures and expectations of cross-cultural living didn’t isolate us but rather identified us with one other. As one MK told me, “We could tell our secrets [or ‘struggles,’ as she defined them]. We didn’t have to stay silent anymore.”

As I’ve reflected on my own MK story and listened to the stories of others, I’ve seen our brave faces manifest in different ways. Here are the two predominant faces that MKs wear in order to adapt to the pressures of cross-cultural life. I’ve worn both. Although they may appear opposite from each other, they are really just two sides of the same coin. 

 

Brave Face #1: “I Care Too Much”

The MK who wears the “I Care Too Much” brave face will die trying to meet all of the expectations. This MK will strive and prove and earn and push, with a white-knuckled drive for perfection fueling their motives. Fear and anxiety often dominate their thinking. They try to appear brave by conquering the expectations.

As one adult MK recently told me, “My response as a rule-follower and people-pleaser was to make everyone happy. I felt like others were more important than me. There was a strong pressure to perform to legalism so that I wouldn’t be the one responsible for my parents’ loss of service.”

Looking back on her MK story, she saw how this brave face compelled her to “replace hurt and abandonment with drive for hard work, independence, and perfection.” 

My personal “I Care Too Much” Brave Face caused me to fall deeply into a place of anxiety where I feared failing. Messing up. Making mistakes. Locked inside the perceptions of what others thought of me.

 

Brave Face #2: “I Don’t Care At All” 

The MK who wears the “I Don’t Care at All” Brave Face feels the pressures of cross-cultural life intensely. But rather than die trying to meet them, they just give up and walk away.

Instead of fear or anxiety, their thinking aligns more with bitterness and resentment. “Well, if I don’t try, I can’t fail” is typically the thought sitting behind this brave face. Their attempts at bravery manifest in rebelling against or running from the expectations.

These MKs withdraw. Give up. Numb out. Recede emotionally to protect themselves from hurt. Their hardened exteriors stand in defiance to the nebulous group of “they” from whom all the expectations come. I was eighteen when I was admitted into a residential treatment facility for an eating disorder. I’d given up. Numbed out. Withdrawn from my life.

I still remember a comment from a staff member that day. “Oh, you’re an MK too? It’s surprisingly sad how many MKs come through here.”

******

A deep-rooted, distorted belief is interwoven through both of these responses: the belief that safety and authenticity cannot co-exist.

MKs who are wearing the “I Care Too Much” brave face need to be seen beyond what they do. They need permission to fail and learn and get back up again. They need an invitation to be messy and raw and still in-process.

MKs who are wearing the “I Don’t Care at All” brave face need space to be angry. They need space to name their hurts and yell and scream and be completely not-okay. 

All MKs, whether they care too much or care too little, need to be reminded that they are worth more than who they think they’re supposed to be.

 

Read Part 1 here.

~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

Mostly Belonging: Hope for the MK

by Michèle Phoenix

When I was little, I’d snuggle up to my mom in the evenings and listen to her reading Are You My Mother?, attracted to the plight of the children’s book’s melancholy protagonist in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the story, the baby bird falls out of her nest and wanders from cat to tractor to cow and car, repeating her increasingly urgent question: “Are you my mother?

Without realizing it, I identified with her pain. The sensation of lostness was all too familiar to me, even at that age.

When I saw a copy of the book in a store a few weeks ago, my instant reaction was an urge to reach through the glossy cover and comfort the hapless hero. I saw a bit of me in her—a lifetime spent wondering if new places and people groups would be my “mother,” my place of belonging and sameness.

In many respects, MKs are not much different from this feathered fellow. We hover between clusters of those who know their place and fit their social contexts, hoping that someone will want us or include us despite our difference. We try to act like it doesn’t really matter. Or we try to be tough and endure it. But we still live our lives in a more or less conscious pursuit of belonging.

“I will never belong” is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed with varying degrees of rancor and drama in my thirty years of MK ministry. Of all the traits Third Culture Kids and Missionaries’ Kids share, I think this one is among the most powerful.

It is born of multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-experiential and multi-identificational backgrounds that both expand our worlds and limit our full adaptation to any of them.

One of my first conscious thoughts about my TCK identity came at a young age, when I realized while on furlough that I’d never be fully American, and that the French would never consider me fully French, either. There seemed to be no place on earth where I could feel that I fully belonged. Is it any wonder that MK communities like schools and mission conferences become such a haven of sameness to MKs?

