Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

By Aneurin Howorth

Moving abroad is a wonderful privilege filled with blessings. Those of us who grew up internationally are able to experience the richness of the world in a way which we couldn’t have otherwise. In short, it is great. Yet there is a price to pay. Life is often filled with death, loss, and grief to an unprecedented level. This pain takes its toll on the human body, often in the form of mental illnesses.

It is difficult to pin down what causes mental illnesses. Both genetic and environmental factors are at play. However, there are some situations where mental illnesses become easier to spot. Think high-stress situations such as dealing with pressure to get visas sorted whilst trying to find a school for kids. Or potentially dealing with cycles of loss as you say goodbye to good friends, not knowing when you will see them again. Or wrestling with questions of identity as re-entry into your passport country becomes painful. Any of these sound familiar?

This is particularly challenging for TCK’s. Whilst these challenges can wipe anyone off their feet, dealing with these difficult circumstances during your developmental years can be devastating to your mental health. In the years where humans’ brains are primed to learn about identity, culture, and belonging, we are pulled from one place to the next in painful upheavals. Whilst it does vary from TCK to TCK, the general trend is one of dealing with far greater stress and grief than your average child.

It then comes as no surprise that mental health is a bigger problem among TCKs than the global trend. Whilst data is notoriously difficult to obtain (turns out being all over the world makes it hard to collect data!), there is a connection between cross-cultural living and struggling with a mental health disorder. When this happens during one’s developmental years the issue is magnified.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as they should on the mission field. For example, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and seems to go hand in hand with missions work. Despite this, most missionaries don’t have an extensive knowledge of the issue. I have many MK friends who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or other mental health problems (I, myself, am ill with a suspected somatization disorder). Missions is messy and painful work, contributing to mental illnesses in MKs.

The severity of these illnesses varies, but they cannot be ignored. I would not be surprised if many of you reading this know of someone who has tried to, or has, committed suicide. I went to an MK school in Kenya (RVA), which I loved. Yet, every year multiple people struggled with mental illnesses. I am not writing this to reflect badly on my school. Whilst the school is far from perfect, mental illnesses are part and parcel of missions work. Suicide is a terrible consequence of mental illnesses, but not the only one. The destruction they cause is pervasive and casts a menacing shadow over every area of our lives. It is a topic nobody seems to consider until the situation is already devastating.

One of the curiosities of mental illnesses is that they tend to show up later in life for us. The trauma the we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. [1] I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.

This is not a TCK-specific problem. Many cross-cultural adults report bouts of depression after transitioning culturally. This is often the case when people return to their passports culture.

The reality is that anyone who lives a stressful lifestyle, moves a lot, has had to say lots of goodbyes to friends, places and languages, struggles with questions of identity or belonging during their formative years will be more prone to mental illnesses. Obviously, missionaries (including MKs) fit right into these categories. It is something that we will have to deal with, whether we want to or not. I can guarantee that every missionary knows someone who has a mental health problem. They might not be aware of it because of the painful and secretive nature of these illnesses, but they affect almost all missionary families.

To their credit, mission organizations are ahead of the game in member care. They are the best international groups in this regard. However, with mental illnesses we still have a long way to go.

Here are some thoughts on how we can fight mental illnesses: they can only be fought as a team. Given that we are all one family under God, it is something we should all care about.

1. Have a well-rounded theology of suffering. We should not expect a comfortable life as Christians, but rather the opposite. We live a broken world in desperate need of God’s grace. There should be a constant dialogue around suffering, both its inevitability and how to rejoice in it (think Colossians 1:24 or James 1:2). Without this understanding we will grow inconsolably despondent in tough times. For a brilliant book on this check out The Call to Joy and Pain by Ajith Fernando.

2. We need to be proactive in conversations about mental illnesses. This is not a topic we should only learn about when we encounter its consequences. It needs to be part of all healthy discussions about being a cross-cultural missionary. If you have kids, it is crucial to bring them up discussing them. Not only do they have a decent chance of being ill in the future, but they will also play a key role in supporting other TCK friends who are likely to struggle with mental illnesses.

3. We need to have a proper understanding of mental illnesses as medical issues. Missionaries cannot go onto the field thinking that mental illnesses are spiritual failings or defects. This attitude will crush them, their children, or their friends when they encounter mental illnesses (regrettably this is still common). Whilst suffering from a mental illness is tough spiritually, medically speaking it is as physical as breaking a leg (although it’s more complicated because our brains are inspiringly complex). If you trust a doctor to fix a broken bone, please trust doctors as they tell you that mental health is physical too. (I can provide a plethora of evidence for anyone interested.) Like any problem, proper education on the topic will allow us to be supported and get the help we need quicker.

4. Pray for all those suffering from mental illnesses. It is a terrible burden and cannot be carried alone. Feel free to get in touch with any questions. Please keep this conversation going.

 

[1] Bushong, Lois. Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. (Indianapolis: Mango Tree Intercultural Studies, 2013), page 47.

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Aneurin Howorth grew up up in East Africa as an MK. Both his parents are British, but he has an American accent from time spent at Rift Valley Academy. Aneurin is passionate about mental health and the relationship it has to living internationally. He believes we need more discussion around these topics and blogs about both at https://noggybloggy.com/.  He is currently studying for a Master of Science in the psychology of mental health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. You can contact him here or on his personal blog.

Citizens of Heaven: Third Culture Kids and the Longing for Home

by Tanya Crossman

When I wrote Misunderstood, there were a lot of smaller topics that came up in interviews which didn’t really fit into the narrative of the book. I was recently able to spend some time on one of these side topics for a research thesis titled: “A place to call home: citizenship in heaven for TCKs.” I interviewed nine Christian TCKs aged 19-26 (from a range of backgrounds and nationalities) and surveyed another 92 Christian TCKs.

In this post and its sequel, I’m going to explain a little of the two main findings of my research. In short: knowing their citizenship in heaven brings TCKs comfort, and also provides a powerful tool for discipleship.

 

Home and Belonging

The TCKs I interviewed talked about ‘home’ in the context of emotional connections. Home means loved ones, especially immediate family members (34%) and communities they belong to (11.5%). Only 16.5% of those surveyed connected home with a single place.

“For TCKs the word home is more of a concept, as opposed to a place.” – Nadia

“Physical location can be important, but the familiarity of a place is more often than not defined by the people and the interactions you have. For me, that is home.” – Lee

Since home is something that is connected to people, home can move – whether you like it or not. Home is something that can be lost. A community disperses, and so does the sense of home. A family moves on, and suddenly a place that was home is no longer accessible.

“I lost my home, where I used to be. I have many places I could have called home, but now there’s no core community there, it simply wouldn’t feel like home anymore.” – Kaito

Many TCKs go through life aching for a single place to call home, and knowing that what they long for is impossible. There is no earthly way to bring their experiences of home together in a single place.

“To [my passport country peers] home is a familiar place, but to me my family is home. My home is not here, because they’re not here. When I go visit them it’s not really familiar either. I miss places that I’ve never been to, or not been in long. . .My home is literally in three or four countries now, maybe five sometimes.” – Min

Citizenship in heaven answers a deep felt need in TCKs for something that does not exist for them on earth: a singular, comprehensive source of home.

 

The hope of heaven as home

77% of the TCKs I surveyed identified with feeling foreign on earth. The idea that there is a home for them located outside the complications of earthly allegiances is powerful. 80% said citizenship in heaven is comforting. This comfort was strikingly demonstrated in interviews, where some of these TCKs considered for the first time what the idea of heaven as home means for their transition-weary hearts.

“As a TCK or someone who is searching for their home or where they belong, having concepts like citizenship in heaven help us, or give us hope that one day we will belong somewhere.” – Nadia

“Heaven is my home so it’s okay that I’m so confused about where my home is, because maybe there isn’t one here, there’s one there. It’s a huge relief. If you don’t feel like you’re at home, that’s okay, because God is your home.” Alexis

Although heaven is a place not seen, even this connects with the TCK experience. TCKs grow up in a place that isn’t ‘home’ – knowing that somewhere else, on the other end of a long journey, is a place that is really ‘home’. A place they know through the stories of others, rather than in their own experience. TCKs’ complicated relationship with ‘home’ on earth makes heaven as home a powerful truth.

“Currently I’m a citizen of Singapore, that may change, but the constant of being a citizen of heaven is always reassuring to have. . .It’s an overwhelming thought, especially as someone who doesn’t really have a home to go back to every time. It’s nice to know that in the future, in the long term, in the prospect of eternity, I actually do have somewhere I do belong.” Min

 

An inclusive kingdom

There are no distinctions between Christians; all are fellow citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities (Ephesians 2:19). This beautiful truth is powerfully illustrated in Revelation, where people from every earthly place and allegiance gather together to worship the One God (Revelation 5:9-10, 7:9-10). Heaven embraces and includes peoples currently divided by geography, ethnicity, and language.