Unfortunately, having experienced that level of identification can also set us up for a lifetime of discontent, because—and I don’t want to sound pessimistic—it is a sense of wholeness we may never know again.

Multi-cultural dwellers face three distinct options in their quest for belonging.

The first is to conform.
The second is to intentionally unconform.
The third is to straddle the cultural divide.

Let’s start with conforming. In some ways it’s the easiest option, and MKs are fairly good at it, at least on a surface level. We’re observers by nature. Whether it be trying out a new fast-food restaurant or voting in elections for the first time, I still live by the old motto: watch first, act second. I’ll relinquish my place in line as often as I need to until I’ve figured out how “normal” people do it and can proceed as they do.

That’s really just cultural savvy—or practical conformity. The kind that spares us public embarrassment and the kind of social faux-pas we desperately try to avoid. A complete conformity is a more dangerous version of the classic MK ability to adapt. In this case, we’ll either consciously or subconsciously discard those parts of ourselves that link us to other cultures and modes of life in order to be fully American, fully European, or fully Asian.

The danger in full conformity is in what we have to relinquish to achieve it.

You’ll see this in the MK from Rwanda who moves to Canada and wears nothing but Rwandan garb as an outward sign of her allegiance to her heart-home. You’ll see it in the Turkish MK who refuses to return to his passport culture and stops using English—thereby losing contact with the North American branch of his family and identity. Or the TCK in her passport country who never refers to the foreign places that framed her worldview and shaped her personality.

In order for me to have fully adapted to my French culture or to my Canadian passport culture, for instance, I would have had to alter my appearance, my political views, my gender-role opinions, my culinary tastes, and some of my social behaviors to achieve what that culture expected of me.

Once I was finished erasing the old and embracing the new, there would have been very little left of the richness of a multi-cultural upbringing: the broadened understanding and artistic/social/political palette that is so unique and so prized in TCKs.

Conformity would have cost me every bit of the beautiful complexity that can come from being an MK, but it would also have earned me a sense of belonging and sameness. For that sense, MKs can be willing to sacrifice an awful lot.

The second response to unbelonging is unconforming. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me and it goes something like this: “There’s no way I’m ever going to fit in. People on both continents tell me I’m weird. Weird in Brazil. Weird in Korea. Well, let me show you weird.” And the MK sets out to be as odd as he or she can possibly be.

It’s a self-defense mechanism that has serious back-firing potential, but I can see its appeal. Whereas being the victim of our difference feels painful and unpredictable, being the architect of the difference gives us a sense of control.

So we exaggerate our weirdness in order to call it a choice, not an affliction.

Sometimes it’s strange clothes, sometimes it’s eccentric behavior, sometimes it’s threatening attitudes, weird tastes or social misconduct. On some, it’s endearing. On others, it’s off-putting. But to MKs whose identities have been shattered and rearranged without their volition, it’s a sense of finally being in control of how the world perceives them.

So when someone’s expression says, “You’re weird,” they can pat themselves on the backs and consider it mission accomplished, because they’ve made “difference” a choice, not an painful condition.

But…they’ve also made that elusive “belonging” even more impossible to achieve.

The final response to unbelonging is straddling. It’s probably the healthiest of the three belonging options, though it is certainly not the easiest.

It requires that we celebrate “mostly-belonging.” It keeps us intentionally connected to the cultures and subcultures that have shaped us while investing and implanting in the one in which we live.

Straddling allows us to retain all those facets that lend depth and breadth to our identities while mostly adapting to the new places life takes us. In order to successfully straddle cultures, we’ll have to understand and value each of them, retaining those other-culture quirks that are acceptable in the place where we currently are and disengaging those that might be jarring or misunderstood by the locals around us—at least initially.

Straddling requires that we add new facets to our panoply, not as a rejection of what we’ve known before, but an expansion of our cultural arsenal. It is also a means of honoring the culture in which we’ve been planted. For instance, moving to Germany and not alienating our neighbors may require that we regularly sweep sidewalks that don’t need sweeping. Living in other places may require more modest dress for women. And yet others may require a “bribe” column in our budgeting. These are adjustments we can make without releasing the influences that made us who we are.