Several TCKs I interviewed picked up on the idea that heaven is inclusive: a place where people of all nations and languages are bound together as a single people in a single place, where there is distinction but no division. What comfort this brings to the 62% of TCKS who said they feel at home in international or multicultural communities. The place they long for, the place they know doesn’t exist on earth, is real – and it is their eternal home.

“I have this dream of a country that’s completely multicultural. . .I do think that it should be stressed how much relief it brings me, knowing that I’m going to get that… because it’s something that you’re always aching for, and never think you’re going to get, and then realising… I’ll actually get it when I go to heaven. And when you’re 13 and you’re 14 and you don’t belong anywhere, and you feel that there’s no place that’s home, it would have been nice to know, to have this as a curriculum, and to know that it’s completely fine if you don’t have a home…I don’t belong anywhere. But there is somewhere, and that’s great!” – Alexis

The hope we have in Christ comprehensively answers the longings of human hearts, and a key longing for TCKs (one they often feel is hopeless) is for home, a place to belong. The kingdom of heaven is what their hearts long for – and this is a powerful message.

This comfort alone makes citizenship in heaven an important piece of theology to teach to TCKs. This was where I thought my thesis might end, but I discovered another important way that TCKs interact with the concept of citizenship in heaven. Stay tuned for my concluding post to learn more.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

The Top 10 Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs and TCKs

by Michèle Phoenix

I’ve written extensively in the past few years about attitudes and choices that can help MKs and TCKs to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent to being multi-cultural. Here are, in my estimation, the top ten most valuable of them.

1. I will believe that I am not weird—I am complex. 

It’s a refrain I’ve heard from young and old in my work with Third Culture Kids and the problem is mostly semantic. Saying “I’m weird” implies a sort of terminal condition. No one will ever understand me. “Complex” hints that with time and awareness, others will begin to figure us out. Has a global upbringing made us a bit more complicated than others? Absolutely. But it’s not an insurmountable thing for those who love us enough to seek to understand us. This video might be a great place to start!

2. I will recognize that I am not special—I am blessed.

Calling ourselves “special” implies superiority, yet those aspects of our lives that have shaped us are usually not something we’ve earned or chosen. We are MKs because our parents made the decision to go overseas as missionaries. That makes us fortunate—blessed—not better than others. “Special” often yields arrogance. “Blessed” is more likely to yield a humbled gratitude. The latter is so much more attractive and inclusive. For more, read here.

3. I will allow myself to fail publicly and privately.

One of the greatest challenges MKs experience is the pressure to live up to the expectations of people for whom “Missionary Kid” implies a deeper faith, better behavior, wiser choices and flawless living. If we let those standards guide us in even a subconscious way, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of disappointing others and ourselves. Accepting the fact that we’ll fail and admitting to it when we do is good and healthy—even if it’s disenchanting to others. For more, read here.

4. I will stay connected in some way to my other cultures.

When juggling so many cultural influences, it sometimes seems easier to simplify our lives by distancing ourselves from some of those places we call home in order to just exist in one location. It is an understandable and natural inclination! The problem is that much of the richness of our multi-culturality comes from being able to draw on the entirety of our life-experiences. It’s precisely because we juggle so many cultures that we have so much to offer—a broader worldview, global understanding, adaptability, etc. It would be tragic to lose the depth and wealth of our complex background has given us for the sake of a more “simple” identity. Staying connected in some small way to past worlds (whether through people or media or traditions or all of those) allows us to retain the treasures they’ve instilled in us. For more, read here.

5. I will apply the same curiosity, exploration and acceptance to my passport culture that I apply to foreign cultures.

As MKs, one of our greatest strengths is being able to insert ourselves into new cultures with inquisitiveness, grace and tolerance. Those skills seem to fly out the window when we reenter our own passport culture! If stranded in a remote tribal village, we’d enter the fray with some of our most prized traits on display: open-mindedness, a sense of adventure and cultural acceptance. But returning “home”? Not a chance. Think of how different our re-entry experience would be if we applied the same attitude to our passport culture as we do to foreign places. For more, read here.

6. I will be versatile in my relationship-building methods. 

As MKs, we build friendships in an uncommon way. We’re often quick and intense as we enter into relationships, aware that time is limited and comfortable sharing rapidly on an intimate level because of that. Mono-culturals tend to approach friendships differently, letting the “deepening” take a slower, more casual route. It may take longer and initially seem shallow, but there’s a good chance we’ll achieve meaningful relationship with our less global peers if we’re patient enough to allow for a slower pace. Dismissing people early because they don’t dive deep fast enough can eliminate the chance of true friendship. Understanding how our relationship model differs from that of mono-culturals is a good place to start. For more, read here.

7. I will use my experiences to enrich and not diminish others.

It’s a nasty little habit we have—nothing entertains MKs more than celebrating the “stupidity” of those less fortunate than us. Our backyards are the stuff of fantasies to most mono-cultural peers. We’ve seen more and experienced more than they can even imagine. Yet rather than being grateful for our blessings, we sometimes use our global savvy to make fun of the less fortunate. We’re in a unique position to bring the worlds we’ve known to those who will never get to witness them for themselves, yet we too often opt for something that looks an awful lot like arrogance instead. Let’s commit to kindly and humbly expanding the horizons of our mono-cultural friends (at an appropriate time in relationship with them) rather than mocking, humiliating or belittling them. For more, read here.

8. I will strive to distinguish between human failure and God’s character.

There’s no denying it. Many of us carry wounds from our years overseas. Some of us have been neglected, abused or afflicted by illness. We’ve seen death and famine. We’ve been harmed by the poor decisions of those who were supposed to care for us. It’s easy to blame God for the scars—as I did for many years. Yet so much of the violence and injustice we’ve suffered is the direct result of human mistakes and cruelty. God grieves over the actions and circumstances that harm us. Blaming Him will only deprive us of the powerful healing only His comfort can afford us. For more, read here.

9. I will choose to exercise gratitude, but won’t ignore the hardships.

The hardships are real. They influence our thinking and our outlook, our serenity and our faith. We must acknowledge and address them in order to heal from them. But as we’re in that process, balancing the pain with an intentional focus on what we have to be grateful for can be a perspective-enhancing practice. For more, read here.

10. I will acknowledge that being an MK alone won’t get me through life—having an intimate, trusting relationship with God will.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our MK identity that we think it’s the only thing that defines us. It becomes the most meaningful and foundational aspect of our lives, and we can make the mistake of assuming it’s all we need…because we think it’s all we are.

But we’re so much more. We are children of God. And though our multi-cultural skills might be tremendous assets to be prized and celebrated, when life becomes treacherous and dark, they’ll be of little help. Only an active, intimate and dependent relationship with God will carry us through the trials that are inevitable and unskirtable as we live life in a broken world. His love and presence are inexpressibly precious. For more, read here.

You’ll notice that each of the ten mindsets above is stated as an intentional verb:  believe, recognize, allow, stay, apply, be, use, strive, choose, acknowledge. A shift in our way of thinking won’t happen organically. It will come as we invest determination and focus in making it happen, subjugating harmful habits to practices that might enhance our own lives and those of others.

To read more of my articles about MKs and parenting MKs, click here.

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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.

10 Questions to Routinely Ask Your TCKs

by Lauren Wells

It is important for parents raising children anywhere to be continually engaging and checking in with their kids. When you are raising TCKs, this is even more important. TCKs are privy to struggles that mono-cultural children don’t often have to face, so being aware of that and taking time to routinely ask questions such as these can strengthen your relationship and show your kids how much you love and value them.

Set aside time routinely to talk with your TCK. Ensure that this time is not tainted by distractions and that you are not attempting to multitask, but instead be fully engaged and interested in their answers. If these types of conversations are not something you have had with your TCKs in the past, it may take a few times before they truly trust that you care about their answers and that they are safe to answer honestly. For this reason, it is critical to create a safe space for them to speak openly.

Listen and encourage them to explain their answers or elaborate, but be careful to not be too pushy or to respond in a way that invalidates their answer. Remember that the purpose of asking these questions is not to provide a solution, but to open up the communication between you and your child. You might ask your TCK all of these questions, or just have them on hand to ask one or two when you’re spending time with your child.

 

1. How are you doing?

It seems simple, but asking this question is one of the best ways to show your kids that you care. Make is clear that there isn’t a right answer and that it is ok if they really aren’t doing “just fine.”

 

2. What are some things that you enjoy about living here?

Their “favorites” may be different than you expect!

 

3. Do you ever wish that we lived a different life?

It’s important to help your TCKs process the life that they are living. It is unique and it wasn’t of their choosing. It’s healthy for them to think through this question and for you to hear their answer as it may reveal some deeper struggles that need to be worked through.