Mostly-belonging isn’t a repudiation of the multi-cultural aspects of our identities—it’s a thoughtful, intentional choice to embed in the culture we now live in, and an equally intentional choice to stay connected with the other cultures we carry within us.

An initial carefulness and adherence to social norms will usually yield a more successful integration than, say, waving a Greek flag and refusing to eat anything but olives and feta! As relationships deepen and our friends know us better, we’ll be able to broaden our expressions of multi-culturalism without alienating others.

Straddling or mostly-belonging requires that we relinquish the baby bird’s dream of full, uncompromising sameness. As MKs, we’re actually healthier when we accept that we won’t ever be completely one or the other of our natures, when we acknowledge and celebrate those ways in which we can fit in, and when we set out to live enthusiastically in that space between belongings. That’s what makes us unique, broad-minded, tolerant, chameleon-like and prized bridge-builders in whatever society we embrace. That’s what allows us to thrive as TCKs.

With that attitude—with that self-awareness, intentionality and openness—true connection becomes possible, and a new, richer and healthier form of belonging can be ours.

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

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group, and she has recently launched the podcast Pondering Purple. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

To the Repatriating TCK: Don’t Lose Sight of Christ

by Clarissa Choo

It was August 4, 2020, Czech Republic (CZ). Without anyone telling me to, I buckled my airplane seatbelt. I had a window seat, but I didn’t want to look out, else I burst into tears. Not wanting to regret my decision, I forced my eyes to the window. The cabin doors closed. This is it. I swallowed a lump in my throat. Soon, the plane ran down the runway and took off. The scenery at my window slanted. I can’t. Blinking back my tears, I turned to face forwards.  

I wished I didn’t have to return to my passport country. I wished that I could find a job that was willing to sponsor my work permit in the CZ, so I could continue to serve in the church there. Nonetheless, I accepted that this was God’s will, and if He wants to bring me back to central Europe, He’ll do so in His own time. 

For now, He wants me to be in my passport country, Singapore. 

Returning to your passport country is never easy. There are ways to mitigate the challenges. You can attend debriefs, receive counseling, and read advice about reentry. These steps are helpful, increase your awareness of what’s going on, and spur you to take action for the next step. As an adult TCK, I definitely encourage you to seek this kind of help.

But even with these supports, the process is still difficult. It’s complex, as it involves your past, present and future, your identity, acknowledging grief (and sometimes unresolved grief), reverse culture shock, your sense of belonging, goals, a change in location, adapting, the search for necessities, finding a job, settling into a new school, and the list can continue. The factors can be taken apart to be studied individually, yet they’re connected to others. The process is therefore more complex than one may think.

The duration also contributes to the difficulty and complexity of the reentry process. You’re unsure of how long you’ll take. Even after a year, you may realize you’re still adjusting to the food, still processing some hidden losses of the past, and perhaps, still searching for a suitable hospital or school. Personally, although I repatriated nearly nine months ago, I haven’t completely adjusted yet.

All of the above can be overwhelming. I’m not typing that carelessly. I know it through experience as I’ve returned to my passport country twice – the first time during my early teens and the second now in my early twenties. Both times were challenging. 

During the first repatriation, I experienced a huge reverse culture shock, couldn’t acknowledge my grief, had a hard time accepting God’s will, and struggled to adapt to a country where people expected me to behave like a local. 

During the second return, I had to adjust to changes that weren’t there before (like Singapore’s strict covid measures), and I struggled with processing grief. A Czech friend died while I was in the CZ, and I was repatriated a few months later. On top of those struggles, I had unresolved grief from my childhood.    

If you’re reentering your passport country, it is easy to get lost in the complex factors, only to lose sight of the most important One in your life: our Savior. That’s right. The One who bought you from the bondage of sin so that He can have a relationship with you – Jesus Christ. As a citizen of heaven, it is so vital, so crucial, so significant that you keep your eyes on Him, keep guarding your quiet time with Him, and keep putting Him first. Stay close by His side, dear TCK. And that is not a one-time action. You need to persevere to pursue and love Jesus.

When challenges hit you with their full impact, you have two choices: turn away from God or cling to Him. I chose the first during my first reentry. As a result, I missed blessings, strayed far away, and went through much hatred, anger, and pain that could’ve been prevented if I had picked the latter.

I learned a valuable lesson and don’t want to repeat my mistake. Thus, when I was repatriated a second time, I chose to continue to be close to Christ and was blessed by the fellowship He and I had as I went through the challenges. Through them, I got to know Him deeper than before. And through them, He helped me to process unresolved grief, refined me to be more like Christ, and drew me closer to Him (1 Peter 1:7, James 4:8).

Staying by His side is worth so much more than running away. So please, dear fellow TCK, don’t let go of His hand. He is the joy amid your grief (Romans 15:13), the healer of your hurt (Psalm 147:3), the comforter when you cry (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), the strength of your weakness (Psalm 73:26), the courage of your fear (Joshua 1:9), and the guide of your path even when the valley is dark (Psalm 119:105). 

Being a citizen of heaven includes the rugged terrain of life no matter the country you’re in; it’s part of the cost of following Jesus. Hence, trusting God does not mean that your road is smooth without potholes or grief (John 16:33). Rather, trusting Him means that you’ll cling unto Him amid the happy and sad times, no matter where you are.

The comforting truth is that through it all, He is upholding you with His right hand:  “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10, KJV).

 

Yearning to connect with other TCKs who are going through the same difficulties as you are? Truth4TCKs is an online conference that does exactly that. Their mission is to bring biblical truth and encouragement regarding the cross-cultural and highly mobile life to TCKs. Their theme for this year is finding what it means to be a Global Citizen of Heaven; the event takes place in May 2021. You can find out more from their website here

~~~~~~~~~~

Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. Clarissa is the Blog Tour Host for the online conference, Truth4TCKs 2021 in May, and the founder of the email/Instagram ministry, TCK Letters. She’s also a staff writer of TCKs for Christ, an upcoming website ministry dedicated to serving Christian TCKs. You can find her online here and on Instagram here.

Neither Here Nor There, I Do Not Belong Anywhere

by Chris Moyer

Not fully in France. Not in America,
Not by the Seine, Not by the Susquehanna.
My belonging is mixed-up, Sam, you see.
I do not belong fully here or there.
I do not fully belong anywhere!

If you are a Third Culture Kid like me, you may read the word “belonging” and feel that it is an ephemeral or even impossible concept to grasp. Endless strings of transitions leave many TCKs wondering how they could ever find a stable sense of belonging. In many ways, the TCK life feels like my adapted stanza from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham (above).

I struggled most intensely with my sense of belonging when I was a teenager and young adult because I experienced an intense push and pull between countries and continents through those years. Each year – from 9th grade through my first year of college – I faced a new phase of starting over. In 9th grade I had my last year in French schools. Then, in 10th grade, I shipped off (of my own volition) to Black Forest Academy in Germany. Next, I had a one-year stop in America (not of my own volition) for 11th grade. Then once again, I hopped the Atlantic to return to BFA for my senior year. Finally, I moved back to the States for college.

As I typed the above paragraph, I could feel my nerves amp up, my palms get sweaty, and butterflies begin to flutter in my stomach. Even though the last of those transitions took place over twenty years ago, the overwhelming sense of dread that accompanies having to start over is a feeling I can never quite shake. Yes, I have processed – and even learned to embrace – what took place during those years. But I can still vividly recall my desperate longing for stability and for a sense of true belonging, something for which my heart ached during that time in my life.

While I was blessed to develop meaningful relationships with many special people during those years – people I never would have met had I stayed in a single, stable environment – I can still keenly feel the tension that constantly pushed and pulled at me. The tension of wanting to fully fit in with those around me, all the while knowing deep inside that I was inherently different from both my French and American peers. My desire to belong remained just outside of my grasp because I was stuck in the perpetual reality of being an outsider in both of my “worlds.”

When living as a teenager in France, many of my classmates thought it was “cool” that I was American. But their understanding was based on the American shows they watched and the American musicians they listened to, rather than inquiring what it was like for me personally to be a US citizen. Instead of questions, I frequently heard comments such as, “You are so lucky to be American!” and, “I don’t understand why you would leave the US to live here!” And, just in case there was any doubt that I was not a local, my peers even nicknamed me, “Made in USA.” In some ways I liked that I had something that other kids wanted, and yet I struggled with being different. In my heart I simply wanted what most young people desire, that is to be like my friends and not stand out.

When in America I looked and sounded like my peers, which on the surface felt good. But on the inside, I felt like a zebra running among horses. Zebras sound like horses when they run, and outside of their black and white stripes, they even look like horses. But zebras and horses are different species. Try as I might, I could not ignore or fully hide my stripes. I did what I could to blend in like a cultural chameleon, but just as zebras cannot be tamed, so I could not suppress my multicultural identity.

At BFA, we were ALL zebras! Our base color (passport cultures) may have been different, as were our stripes (our host cultures), but within this community I finally found my “herd.” This offered me the sense of belonging I had been looking for and longing to find for so long. But before I knew it, graduation came along and we all went our separate ways. Many of us were once again living as zebras among horses.