 

4. What is something that you’re looking forward to?

This gives your TCK the opportunity to share their excitement about an upcoming event. Perhaps you didn’t know about this event or didn’t realize how important it is to your child. Now that you know, you can share in their excitement!

 

5. What is something that you’re not looking forward to?

This question often provides the opportunity to dig deeper and discover why a certain event, place, task, etc. is unenjoyable or uncomfortable for your child. Avoid a positive comeback such as, “But that will be so fun!” and instead explore the question further by saying something like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that place made you nervous. What is it about it that is uncomfortable to you?”

 

6. Do you feel like we spend enough time together?

TCKs can often feel like they are second to their parent’s work or ministry. This question allows them the opportunity to say so if that is the case. If their answer is “no,” be vigilant about finding ways to spend more time with this child.

 

7. Where do you feel most at home?

The question “Where is home?” is a common, confusing question for TCKs. Working through this idea at a young age prevents it from becoming a surprising realization when they are older and feel that no places feels completely like “home.”

 

8. Is there anyone or anything that you miss right now?

It is important to give TCKs the permission to reminisce and grieve their losses. Bringing these up for them can help them to do this in a healthy way.

 

9. Do you feel like people understand you?

Being a TCK has many challenges and one of them is a constant feeling of being misunderstood. While you may not have a solution to their perceived uniqueness, it can be insightful for you to hear your child’s answer.

 

10. What’s your favorite thing about yourself?

Again, identity issues are common for TCKs so asking them to think through things that they like about themselves is a good way to promote self confidence. This is also a good time to tell them a few of your favorite things about them!

 

Do you have any questions to add to the list? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.

One Simple Way to Bless TCKs

“My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel.” – Tanya Crossman

It’s true. Many kids grow up among worlds and end up feeling completely and totally misunderstood. They may feel misunderstood by the societies they’ve grown up in and the societies they’ve returned too. They may feel misunderstood by the nuclear families they’ve grown up in and the extended families they’ve returned to.

So what do we do?

What can parents do? Parents who know they don’t understand all the ins and outs of growing up globally?

Well, what do we do when we interact with anyone we want to get to know better? Read a book? Google them? Ask other people? Read an article? Maybe.

But typically the best solution is just to treat them like the unique human beings they are and start asking questions.

I think that one of the simplest things we could do to help the TCKs in our life to feel more seen, more loved, and less misunderstood, is to get better at asking questions.

And of course we have to care about their answers.

 

“Smart parents give their kids lots of answers, but wise parents ask their kids lots of questions.” – Unknown

 

Questions give value and open the door to deeper intimacy. Questions are Christ-like, with one scholar identifying 307 individual questions that Jesus asked during his earthly ministry.

It’s hard to ask questions, though, because I have to shut up long enough to listen to the answers. Most of us simply prefer giving answers to asking questions.

Oh that we would excel in question-asking! And not because we’re trying to control or manipulate, but because we’re genuinely interested in what people have to say.

Like TCKs.

One teenager who grew up overseas said that she would love to be asked “any meaningful question by someone who was truly interested in knowing the answer.”

No two stories are the same. I’ve had teenagers here in Cambodia thank me for NOT being a TCK. I was a bit confused until they explained: “Sometimes, adult TCKs come in here and think they know everything about us because they grew up abroad too. But they have no idea!” Apparently, I earned points for knowing what it was that I didn’t know, which caused me to keep asking questions.

May we all know what it is that we don’t know. And may that knowledge lead us to ask questions.

May we echo the angel of the Lord in Genesis 16 when he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?”

May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we care about where they’ve come from. That we care about their stories; the good stuff and the hard stuff. May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we ALSO care about where they’re going. That we care about their hopes and their dreams. And their fears.

And at the end of the day, may they feel, as Hagar did, seen.

Understood.

Of course, we can’t fully know or understand anyone, but we can keep asking questions, we can keep being interested.

We can keep reading their book, even if it’s as small as a passport.

 

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Tools & Resources

The Key Jar: A fantastic list of questions in PDF format. I screen captured this thing and then just keep it on my phone. Occasionally, when I’m out with one of my kids, I just pull it out and say, “Hey, do you want to do the questions?” Some of my kids like it more than others, but I can tell you that it’s generated TONS of fascinating conversations that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Gottman Card Deck: Although it’s designed for couples (you can easily see why), there are some great questions on here that are totally appropriate for kiddos. If you’re like me, new or unique questions are hard to self-generate. I can do, “How was your day?” but it’s a bit harder to just come up with more involved questions. So I use an app. Not all the time, but sometimes. This app is free, so try it out and see what happens.

If you’re interested in more of the story about Hagar and how asking questions is Christ-like, here’s a link  to a message I preached at an international church this year: The Questions of God, Hagar, and Genesis 16. [Links to the podcast on iTunes and mp3 download.]

Tanya Crossman’s article on A Life Overseas: Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

A popular list of questions MKs would love to be asked, by Taylor Murray. [MKs and TCKs are not the same, but the majority of these questions seem to apply to both.]

 

Photo by Mitch Harris on Unsplash

Raising Children With Special Needs When You Live Overseas

By MaDonna Maurer

“Your daughter has a rare genetic syndrome called Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, and she needs a feeding tube.”

My dreams, my desires to live overseas, seemed to shatter with that diagnosis. The past 10 months all made sense. This was the reason she was hospitalized in Beijing for bronchitis at 3 months old. This was the reason for choking almost every time she nursed. And this explained why, just a few months before, she lay limp with pneumonia on a large hospital bed in the middle of China next to six other children with some sort of lung infection. All of this led to me flying alone with her to the U.S. for medical tests. This was the reason I sat in that small clean consultation room with a doctor I barely knew.

Was this going to be the reason God would end our time overseas?

And then the haunting question, How am I going to tell my husband Uwe half way around the world on the phone?

To date, that was the hardest phone call I have ever had to make.

When Uwe and our oldest son (20 months) arrived in the U.S., we believed our time overseas was over. At that time we only knew of one other family living overseas with a child with special needs, but our daughter seemed to have more medical issues. As we consulted with surgeons, therapists, and doctors, not a single one hesitated to tell us to go back. This was incredible to us because we, like so many others, didn’t think it possible that families affected by disabilities could live and work overseas. So with a list of diagrammed exercises, extra feeding buttons and bags, and a feeding machine, we returned to China. Uwe went back to work as principal at the international school, and I began therapy with Matthea. Life changed, but God had not. He was still good. He was still providing.

Our story isn’t unique. There are others like us. Last week I was able to interview eight families ministering overseas who also have children with special needs. All of our stories seemed to share the following three themes.

 

1. God is good, and He loves us.

One of the mothers whose child has Down Syndrome wrote, “Oh man, He (God) is just so good. He has just blown me away. He is so gentle and loving. He has been an incredible Father to us, preparing us for this journey ahead of time in ways we couldn’t have dreamed… He didn’t just knit our family together. He did it in this country for such a time as this.” We know God is good and He loves us. We even sing about it. But, when we watch others struggle or struggle ourselves we wonder. We doubt. We have to hold on, though, to the truth and trust that God is good and that he loves us.

 

2. The struggles are real, but God provides.

No matter where you live or what you do, there will be struggles in this world. The Bible promises this, but God also promises to provide for our needs. As parents of children with special needs, we have our share: lack of educational options, lack of therapy options, language barriers, lack of friends for our kids, and emotions that range from fear to loneliness to guilt. All of these struggles are real, but each family interviewed shared how God has provided for them in ways that they would never have dreamed of.

One father wrote that the “Lord is so graciously meeting” the need, though possibly temporarily, of their son with Down Syndrome through friendships. A mother whose son is on the autism spectrum has felt “very lonely and disconnected” at times, but God has provided an outlet through Velvet Ashes for her to connect with other ladies.* As I personally struggle with whatever the need is at the moment, I’ve learned to stop and remember the past: how God provided the therapists to help Matthea eat by mouth (no tube feedings for 7 years now), teachers to help us educate her, and how he has provided strength for each day. I am learning to trust Him to provide for the future for just the right thing at the right time because God is a gracious Father.

 

3. God called us.

When God places a desire in your heart, when He “calls” you to do something, you obey. Every family shared that the reason they are going overseas or the reason they stayed was because of God’s calling. Just like us, they prayed about the situation, consulted professionals and sought out godly advice. God opened doors and gave affirmation. I can vouch for what one mother shared about how her ministry to older orphans with special needs became deeper after the workers knew of their daughter. “Somehow, by God’s grace, our concern for them is felt as more genuine.” She also added, “the workers have realized through interaction with her daughter that people with special needs have much more potential than they thought.” God uses our struggles, our weaknesses, to reach the lost.

Our family’s story isn’t over. We are no longer in China, nor do we work in schools. God led us to Taiwan and gave us new dreams and desires. He allowed us to start Taiwan Sunshine, a non-profit organization that supports and encourages families who have children with special needs in Taiwan. Our dream is to share the hope we have in Jesus with every family in Taiwan.