TCKs do not have the power to change what makes them different from their peers in either their passport or their host countries. And now, as I parent three TCKs of my own, I want to help my children successfully navigate the treacherous path of belonging. While one side of the TCK “coin” represents challenges, the flip side to this is an intense richness that can only be found in this reality. Together, we will celebrate the beauty and accept the losses that come along with the multicultural life they did not personally choose for themselves.

It is my desire to lead my own TCK children to learn, as I did, that you do not need to fully belong to fully engage with those around you. No, you won’t ever “belong” to just one group or culture. And while that can be hard, it is ok. Understanding, acknowledging, grieving, and celebrating are all joined together to create the jumbled richness that is multi-cultural living. While I always felt different from my monocultural peers, coworkers, and family, I grew to accept these differences, while learning to belong — at least mostly. To explain what I mean by “mostly,” I highly recommend watching this short video from Michèle Phoenix: MKs & BELONGING – Three Options to Consider – YouTube

Below are three things (this is not an exhaustive list) that you can do to help your TCK(s) learn to mostly belong wherever they may be.

 

1. Process their sense of belonging with them.

For older TCKs, asking them reflective questions can draw out what is going on beneath the surface of their desire to belong:

  • Where do you feel you most belong?
  • What makes you feel like you belong there or with those people?
  • What it is like for you when you feel like an outsider?
  • What do you do when you feel like an outsider (look for specific behavior that helps or inhibits their desire to belong)?

For younger TCKs, you can still try to ask reflective questions like the ones above, or you can read a book like Swirly, which will draw out feelings and desires through story.

 

2. Help them make decisions that grow a healthy sense of belonging (be sure to process #1 with your kids before moving to #2).

As Michèle Phoenix says in her video, some TCKs will do whatever they can to blend in. They will forsake their heritage for the sake of belonging. While TCKs need to grieve what they have left behind, suppressing where they come from will create additional challenges of unresolved grief along the way.

Because of the mobile nature of their parents’ employment, some TCKs will experience short transition periods such as the one I had in America for my 11th grade year. I did not want to be in America that year, and my attitude and behavior clearly matched my disposition. It can be tempting for TCKs, when they know they will only be somewhere for a short period of time, to stay withdrawn and be unwilling to invest much into their momentary place of residence. This was my approach to my stop-gap year in America for two reasons. The first was that I longed to be back with my friends at BFA. The second was that I knew I was going to be leaving and did not want to get close to people for fear of how hard the goodbyes might be.

Whether TCKs are in a short transitional period, or whether they are in a more permanent phase of life, it is important to help them make conscious decisions that lead them to connect with others. Understandably, it is hard to move toward others when you feel like a cultural outsider, when you are in the middle of grief, or when you’re just plain tired of “putting yourself out there” yet again. But, relationships with peers are a crucial first step to a growing sense of belonging. Below are some ideas (again, not exhaustive) of how to help your kids connect with other kids:

  • Encourage them to invite a classmate to your home to play. If your TCK does not want to risk rejection, be the one to take initiative and invite their classmate’s family over for an afternoon snack or a meal.
  • When possible, have your TCK get involved in something they love to do. In our family we chose to forego extra-curricular activities during our first year in France because we thought the language barrier would be more stressful than the activity would be beneficial. However, after our initial “waiting period” we’ve witnessed our three kids blossoming more and more since beginning their hobbies here.
  • If your TCK(s) goes to local schools, check in with them regularly about how well (or not) they are connecting with their classmates. Some kids naturally jump into new settings with both feet. But others may be shy and insecure about finding their “place,” as we found was the case with one of our children who needed regular encouragement to move toward others. With time and some gentle nudges this kid has really grown in their ability to initiate with others, and as a result, their sense of belonging has been strengthened.

 

3. When possible, gather with other expat families.

There is a good chance that your TCK(s) will feel their greatest sense of belonging when they find themselves with other TCKs. They will likely no longer feel like a zebra running among horses when they come together. There is a comfort, often an unspoken one, through a mutual understanding that comes with being alongside of others from their “herd.” In light of this, make every effort to meet up with other expat families when possible.

When it is not possible to meet in person, whether because of where you live or because of the current global pandemic, your TCK(s) may enjoy having online gatherings with their TCK peers. Our youngest loves to connect with a TCK friend in Eastern Europe and do a “show and tell” with him. Our older kids simply enjoy sitting across the screen and chatting with their TCK friends.

Lastly, let me encourage you to find conferences/retreats to attend with other expat families. There are some great events put on by educational service organizations, mission organizations and others that will be like a breath of fresh air for you and your TCKs. These types of events were some of the biggest highlights of my childhood and I know my kids have loved the handful of retreats they have attended with their TCK peers.

 

In the end my hope is that we can see our kids mostly belong and that the adapted stanza from Sam I Am changes to:

Mostly in France. And in America
By the Seine and the Susquehanna.
I belong mostly, Sam, you see.
I belong mostly here and there.
I belong mostly anywhere.