In the book Restoring Broken Things by Steven Curtis Chapman and Scotty Smith, Scotty shares, “And who among us willingly chooses a life story which, by its very nature, will be a narration of our weaknesses? No one does, because it incessantly demands a Savior much bigger than us (pages 182-183). God uses our weaknesses, whether we live in our passport countries or as missionaries on the field. Regardless of your struggle or situation these themes apply to all of us. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Remember:

God is good.

God loves you.

God will provide for your every need.

 

*Velvet Ashes will be hosting one Connection Group this fall for mothers whose children are affected by disabilities.

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MaDonna lives in Taiwan with her husband, a German MK, and their three children. She deeply believes that a cold grapefruit tea cures the summer time blues. She enjoys a good book and loves to write stories for children about life overseas. Visit her at her blog, raisingTCKs, or on Twitter @mdmaurer.

Should TCKs Take Their Parents to College?

By Lauren Wells

When you become a parent, you quickly realize that there are a plethora of strong opinions about just about anything regarding the rearing of your children. When you are parenting TCKs, the voices are even louder. TCKs often have unique challenges that make parenting far from straightforward, and this is particularly true when you enter into parenting teenage TCKs and university is on the horizon.

Do you go back with your TCK for the first part (or all) of their college/university years? Perhaps at least the first semester of their freshman year? Or is it time to hang up the overseas missionary hat all together and settle back into your passport country?

Again, strong opinions abound. Some say, “No matter what, make sure you accompany your TCK for their incoming freshman year for at least the first semester or as long as you can spare.”

Others stress the importance of giving your TCK the opportunity to independently “find themselves” without the peering eyes and pressure of their parents. Perhaps allowing them the freedom of not being “on stage” for the first time in their lives.

I’m going to add yet another opinion. One that will split the difference and hopefully allow you, parents, to let out a collective sigh of relief.

There is not one right answer. There are so many factors that go into this decision, and thus there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all answer,” though many well-intended individuals and organizations try to create one. Instead, the parents, together with their TCK, should strategically make the decision with specific factors in mind.

 

1. How independent and mature is your TCK?

Is your TCK itching to jump out of the nest, or will he or she need a little extra push? I am personally very independent by nature, so when it came time to leave Tanzania for university in the USA, I was ready to leap headfirst. I dove into college life and loved the chance to be independent. Though I did struggle with some stereotypical TCK issues and did have a difficult freshman year, being able to work through those challenges on my own, apart from my parents, was a positive growing experience for me.  After feeling like I had been living in a fish bowl for many years, as many missionary kids do, it was healthy for me to live outside of the gazing eyes of supporters, churches, and organizations.

However, my parents knew that my brother would not have the same experience that I did, and would benefit greatly from having a bit more parental support as he navigated his first year of college. They chose to move to the US for his freshman year, and he was able to live with them and commute to school. This gave them the ability to teach him how to drive, set up and wisely use a bank account, apply for jobs, etc. Having my parents as a “home-base” for him significantly contributed to his success that year and the years after.

God has uniquely wired your TCKs and thus, your decision may (and dare I say, should) change based on the individual TCK. You may have one child that needs autonomy and independence and another that needs more direct support. It is crucial that you make your decision based on the specific child instead of having a blanket policy that applies to them all.

 

2. Is there a good option for a “home-base”?

If you choose not to follow your TCK to university, it is important that they have a safe “home-base” nearby. This can be a relative’s house, a family friend, even a supporting church. If you are still living overseas while your TCK is in college, it is imperative that they have a getaway nearby and people who will reach out to them. University can be stressful, especially when working through common TCK challenges, and it is important that your TCKs have a place that feels “homey” to escape to for the weekend, someone with whom they can process the challenges they are dealing with, and someone whom they can call if they need last-minute help moving out of their dorm.

Communication with the “home-base” is also a critical factor. I know parents who assumed that a family member or friend would be more attentive to the TCK during their college years, but when college began they hardly ever reached out. It is important that you have multiple conversations with the family member, friend, or church to talk about your expectations of the “home-base” role. If they feel they are unable to be that support system for your TCK, you may need to consider reaching out to someone else, looking at a different school if location is the issue, or returning with your TCK to be that home-base for them.

 

3. Be Actively Involved

Whether or not you choose to return with your TCK for university, ensure that you are still actively involved in their experience. There are wonderful online resources that you can take advantage of to keep in touch if you choose not to accompany your TCK to college. You can video chat frequently, ask about friends and events, send care packages, ask for a virtual tour of their newly rearranged dorm, “meet” their friends via the internet, etc. Thanks to today’s technology, you can still be actively involved in your college-student’s life while living on the other side of the world. If you do choose to return with your TCK for some or all of their college years, attempt to find a good balance of being involved while also giving your TCK the space explore their independence.

 

4. Acknowledge the Challenges

Whether or not you live near your children during their college years, you can expect that they will struggle with new challenges unique to their TCK upbringing. Though you may not have seen many of the typical “TCK issues” in your children up to this point, that does not mean that they will not surface during the college years. In fact, the college years are the most common stage of life for many TCK challenges to arise. Expect that this will be the case for your TCK, acknowledge it especially if they subtly express their struggles to you, and help them to find the support and help that they need.

I highly recommend that TCKs seek counseling during their college years so that they can actively process the transitions and corresponding challenges that they may be facing. A counselor with experience working with the TCK population is ideal, but if that is not possible, meeting with any professional counselor can still be beneficial. Many colleges offer these services free of charge, so gently encourage your TCK to take advantage of them.

Unfortunately, I have heard far too many stories from TCKs who told their parents that they weren’t doing well and needed help, only to be brushed off by the parent saying “The first year of college is hard for everyone. Just hang in there!” Whether we like to admit it or not, growing up overseas does create many unique challenges for TCKs as they grow into adults and it is absolutely critical that these issues are taken seriously, addressed, and are not shrugged off as a typical college-student experience.

 

5. Consider a “Gap Year”

Many expatriate families choose to allow for a “gap year” between high school graduation and the start of college or university. This year can be used in a variety of ways and can be a great solution to the question at hand. If you are not planning to leave the mission field, your TCK may benefit from using the gap year to work or volunteer in your host country. This allows time and space to learn independence while still remaining on the same continent, and may leave them more prepared to attend university alone the following year.

The gap year can also be used as a family’s furlough year. This time in the passport country can be used to teach your TCK practical life skills like how to drive and how to navigate the post office, as well as allowing your TCK time to acclimate to the passport culture before beginning school. This can also be a good time to decide upon and establish a “home-base,” and then universities can be visited and applied to within a drivable radius of that location. By spending time in your passport country, your TCK will become more familiar with the culture and physical area and thus, more comfortable remaining behind when you return to your host country.

I have seen the “gap year” used for travel for either the whole family or the TCK alone, a combination of time in the host country and in the passport country, a year of working or volunteering, an official gap year program such as this one, and a variety of other great options. The gap year can be a great compromise for families who are unsure, or have conflicting opinions, about whether or not to return with their TCKs for college.

 

While it may be difficult, it is important to drown out the multitude of opinions as you deliberate this complex decision as a family. Again, there are many options that resounding voices say you “should” choose. These voices may come from relatives back home, your sending organization, even experienced older missionaries who have successfully navigated the college-years with their TCKs.

While advice can be helpful when weighing your options, remember that every TCK is different and what worked for someone else’s child may not work for yours. I am so grateful that no one persuaded my parents to return home while I was in university, because that would not have been a positive experience for me. However, I also never tell parents to follow the same path with their TCKs, because what was best for me may not be best for another TCK. Again, it goes back to knowing your TCK and deciding based on his or her unique needs and personality.

So, should TCKs take their parents to college with them? The answer: it depends. Consider your TCK’s unique personality, maturity level, unique needs, and whether or not there is good “home-base” option. Most importantly, remember that there is not a “right” way to do it and that there are a number of good options that may work for your family and your beautifully unique TCK.

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.

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

By Lauren Wells

Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have an exceptional ability to become “cultural chameleons.” They have the uncanny ability to subconsciously pick out the subtleties in a new culture and operate successfully in that culture even if they only move between their passport country and one host country. Because of this, adapting becomes their lifestyle. More than that, I believe that adapting becomes their comfort zone.

For the majority of TCKs, moving is thrilling, exciting, and comfortable. This process of settl-ing and adapt-ing is familiar territory, and they know how to navigate it well. It is when they begin to settle that they feel uncomfortable and must make the conscious decision to wade into the uncharted territory of settled and adapted.

The adaptable and flexible nature of your child can be a great quality. It is a skill that they have learned (or will learn) out of necessity, in order to cope with the transition between cultures. And it will serve them very well in life if they learn to use it effectively. Fortunately, you, as parents, can help your TCKs navigate this change and develop the awareness needed to make this trait healthy and productive.