~~~~~~~~~

Chris Moyer grew up in France and Germany as the child of missionaries. After spending nineteen years in the States and serving as a counselor and then as a pastor, he returned to France in 2018 with his wife, Laura, and their three children to serve in church planting and global member care with World Team. Chris loves running, biking, following his favorite sports teams as a faithful “phan” (all teams from Philadelphia and France soccer), and travelling the world. You can read more of his reflections on his personal TCK experience and on parenting TCKs on his blog TCKonnective.

Raising Healthy Third Culture Kids

It was in the fall that I first saw the announcement from Lauren Wells that she would be writing a book about raising third culture kids. Like many TCKs, I get skeptical any time I hear that someone is writing a book about us. But Lauren’s approach and the fact that she herself is a third culture kid had me curious. That curiosity led to a full and enthusiastic endorsement of the book she has now beautifully delivered. I received my copy in the mail a week ago, and it sits here, beside a picture of my own second generation third culture kids. It’s easy to think “Where was this book when I so needed it?” but that is nonproductive at best. What I will say is that I am so delighted to know that this book is now available.

Today we have the opportunity to hear from Lauren about this book and her journey to writing the book. We begin with my review and then move forward in the interview with Lauren. You can read her bio at the end. Enjoy!

“Lauren Wells begins her book by describing what she calls the ‘ampersand’ life of the third culture kid, demonstrating the wonder, beauty, and difficulty of a global childhood. The description is remarkably accurate  If we could ensure that our TCKs would grow up healthy and resilient in this ampersand existence, able to withstand the inevitable adjustment process that comes with the global life and adapt accordingly, we would do it in a heart beat. In Raising up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, Lauren Wells has gifted us with a gentle guide and a preventive health primer, unique in the field of third culture kid literature.

As an adult third culture kid who works professionally as a public health nurse focused on prevention and wellness, I applaud the comprehensive content between these pages. The preventive wisdom in the book includes evidence-based practice around the adverse child events study and survey, research and findings from Dr. Brene Brown’s work on belonging and fitting in, and important information from key thought leaders in the TCK world. It is a goldmine of wisdom, organized in a practical and readable format.  While we cannot know all our TCKs will go through, we can take a giant step forward by reading this and learning how to multiply the benefits of a global life and conversely pay attention to the challenges that can become stumbling blocks to healthy development.

If you are working with, raising, or love third culture kids from any part of the globe, buy this book today! The pages will quickly go from crisp and new to dogeared and underlined, worn in the best possible way for reading and internalizing this gift.” – Marilyn Gardner

 

Tell us a bit about your background, and with it what prompted you to write this book?

My TCK journey began when family moved to Tanzania when I was 12 years old. It was a challenging transition, but I came to love living in Africa, and I integrated deeply into the village culture where we lived. In university, I realized how significantly my years overseas had impacted me and I decided that I wanted to work with families who were on a similar globally-mobile journey. 