The majority of TCKs will always have the itch for change and, because of their upbringing, the “easy” solution to a difficulty is often a big change. This is where TCKs differ from mono-cultural individuals who feel they have a need for “change.” When a mono-cultural individual feels they need a change in their life, they might redecorate their house. When a TCK feels they need a change, they might move to Iceland.

The TCK’s solution to their mental alarm clock is often a move (sometimes cross-culturally), a major career change, a school change, or a relationship change. These may not seem problematic and, on the surface, often aren’t when the TCK is a child, teen, or young adult. However, when they don’t learn how to satisfy this need in a healthy way, and this “need” arises later in adulthood, it can be incredibly crippling to their career, marriage, family life, and more.

So how can you as a parent of young TCKs prevent this struggle from becoming debilitating when your TCK reaches adulthood? Here are 6 ways I believe you can help.

 

1. Acknowledge that Your Child Will Have This “Need” for Change. If you know that your TCK will likely struggle with the need for change into and through their adulthood, then you can subtly teach them, from a young age, how to channel that need appropriately. Talk about the things that you can routinely and flippantly change (house decor, wardrobe, bedrooms, hairstyles, etc.) and the things that you really need to think and pray about before you change (friends, places, schools, jobs, etc.). Help your child embrace their love, and even need, for positive change.

 

2. Talk about It. Talk about this concept of being comfortable in the adapting process and less comfortable in a settled life. Your children may not understand and your teenagers may not want to hear it, but we can hope that when they become adults and are faced with this challenge, they will remember your words and be proactive about controlling the change instead of letting it control them.

 

3. Leave Well. When you leave your passport country for the first time, and every “leave” after that, make sure you are intentional about how you leave. It is nearly impossible to settle well in a new place if you have not left the previous place well.

When we (humans) know that we are about to leave people for an extended period of time, we tend to emotionally disconnect from people prematurely. This can very easily become a habit for TCKs and can lead to a lot of “burnt bridges” and unresolved grief over the years. Your children need to learn how to leave well from a young age.

One of my favorite tools for leaving well is David C. Pollock’s concept of the RAFT. Here is a simplified explanation and how you can implement it with young children:

R= Reconciliation. Or, Say Sorry. Ensure that you and your TCKs are reconciled with people before you leave. TCKs quickly learn that they can forgo the un-comfortableness of making amends with friends by simply getting on an airplane. This far too easily becomes a habit. Teach them from a young age that reconciling before a move is not optional.

A= Affirmation. Tell the people who you love that you love them. Help your TCKs write Thank You Cards or draw pictures for their friends and family. Perhaps make a list together as a family of all of the people to whom you want to say, “Thank you” or “I love you” before you leave, and then include your children when you do so.

F= Farewell. Say goodbye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. This is especially important for young children. Take a final trip to their favorite park, schedule final play dates, say goodbye. It is critical to the grieving process that children know that it is the final play date, trip to the park, night sleeping in their bed, etc., and are able to say goodbye.

T= Think Destination. Talk with your kids about the place where you will be moving. What do you know about it? What might be different from where you are living now? What is the plan when you first arrive? Perhaps watch YouTube videos or look at pictures of where you will be living.

 

4. Arrive Well. Show your children how to settle. It can be tempting, especially as an adult, to live with one foot in this new culture and leave the rest of yourself back in your passport culture. Some people do this by trying to keep their home and family life as “American” (or whatever other nationality) as possible while living in a different country. This will not do your TCKs any good and will definitely not teach them how to settle well. Wherever you are living, dive in. Make friends. Learn the language. Eat the food. Engage.

Because TCKs become incredibly good at adapting and integrating, this lifestyle will become their comfort zone. That is OK as long as they also learn to step outside of their comfort zone and settle in some areas.

 

5. Encourage Deep Friendships. When TCKs move often, it becomes easier to forgo deep friendships rather than deal with the hurt of frequent goodbyes.  Encourage your child to maintain friendships. TCKs become very skilled at making friends, but many have a more challenging time maintaining and developing deep, lasting friendships.

When TCKs have moved frequently, they may not want to invest deeply in friendships in order to avoid the pain of leaving friends yet again. The idea of deep friendships may also trigger that dreaded settled feeling. Teach your children to push past the fear and into those deep friendships. Encourage them to keep in touch with friends they have left behind and be willing to make new friends. Technology nowadays makes it much easier for TCKs to keep in touch with friends all over the world. Take advantage of it! Older TCKs may just need your gentle encouragement, while younger children may need more time and help on your part. It is worth the effort for your TCKs to have deep, life-long friends who can love and support them in the midst of their moving, changing, and adapting.

 

6. Teach the Process of Making a Healthy Change. Be an example of the process of making big changes. If you are looking at moving or changing your child’s school, pray with them about it. Ask God for wisdom; make a pros and cons list; make it a big decision. Often parents of TCKs don’t invite their children into the decision-making process and instead only tell them once a decision has been made. In some scenarios this is necessary, but in most, allowing them to be a part of the process gives them the opportunity to see changes made well.

 

In closing, I want to be clear that the healthy version of a TCK who has overcome the need for constant adapting, is not necessarily the TCK that settles down in one place for the rest of their life. That may be the case, but most likely it is not. The healthy TCK realizes that they have a need for change and knows that they are more comfortable with the adapting process than with the settled life.

However, they have learned how to control the need for change instead of letting it control them. They are willing to be somewhat uncomfortable so that they can live a settled life in necessary areas. For TCKs, doing this effectively is a life-long learning process, and that process begins with you, as parents, the second you decide to pack your bags and move overseas.

 

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.

It was an accident!

I never wanted to be a writer. Ever.

My first article for A Life Overseas was only the second article I’d ever written. Seriously.

But God retains his sense of humor, and I retain my sense of gratitude. I’m grateful for the leaders of the site who gave me the bandwidth, and I’m grateful for you, the readers, who continue to give me the brainwidth. Thank you.

There are about 9,000 more readers now than there were three years ago. So I thought I’d go retrospective with this post, collating former articles and re-presenting them to you. I’ve divided them into some rough categories:

  1. Rest & Laughter
  2. Family
  3. Missiology
  4. Grief & Loss
  5. Theology
  6. People

Feel free to browse around and see if there’s anything you missed that you want to unmiss. And if you feel like these articles could serve as a resource for someone else, we provide handy sharing links at the bottom. Merry Christmas.

 

REGARDING REST & LAUGHTER
Please Stop Running
God doesn’t give extra credit to workaholics. Jesus doesn’t call us to work in his fishers-of-men-factory until we drop dead from exhaustion. He is not like that.

Margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Staying alive is not about how fast or how slow you go; it’s about how much margin you have.

Laughter as an Act of Rebellion
To remember the sun’s existence on a rainy day is to remember Reality. Dancing in the downpour is a prophetic thing: It will not always storm.

No, Seriously, Laugh
“If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.”

 

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REGARDING FAMILY
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
Jesus loves Third Culture Kids. He feels their searching and longing for home, and he cares.

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
Kids aren’t soldiers, and they’re not missionaries. They’re children, and we should give them the space to develop as such.

Missionary Mommy Wars
They are battle-weary and bleary-eyed, burdened by expectations that would crush the strongest.

The Purpose of Marriage is NOT to Make You Holy
Marriage is for intimacy. The sharing of souls and dreams and flesh. The first taste of summer.

Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
For me, the shift from wide open spaces to urban jungle was rough. I had to adjust, but first I got depressed.

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife
Most people never feel listened to. Our wives shouldn’t be most people.

 

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REGARDING MISSIOLOGY
10 Reasons You Should be a Missionary
Your bargaining skills will improve…with the police.

The Idolatry of Missions
For too long, we have idolized overseas missions. We need to stop now.

10 Things Flying Taught Me About Missions
The toilets are different.

Why Are We Here?
Through our actions, our preachings, our service, we announce the news that God is not absent. We show and tell the redemption of all things.

The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement
We need the Psalms; not because the Psalms will teach us how to be super Christians, but because the Psalms will teach us how to be human Christians.

Misogyny in Missions
Don’t punish women in public for your sin in private.

Go to the small places
When we overdose on our own importance or the magnitude of evil in the world, the small places are the antidote. Narcan for the soul. Or at least, they can be.

It’s Not all About War: Balancing our Kingdom Rhetoric
One is all about sacrifice. The other is all about Shalom. One says, “Go and die for the King!” The other says, “Come and find rest for your soul.”

Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
“Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

 

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REGARDING GRIEF & LOSS
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
How could we question the plan of God by crying?

When Grief Bleeds
Grief is a powerful thing, echoing on and on through the chambers of a heart.

Worthless
The feeling rises and crests like an impending wave barreling towards the surface of my heart. And with each wave of worthlessness comes an intense weariness of soul, a near drowning.

To the ones who think they’ve failed
So, you failed to save the world. You failed to complete the task of global evangelism. You failed to see massive geopolitical change in your region. You failed. Or at least you feel like it.

When you just want to go home
He’s longing for home too. So, in my drownings and darkness, perhaps I am brushing up against the heart of God. Perhaps I am tasting his tears too.

A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Remember, the one with the most toys does not win.

The Gift of Grief and the Thing I Heard in Portland
Grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with.

 

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REGARDING THEOLOGY
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

Navigating the Night (3 things to do when you have no idea what to do)
If you find yourself in the dark today, not sure of what to do or where to go, I’d like to give you three pinpoints of light. Three true stars by which to navigate the night.

My House Shall be Called
If you’ve experienced pain from within the Church, I.Am.So.Sorry.

A Christmas Prayer
The star challenged prejudice, inviting outsiders in. So may the Church.

Before You Cry “Demon!”
Blaming the devil shouldn’t be our default.

When God Won’t Give Me What I Want
Maybe Jesus says it’s bread, maybe he says it’s nourishing and important, but maybe it looks an awful lot like a rock. Do we throw it back in his face, screaming?

 

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REGARDING PEOPLE
Anger Abroad
I see a lot of missionaries wrestling with anger, but I don’t hear a lot of missionaries talking about it. I’d like to change that.

How to Communicate so People Will Care
Speak from the heart. Or be funny. Or both. But never neither.

6 Reasons Furloughs are Awesome (sort of)
A furlough is one of the best “weight-gain” plans out there. It’s sort of like pregnancy, but with furlough, the cravings occur every-mester.

Facebook lies and other truths
Our supporters and friends probably won’t lose money by showing a picture of a vacation. We might. On the other hand, our friends won’t make money by showing a picture of a destitute child or a baptism. We might.

In 2017, Get to Know Some Dead People
Wisdom was building her house long before people started tweeting in the eaves.

Dealing with Conflict on the Field. Or not.
Conflict does not necessarily lead to intimacy, but you cannot have intimacy without honesty. And you cannot have honesty for very long without conflict.

 

REGARDING THE ENDING
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

And so it happened that I stepped out the door, aware that God might start sweeping me to places unknown. And he certainly did. But it was there that I met all of you, and you’ve turned out, after all, to be not so dangerous. Thank you for journeying with me. Let’s keep going…

all for ONE,
Jonathan M. Trotter

An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids

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By Danica Newton

Dear Parents of MKs,

Hello. It’s me, an MK. I write this on behalf of other MKs who haven’t found their voices yet, who are still in the midst of constant transition, who haven’t sorted through the confusing and complex joys and sorrows that come with growing up MK. I write this on behalf of my own MK self, to say the things I didn’t know to say, things that were buried deep down and that, as a kid, I could only access through intuition, through approaching carefully sideways in order not to stir up the vortex of emotions. I speak as an adult MK, raised with one foot in Polynesia, another in Melanesia, and a hand straddled all the way over the Pacific, planted firmly in Texas. If the world were a Twister mat, we MKs would be pros at maneuvering ourselves into epic contortions as we shift right-foot-yellow to left-hand-blue.

Parents of MKs, this is what I want you to know.

Transition causes trauma. We know this from academic research across fields. Transition because of divorce causes trauma. Transition because of health diagnoses causes trauma. Transition because of death causes trauma. Transitions from village to town every six months, and then to the States every few years, definitely causes trauma.

During the London Blitz, children were trundled off to the English countryside for their own safety. The philosophy of the time dictated that children were better off not knowing what was happening, that more information would be detrimental to them psychologically. In fact, some of the advice to parents was to tell their children that they were going on holiday to the country, or even, not to tell their children anything about what was to occur. This may have helped the adults not have to struggle to find explanations for the changes their children were experiencing, but it wasn’t helpful for the children experiencing the change. The problem with this way of approaching necessary transition, in short, is that it stems from the perspective and needs of the adults, the ones who already have power and control in the situation, the ones who already have a voice.

Parents of MKs, this is what I want you to know.

Your children are not experiencing the transitions you take them through in a vacuum. Just because they may not be verbalizing the trauma, or expressing it in ways that are easily understandable, does not mean they are not experiencing trauma from the transition. When I was sixteen, I stayed behind in Texas while my parents and younger siblings went back overseas. I remember that time as confusing and dark.  But years later, adults who were close to me at the time have told me things like: “You seemed so mature,”  “You handled it so well,”  and “We had no idea it was so hard for you, you seemed fine.”

I seemed fine because at that point I had spent the majority of my childhood in transition. Moving from village to town and back again. Moving from town to America. Moving from America back to town, back to village. Every transition required that I assume the cultural mores, dress, language, and customs of the place I was moving to. By the age of sixteen, I was an adept cultural chameleon. But how was I able to put on a new skin for each new place? I became an expert at compartmentalization. I carefully packed each place, with its friendships, food, smells, sights and sounds, into its own suitcase in my mind. Into the suitcases also went my feelings connected to the place. My love for the people. My pain at the heart bonds being broken. My anger at having no control. The compartmentalization is why I presented as so mature and well-adjusted to the adults around me.

Parents of MKs, this is what I want you to know.

Your MK may look like they are doing well.  Your MK may even say they are doing well. Please consider that your MK may be very adeptly doing just what MKs do best – assimilating the culture they are in. The culture that says all things happen for the good of those called according to His purpose. The culture that counts it joy when hardships are faced. The culture that counts everything as loss for the sake of following Christ. The culture that celebrates the leaving of father and mother, the leaving of brother and sister, to follow the Call.

Your MK may look like they are doing well. They may even say that they are doing well. But please consider how long they have been in transition. Consider that it’s only when we feel safe, when we have been stable and settled for an extended amount of time (for some, it takes years) before we can begin unpacking the suitcases and examining the emotions that were previously too difficult to process. If your MK moves every few months or years, they may still be in self-preservation mode. Like it was with me, they may not be able to examine the trauma of transition except by carefully looking sideways at it, from an emotional distance.

Parents of MKs, this is what I want you to know.

Your child needs you. They need you to listen, with no judgement or defensiveness, to their feelings. They need you to lay yourself low, to make yourself nothing for their sake, to humble yourself even to the point of death of self. They need you, as the person with all the power and voice, to create space for their fledgling voices. They need to be able to say, “This hurts me.” They need to be able to say, “I don’t want to leave.” They need to be able to say, “I miss _____.” They need to be able to mourn, to be angry, to rage against the dying of the light.

I’m going to say something now, Parents of MKs, that you probably don’t want to hear. But what I share with you, I share from my own experience, and from that experience I can reassure you that although this will be difficult to hear, there is hope for redemption.

My parents’ choices brought me pain. I didn’t know how much pain until I found myself, sobbing and unable to breathe, in the grips of powerful flashbacks that hit me out of nowhere and threw me in a little ball onto my bedroom floor. All of the goodbyes and hellos, the shifting and the changing, all of the transitions and the leavings, finally caught up with me.  This breakdown precipitated some conversations with my mom and dad, who are still on the mission field.  Conversations that had to wait until they could get to me. But once they got to me, my mom and dad presented me with the greatest gift they could give.

That gift was listening.  They listened to me, with a complete abandonment of self and agenda. I had years of loss to deal with, and my mom sat with me on my front porch, twin cups of coffee steaming in our hands, as I cried and talked and she cried and listened. She never once tried to justify her choices. She simply acknowledged my pain, and acknowledged that it was caused by the life she had chosen for me. My dad listened, too. We took long, cool walks through the expectant predawn stillness, him quietly receptive by my side as I poured out the pain in my heart. He apologized for the pain his choices had caused me.

I talked to God, too. My parents’ empathetic response to my pain opened space for me to be able to voice the very scariest thoughts that I kept buried deep, deep down. One day, heartsick and angry and alone, I looked up to God and shook my fist in his face. “Why, God?” I asked, tears sticky on my cheeks. “Why did my family have to suffer? Why did you make MY family suffer for YOUR gospel? Couldn’t it have been some other family? Why, God? Why MY family?”

As I sat, raw and trembling, I felt his warm, gentle touch. I heard him whisper so sadly and kindly to me, “I know. I’m sorry. I hear you. I’m here.” And that was enough.

Parents of MKs, this is what I want you to know. 

You need to check your defensiveness at the door. You need to acknowledge that your choices brought pain to your child.

When my parents came to me, and acknowledged the trauma my siblings and I had experienced, when they apologized for the pain they had caused, they did not negate the Good Work they have done. They did not negate a lifetime of service for the Kingdom of God.  They did not negate the fruit they had harvested for the King. Instead, they further confirmed Christ to us. The humble Man of Sorrows. The One who laid down His life. The One who sought out the voiceless, the weak, and lifted them up.