I began working with families in 2015 when I became the TCK Program Director for a training organization called CultureBound and created programs for children and teens that paralleled CultureBound’s adult trainings. As I worked with children and teens, I began to also work more and more with the parents, but in the short amount of time we were together, I felt I could barely scratch the surface of what I felt they needed to know. It wasn’t uncommon for parents to ask for a dinner conversation to continue talking about TCK care. 

In 2016, I founded TCK Training as a way of continuing the conversation by providing practical ways for parents to be intentional about every step of raising their TCKs. TCK Training offers a blog, workshops, trainings, consulting, and many other resources. I had never considered myself a writer and certainly never anticipated writing a book, but through four years of writing content for TCK Training, A Life Overseas, and other forums, I developed a love for typing out my thoughts, and people often told me how unique and helpful my practical, preventive approach was. 

In spring of 2019, I attended a conference with others who are in the TCK care world, many of whom are authors themselves and all of whom had read my work. They encouraged me to write a book and believed it would fill a gap in TCK literature. So, I decided to go for it and here we are exactly one year later! 

 

How might this book differ from other literature on third culture kids?

There are many great books on Third Culture Kids, but I wanted to offer something new to the TCK community in three different ways: 

  1. I wanted to create something very practical, easy to read, and not intimidating for parents (understanding what it’s like to try to get through a book with young kids during transition!) while still filled with excellent research-based content. I wanted it to be accessible enough for parents, yet highly informative for member care workers and organizational personnel. 
  2. Many of the TCK books talk about what a TCK is and discuss the challenges and benefits of the TCK life. This is excellent! But I wanted to take it a step further and offer a practical guide for what you can do with all of that information as you parent TCKs. 
  3. Finally, all of my TCK work focuses on proactive, preventive care. Much of the literature available focuses on reactive care – addressing the TCK’s challenges after they have negatively manifested. I come at it from the other side – looking at how parents can begin to address those challenges when they first move and begin a life overseas and doing this through the application of prevention science.

 

How do you think writing this book has helped you as an adult TCK?

Writing this book has helped me to process so much of my own experience. I joke that I never know what I’m feeling until I write it down, and that certainly was the case as I wrote this book. While I have been teaching this content for years, writing it down in book form helped me to process how I have grown in each of these areas – and especially how that has shown up (or still needs work!) in my own parenting.

In some ways, I feel like I wrote a mirror that I constantly need to look into as a gauge for how I am doing as an adult TCK. The premise of the book is that we can raise up healthy TCKs, but it is helpful to realize that there will never be a point when we, as adult TCKs, arrive at our perfectly healthy selves. This book has helped me to have a good way to check in with myself and assess how healthy I am (or not) in each season and transition.



What is the most significant piece of advice or wisdom you have received as a third culture kid?

I was told once that nothing will ever undo the TCK piece of your identity. As an adult, living in my passport country and raising my own kids, there have been times when accepting this life felt like a betrayal to my TCK-self – that I would slowly lose my TCK identity. Realizing that part of me will always be a TCK has allowed me to be willing to learn to put down roots, develop deep friendships with people who aren’t TCKs, and be all right with raising my kids in my passport country for as long as God has us here. 

 

What do you hope parents will gain from your book?

I hope that parents will reach the end of the book feeling hopeful, encouraged, and equipped with practical tools and skills for caring for their Third Culture Kids. I hope that they will see how intertwined the benefits and challenges are of the TCK life and will be inspired to address the challenges, not out of fear, but because it is through working through the challenges that the amazing benefits of the TCK life are magnified. 

 

As an adult TCK, what are some words of encouragement you want to give parents?

I would say two things. First, in the book I talk about the TCK life as an ampersand (&). It is both good & hard. More than anything, I want to encourage parents that while it is difficult to embrace that your child’s life will include the hard, so much of the good comes because of the hard. So many of the amazing benefits of the TCK life like high emotional intelligence, adaptability, and resilience are only there because they were born out of the difficult pieces of TCK life. 

Second, the entire premise of my book is that it is possible to raise healthy Third Culture Kids. As an adult TCK who has had to work though (and in many ways is still working though!) each of the challenges, I know that when the energy is put in, the benefits of the TCK life become incredibly valuable in every aspect of adulthood.

 

Lastly, If you had 20/20 vision, what would you tell your younger TCK self?

This is a hard question! Two things come to mind. I would say…

“I know this is so hard right now, but you won’t regret being a TCK. It will become such a huge and significant part of who you are and what you do with your life. Out of this hard will come so much good.” 