Even though your choices to answer the Call of Christ have caused trauma for your children, and believe me when I say that they have, your choices to give space for their pain can make way for their healing. I ask you, on behalf of my fellow MKs both grown and still growing, to give this gift to your child.

Sincerely,

Danica Newton

(an MK)

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13161296_10156874097135022_561442390_oDanica is an MK from the Solomon Islands, who now has found her own little village in the mountains of New Mexico. She lives there with her husband and three children, three goats, two dogs, and an assortment of chickens. Danica has a degree in special education, and is currently working on a master’s degree. When she’s not writing papers for school, she enjoys playing mad scientist in her kitchen, rereading her collection of LM Montgomery books, and working on her yoga moves. Danica sometimes finds time to write about her experiences and feelings, at www.ramblingsofanundercovertck.blogspot.com.

10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked

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Most MKs are asked hundreds of questions during their families’ home assignments. Ironically, many of us leave our passport countries feeling unknown. In all honesty, we usually don’t answer questions well. Our fumbling answers can create distance.  Many times we feel as though these questions are asked politely, without time or desire to listen to our answers. In order to avoid awkwardness or unintentional hurt, MKs can detach and dispel memorized responses.

This makes it difficult for those who truly want to connect. Have you ever longed to know an MK, but don’t know how to reach his or her heart?  Have you sensed that we struggle to respond to your questions, but don’t know what else to ask? As an MK, I’ve learned that certain questions can unlock the heart.

Here are ten questions MKs would love to be asked. There are two different types of questions for two different locations: church-lobby questions and coffee-shop questions.

CHURCH-LOBBY QUESTIONS

Ask these questions when you want make a friendly connection with an MK. Stop. Look the MK in the eye. And listen. Since we are asked so many questions, we usually gauge our response based on the question-asker’s body language.

Question #1 What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you overseas?

Like most MKs, I’ve made enough cultural blunders to fill a book.  Most of these mess-ups include public bathing, getting lost, and/or eating unique cuisine during my family’s travels.

I love sharing these humorous memories. I can easily tell pieces of my story and describe my life as an MK. A side note: Prepare to laugh. (We tend to regularly embarrass ourselves cross-culturally.)

 

Question #2 What do you miss about your host country?

“You must be thrilled to be back!” and “You must miss the US terribly!” and “I don’t know how you live over there!”

While on home assignment, I struggle with these frequent, well-intended assumptions. Most people don’t realize I miss Japan (my host country) every day. “How could you miss a country that you don’t technically belong to?” People wonder. Sometimes I feel as though these longings are misunderstood or unrecognized.

 

Question #3 Can you describe a regular day in your life?

This is my favorite question. In reality, my daily life doesn’t look that different from any other normal teenager: breakfast. School. Homework. Church. But that’s not the point.

I love this question because it indicates genuine curiosity and desire to know the details of my life. Not my parent’s life. Not details of our ministry or the culture I live in. But my life.

 

Question #4 Where’s your favorite place to go in your host country?

This is an easy question for MKs, instantly relieving stress. My answer would be the sushi bar ten minutes from my home in Hiroshima. Sushi is my ultimate comfort food.

This question and the pursuing conversation recognize our love for our host countries that have become a significant part of who we are.

 

Question #5 Which places do you feel most at home?

When I visit the United States, many people tell me, “You must be so glad to be home!” They don’t realize that I left home to return home.  I have many homes, not just one.

“Home” is an ambiguous term for MKs. To answer this question, we might even name a place where we’ve never actually lived. Once, my sister told a church member she felt most at home in Thailand (with other MKs). Sometimes it’s the people, not the place, which creates this sense of belonging.

 

COFFEE-SHOP QUESTIONS

These questions aren’t supposed to be asked in a church lobby.  Ask these questions when you are intentionally investing time and energy into the life of a specific MK.

Coffee Shop Questions

Question #6 What’s the hardest and best thing about being missionary kid?

I would never trade my MK experience. But some people unintentionally dismiss the hardships of life abroad: “You are so lucky!” They exclaim, “You have such great experiences!”

I agree whole-heartedly. But good is always intertwined with struggles. MKs need permission and a safe place to talk about them, without fear of judgement or a quick beckoning to focus, instead, on the positive.

 

Question #7 What characteristics of your host country’s culture have become a part of you?

Many MKs look like one country and act like another.

If you scroll down and look at the picture next to my bio, you might not realize that I’m part Asian. Outwardly, I have blonde hair and blue eyes. Inwardly, I have Asian mannerisms, though-processes, and cultural tendencies. Sometimes I receive strange looks from people who don’t understand the “Asian” side of me. This question conveys positivity and curiosity of the ways my host country has changed me.

 

Question #8  What scares you most about visiting/returning to your passport country?

Visiting the US scares me. This seems ironic, since I was born in the US and am American. But I don’t know how to live life in the US anymore. While in Japan, I am accepted as the foreigner. But in the US, I feel like a foreigner who is expected to fit in.

By asking this question, you will help us process these fears, which is key to a healthy adjustment.

 

Question #9 What are some of your deepest losses as a missionary kid?

When I became an MK at nine-years-old, my entire world “died.” We left family, comfort, and literacy. My family and I had to create a new world in Japan while learning to read, speak, listen, and write.  Even going simple places (like the grocery store) seemed stressful. This significantly impacted my sense of identity.

Most MKs also lose a grounded understanding of their passport countries. Change is a constant in an MK’s life. And with this comes overwhelming, accumulating losses.

 

Question #10  How can I pray for you?

One time, my parents were presenting to a small group in Ohio. A lady came up to me after the presentation. With a kind smile, she asked me how she could pray. I started rehearsing my memorized response, “Please pray for the ministry…” She stopped me mid-sentence. “No, no, no. Your parents already covered that, and I will definitely be praying. But how can I pray for you?

I stared at her. Tears welled. This was the first time anyone had asked for a prayer request from me, personally.

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These are the top ten questions that resonate with me. One of my MK friends recently told me that during home assignment, she wanted to be asked “any meaningful question by someone who was truly interested in knowing the answer.” The questions themselves are not as important as the spirit of those who ask them. Ask specific questions. Ask sincerely. Ask with your whole heart and with your full attention. This is what truly matters most to MKs.

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Head Shot-- Taylor Joy MurrayTaylor Joy Murray, a 17-year-old Third Culture Kid, is passionate about supporting the globally mobile through her writing. She wrote Hidden in My Heart: A TCK’s Journey Through Cultural Transition when she was 13 years old. The book shows the pain and raw emotions during cross-cultural transition. She currently writes from her own struggles to answer TCK questions on her blog, taylorjoyinwords.com.

A Conversation With Timothy Sanford, Author of “I Have to be Perfect”

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The last four months we’ve been exploring the ideas in Timothy Sanford’s book I Have to be Perfect” (and other Parsonage Heresies). Here are the first four posts if you need a refresher:

The Little Word that Frees Us

I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs

I Can’t Trust Anyone

God is Disappointed in Me

Today we’ll conclude our series with an interview with Timothy himself. My questions and comments are in bold. Also stay tuned for his book to become more accessible for overseas workers this summer, when it will be published electronically.

 

Timothy, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us here at A Life Overseas. I know this conversation will bless our online community. You grew up as an MK. Can you give us a little background about where you lived as a child?

“Where I grew up” is a hard question for many MKs—and even PKs these days—to answer. My birth certificate and passport indicate I was born in Chicago, Illinois (many think Chicago is a foreign country).  The back of a 1957 Chevy got very comfortable while my parents did deputation.  They were in Costa Rica for language school and finally landed in Ecuador.

Back State side, my parents did their “re-entry transitioning” (which did not even exist back in those days) in Ohio.  We then moved to Texas (which self-claims to be a “whole different world”) where they did missionary work in Mexico and taught at Rio Grande Bible Institute.

We moved back to Ohio so my dad could take a preacher job (which didn’t work out) and finally landed in Arizona where I became a SEK (Secular Employee’s Kid, which some people pronounce “sick”).

 

You’ve been a licensed professional counselor for how many years now?

I’ve been in practice as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 26 years with experience in private practice, a Residential Treatment Center for youth, and an In-patient psychiatric hospital.

 

Is there anything specific that prompted you to enter counseling as a profession?

It was my wife’s idea really. We were leaving Eagle Lake Camp (part of The Navigators organization), so I went back to school (to buy some time to figure out what I was going to do next in life).  At that time the field of psychology was lab rats, long white coats and weird men with ponytails. My goal was to receive the counseling skills and use them in ministry somewhere overseas. I did my required internship in a private practice setting and have been in practice ever since.  Yes, the “God does work in mysterious ways” cliché fits.

 

From your vantage point, what things have changed, and what things have remained constant, in missionary and ministry culture these past 3 or 4 decades? How are the experiences of today’s PKs and MKs different from a few decades ago, and how are they the same?

Today there is more information and attention that on the subject of MK/TCKs.  Out of that came MK Member Caregiver staff people and Re-entry seminars/retreats for transitioning MKs.

The internet, Skype, and better international calling services help MKs keep connected with the MKs they know from the field, as well as being a forum to connect with other like-minded  MK/TCKs. That’s all good.

When my parents were sent off to the field they were told “You’re a missionary and God will take care of your kids.  Ministry first.”  That mantra is no longer outwardly stated; however, the tone in missions these days is “You’re a missionary (parents) and the MK Member Caregiver staff will tend to your kids’ needs.  Ministry is still (unofficially, of course) first.”  Even with all the increased attention and information on cross-cultural issues, many MKs still get pushed into second or third place.

 

I’ve interpreted this book through my own personal experiences: a TCK but not a PK, a missionary but not an MK, an adult who entered ministry young but did not grow up in it, and a parent raising 4 children who are all PKs, MKs, and TCKs. But you wrote this book to PKs, not to their parents. I’m wondering what kind of advice you’d give to parents of MKs and PKs? So much of the time as a parent, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’d love your input on that. What kind of conversations would you recommend having with our children?

Since you’re the missionary parent asking this question that’s a great start.

The way I try to describe the difference between the missionary and the MK is this way:  Let’s say America is the color RED and Ecuador is the color YELLOW.  You are a RED brain (it’s your paradigm, it’s your passport country) adjusting to a YELLOW culture.  You make paradigm adjustments to your RED brain.  But, when you mix RED with YELLOW (the culture the MK/TCK grows up in) you get ORANGE.  That’s not RED adapting to YELLOW, it’s ORANGE.  It’s an entirely different color.  It’s an entirely different paradigm all together.  Poof! You have the TCK world.

Your world as the missionary is not the same as the MK’s world for several reasons:

  1. Your MK didn’t get to choose to do missionary work to foreign peoples.
  2. It isn’t your MK’s “calling” either.
  3. You have adult skills (I hope) with which to manage the stresses, struggles and complications of an inter-cultural environment. Your MK only has child-level coping skills. Many adults (not just missionaries) don’t stop to think about the limited coping skills their children have. This is especially true if you are stationed in a potentially hostile region. You have the adult understandings of the “chances” and “odds” of things happening – or not happening.  The MK mostly hears the “what can go wrong.” It can be especially terrifying for younger children.
  4. Be attuned to the world from the MK’s perspective and realize the “Holy Heresies” are very likely to grow inside their brains even if you’re not the one putting those lies there. MKs—and especially PKs—have 100 dads and 150 moms. Remember: the mission agency, the denomination, the church people and the secular environment you live in impacts your MK a whole lot more than you may think.  Sometimes these external “voices” are as influential as your own voice; frustrating, yet true.

Accept the possibility you may need to choose your MK over your “ministry,” at least for a number of years. I don’t wish this on any family, yet as the missionary parent, it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.

 

The “harsh reality of the job” — that’s an intriguing statement. Could you elaborate on it?

What I’m trying to say is there may come a time when the parent is faced with the tough decision between staying on the field to do “ministry” or returning/staying home because it is in the best interest of a child. There have been several families that I recommended for the sake of the child(ren) they not continue on the field.

That is a VERY difficult and painful decision to make, and that position of facing that decision is what I hope no family has to face.  It’s just hard for everyone in the family.  Yes, it is a matter of prioritizing and making sure the MK comes out on top of the “ministry.” Part of what makes this so hard is most missionaries I know are passionate about their calling (and rightfully so), so to CHOOSE to put it aside for a while is very painful for them (again, and rightfully so).

On the flip side, I think some missionary families don’t reach out for family help because they are afraid they will be told they can’t continue their ministry/return to the field. The missionary parents often come in with an all-or-nothing thinking: ministry or suffer State-side.  I have successfully worked with a number of families where other options actually worked out very well.  Again, it’s a case by case situation, but for the missionary, it’s important to realize there may be more options available other than go or stay.

Accepting the reality that your family may NOT thrive, or even belong, overseas is something very few missionaries consider.  Yet it’s true.  My recommendation to potential missionaries is: are they truly willing (not just in theory willing) to NOT go or NOT return to the field if that is what is best for their family.  If NOT … my recommendation is to not send that family to the field in the first place.  That’s what I mean by: “…it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.”

Again, if the missionary parents are not aware of this reality, they can become very broken and maybe even bitter if one of their children “kept” them “from doing God’s work” … which is really THEIR own work as well as their identity.  Too many missionary personnel I’ve met have made “ministry” and “missionary” their IDENTITY over what they are doing.  If this type of missionary can’t return to “their work” it can actually create an identity crisis that can bring all sorts of complications such as depression, etc.  It’s a HUGE topic that I have not heard mentioned at all in the few missionary circles I’m clued into.  It may actually be worth another post or series for you to think about doing.

 

High school graduation time is upon us. How would you describe your re-entry into American life as a young adult, and what advice would you give for MKs/TCKs preparing to re-enter their passport country, especially from a counselor’s perspective? What advice would you give their parents for helping guide them in the transition?

I know about transitions. All in all, I attended six different schools before completing the 8th grade and lived in 26 different places before graduating from high school.  You know, the normal stuff for MKs. So here are my suggestions:

  1. Make good use of your R.A.F.T.
  2. Attend a transition weekend. Many mission agencies provide these nowadays as well as organizations such as Interact, etc.  They really can help.
  3. Keep connected with other TCK friends via internet, etc.
  4. If possible, attend a university that has a high population of international students. There is a good chance you will meet other TCKs there.
  5. Remember what these four phrases really mean:

“Let’s get together …” really means “good bye.”

“I’ll call you …” really means “good bye.”

“Give me a call …” really means “good bye.”

“We’ll be in touch …” really means “good bye.”

  1. If your agency had an MK Caregiver staff or person, get to know them and keep in contact. I’ve met a number of MK Caregivers and they all want to help (they’re good at it too).  And if you don’t know what R.A.F.T. stands for, ask your MK Caregiver; he or she will know.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve said in the book? Perhaps something new you’ve learned since you originally wrote it, that’s burning on your heart?

Since writing “I Have to be Perfect,” I have done a lot of research on the subject of attachment child to parent.  In doing so, I realize there can very easily be attachment issues within a missionary family.  In 2003 I presented a workshop at the World Reunion 2003 (for TCKs not just MKs) on the topic of attachment.  They had me do the workshop two additional times because nearly all the attendees wanted to attend that workshop. As I did so, I did an unofficial, unscientific experiment. At the end of all three workshops I asked for written “yes” or “no” response on a small piece of paper stating whether the attachment issues presented fit them.  To my surprise, nearly 80% of the attendees at the World Reunion 2003 indicated they had significant attachment issues in their life.  It was this gathering that got me started on studying the attachment dynamic and how growing up as an MK/TCK can impact attachment.

For about nine years now I’ve been working on a manuscript on this subject and I’m glad to share INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels will be released in eBook form early summer 2015 through LifEdvice.com. Had I known then what I know now, I would have added at least some of this to “I Have to be Perfect.”  Oh well, I guess people will just have to order the eBook (which will sell for $4.99 I believe).

Oh and since I’m talking about eBooks being released, “I Have to be Perfect” is also coming out in eBook format through the same publisher (LifEdvice.com) early this summer as well—and it will be cheaper too! Again, I think it will be $4.99.

 

Thank you so much, Tim, for taking the time to answer all these questions and share your hard-won wisdom with us. I know people will really appreciate how practical this advice is.

 

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A Life Overseas community, do you have any questions for Tim? He’ll be available to answer your questions in the comment section until Sunday, May 31.

 

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Tim Sanford holds an M.A. in Psychology, a B.A. in Bible and a B.S. in Outdoor Recreation.  He is licensed by the State of Colorado as a Licensed Professional Counselor and is an ordained minister.  He has received further training in areas of communication, trauma response and debriefing and experiential education.

Tim’s background includes being raised in South America; many years of involvement in his home church (including interim College Pastor); and being the Director of the wilderness camping ministry for The Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian organization. He currently runs a private counseling practice in Colorado Springs that focuses on adolescents, adults and marriage.  In addition to his practice, Tim is a full-time member of the counseling staff at Focus on the Family.

He has published many articles in the United States, Germany and South Africa.  He is the author of “I Have to be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies), a book intended for preachers’ kids, co-authored Growing Pains: Advice for Parents of Teenagers and Losing Control and Liking It, a book for parenting teenagers published by Focus on the Family/Tyndall Publishing. Tim’s most recent work INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels is scheduled to be released early summer, 2015, In total, his works have been translated into seven different languages.

He has been married to Becky since 1981 and they have two married daughters.  They currently call Colorado Springs, Colorado their home. Tim has spoken at numerous conferences over the years, for many kinds of gatherings, workshops and seminars; national and local.

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