And… 

“You don’t have to work so hard to adapt perfectly to every situation and be a constant chameleon. You can let people see the many different pieces that make you who you are instead of constantly trying to show them what you think they want to see. It’s ok to let your African TCK side show – people will probably even like it!”

 

Other articles by Lauren on A Life Overseas:

10 Questions to Routinely Ask Your TCKs

7 Ways to Teach Your TCKs to Process Grief

Should TCKs Take Their Parents to College?

6 Ways to Help Your TCKs Manage Their “Need for Change”

GRIT: A Guide to Praying for Third Culture Kids

 

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

Lauren Wells is the Founder and Director of TCK Training, Director of Training for CultureBound, and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids. She specializes in practical, proactive care for TCKs and their families. Lauren grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, where she developed a love for smokey chai and Mandazis (African doughnuts). She now lives in the US with her husband and two children.

If You Send an MK Some Cookies

cookies

Inspired by Laura Numeroff

If you send an MK some cookies, she’s going to want to eat a couple.

But first she’ll ask her mom if she can walk down the street to get some apple soda to go with them.

On her way, she’ll see a stationery store.

That will make her think about buying a card to send to you.

In the store she’ll find one that says, “Thanks You! Very! Very!”

Then she’ll decide to make a card herself.

For that she’ll need some glitter, so she’ll ask the clerk (in his language) if he has some “really small colorful things,” while making “sparkly” motions with her hands.

He’ll probably reach under the counter and pull out a bag of marbles.

She’ll politely decline.

While she’s leaving the store, she’ll see a lizard on the door frame.

She’ll imagine what it would be like to catch it and take it home as a pet.

Then she’ll remember her dog. He’s most likely hungry, and it’s her day to feed him, so she’ll cut her trip short to hurry home.

On her way back, she’ll hear her neighbor calling to her through an open window.

The lady will wave her over and hand her two huge cucumbers and another kind of vegetable she’s never seen before.

She’ll take them home and put them on the kitchen counter.

On the counter she’ll notice a roll of tin foil, and that will give her an idea.

She’ll tear off a strip and grab some markers and some scissors and take everything into the living room.

She’ll color all over the tin foil and cut it into tiny, tiny pieces.

Chances are, she’ll sneeze and some of the pieces will fall under the couch.

When she leans down to pick them up, she’ll find a bracelet that she’s been looking for that her best friend gave her last year.

That will make her miss her friend so she’ll pull out her phone to look up the difference between their time zones so they can video chat tomorrow.

After she figures that out, she’ll add her friend’s name to the “to-do” list she keeps.

She’ll also write down “glitter” because she wants to go back to the stationery store to show the clerk what she’s made and ask him what it’s called.

When she thinks about the store she’ll remember that she never got any apple soda.

That will remind her that she has some cookies.

So she’ll eat two or three.

And that will remind her of you.

[photo: “Cookies,” by z Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

9 Ways MKs Can Navigate Their Grief

by Michèle Phoenix

Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. The answer is simple: they are highly influential emotions experienced by a majority of MKs. A young man named Muki, who recently transitioned back to his passport country, articulated it best:

I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul. I feel like grief has become my love language.

I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see here) and on their relationships (see here). But this article is not a recipe for avoiding grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer cure, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of grief that understanding and growth reside.

So this article is not about circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. It’s about managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.

 

A note for non-MKs:
Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process.

 

A note for MKs:
We’re too often in a hurry to put the Hard behind us so we can get to those more “acceptable” stages of grief, praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.

Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find strategies to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase.

When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.

 

1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.

The truth is that what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world—the intimate home—we’ve lost. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.

 

2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.

When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.

Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.

 

3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.

What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” Picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting lightly on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I can see it. I can hear its whisper. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.

Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.

Note: there may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved” and needs to be addressed immediately. That can sometimes be part of the grief journey too.

 

4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we don’t learn to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.

It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of the person we’re inviting into our sadness. That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.

There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.

Consider professional help as well. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?

Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate him/herself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.

That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.

 

5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.

God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms. His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.

If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.

There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for. He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.

Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.

 

6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.

You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.

It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.

 

7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.

Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.

One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.

 

8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.

The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.

Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.

 

9. Persist.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.

Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that healing is possible and real.

As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.

You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.

Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.

Originally published here.

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

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.