Transition Stress and TCKs: What does “normal” look like?

by Lauren Wells

“We haven’t seen our boy act like himself in over a year. We sometimes get glimpses of the fun, playful kid he used to be, but most of the time he’s like a shell of his old self. We don’t know where the kid we knew went.”

Fifteen months earlier, these parents had moved across the globe to a new country and culture. Their oldest son had started attending a local school while the younger siblings who weren’t yet school age stayed home. 

“We knew it would be a big transition for him,” they said. “We worried when he seemed to get more and more withdrawn, but we kept telling ourselves this was the normal transition stress everyone warned us about. But it’s been over a year now and it’s just gotten worse.” 

I wish I could tell you that this is the only time I’ve had a conversation like this with parents, but it’s not. The phrase “we figured it was just transition stress” is one I’ve heard many times in my work with hundreds of parents. 

When my colleagues and I work with families prior to a move or to train schools or organizations about family care, a topic we cover is how to distinguish between  “normal” transition stress and when it has gone beyond that. This preventive approach keeps normal transition stress from growing into a long-term state of emotional unhealth which will eventually turn into a crisis. 

So, what is normal transition stress for children? At what point should adjustments be considered because the transition stress has gone beyond a healthy limit? Knowing how to distinguish between healthy transition bumps and long-term adjustment issues is a critical part of preventive care. 

Red Zone/Green Zone

When my company (TCK Training) talks about transition stress for Third Culture Kids, we use the concept of Red Zone/Green Zone. When we’re in the Red Zone, our brain is flooded with stress hormones. This isn’t concerning for a short period of time, and in small doses it can actually be part of resilience building. While a developing brain shouldn’t be exposed to those stress hormones too consistently or for too long, during a major transition it’s normal for everyone to be in the Red Zone for a while.

What the Red Zone looks like for children/teens:

  • Uncharacteristic behavior challenges 
  • Being overly emotional
  • Appearing down or withdrawn
  • Being extra clingy to a parent 
  • Developmental reverting (accidents after being potty trained, sleep regressions, using baby talk, needing a comfort item they had grown out of, etc.) 
  • Development of new stress-induced habits (hair twisting, biting lips or skin, etc.) 
  • Not enjoying activities that used to bring joy 
  • Lack of ability to learn new concepts (this often shows up as  difficulty meeting academic milestones, such as reading, if those concepts are introduced while the child is in the Red Zone, or lower grades than the child’s typical performance)
  • Long periods of numbing/distracting behaviors (e.g. spending hours on an electronic device, consistently choosing to read for hours instead of spending time with family/other children) 

While these behaviors are all normal during a transition season, some behaviors require immediate support even during the normal Red Zone window of transition: 

  • Any sort of self-harm 
  • Suicidal ideation (or any statements that imply that they wish they weren’t alive)
  • Extreme physical aggression toward others 
  • A pattern of undereating or overeating 
  • Depressive or anxious symptoms that interfere with daily functioning

If your child experiences these symptoms at any point it is important to seek immediate professional mental health support.

The Green Zone

In the midst of Red Zone seasons like major transitions, planting “Green Zone moments” is important. This brings the child’s brain momentarily above water. While they still may be mostly in the Red Zone, consistently bringing in Green Zone activities can speed their progress out of the Red Zone.

Green Zone moments can include: 

  • Body movement (going for a walk, playing a sport, etc.) 
  • Anything rhythmic – rhythm regulates the brain (music, dancing, coloring, etc.) 
  • Talking about why this transition feels so hard (allowing them to share and/or giving them language for why they’re feeling this way) 
  • Laughing 
  • Deep breathing 
  • Experiencing something that feels physically comforting (a favorite food, a cozy blanket, a special treat, etc.) 
  • Quality time with a parent, sibling, or close friend 

How Long is Too Long?

After a major transition it is common for children to be primarily in the Red Zone for three months. During this time it is important to implement Green Zone moments for/with them. After three months, we typically see that children have fewer Red Zone days/moments. They begin to act more like their normal selves, trending toward a more consistent Green Zone state. When this is happening, we begin to see that: 

  • They can identify friends they like to play with 
  • Getting ready for school in the morning isn’t as difficult  
  • They talk about things they’re looking forward to
  • They want to join activities that brought them joy in the past or that tap into their skills or talents 
  • They are beginning to feel more confident about how to succeed in school
  • They seem to have a more positive outlook 
  • They are laughing and smiling more 
  • They are doing “Green Zone moments” without prompting 

Most often at around 6-9 months after a transition, the stress has eased and children are in the Green Zone more regularly.

What If It’s Not Getting Better?

The shift from Red Zone to Green Zone may seem slow and drawn out, and even in the best circumstances it can take time. If after six months a child doesn’t seem to be trending toward the Green Zone, we have moved beyond normal transition stress. At this point, professional support for the parents (and possibly the child as well) may be helpful. 

Shifts need to be made so that we can prevent the child going deeper into the Red Zone. The following questions can help determine factors that could be contributing to prolonged transition stress. You can begin making small shifts to see if they begin to make a difference. In the home, for example, you might schedule consistent one-on-one time with that child. In the environment, you might add an activity outside school hours that they would enjoy. 

In the Home

  • Are they receiving regular, positive attention from their parents? 
  • Do they feel they can talk about their emotions and feel heard and comforted? 
  • Do they feel physically safe? 
  • Are they sleeping well?
  • Does the family smile and laugh together often? 

In their Environment

  • Do they have access to activities that would give them Green Zone moments? 
  • Do they have potential friends in their class/school? 
  • Is their teacher a factor that is putting them in the Red Zone?
  • Are there specific stressors that they or you can pinpoint? 
  • Are there adults other than their parents investing in them?

Understanding the progression from Red Zone to Green Zone that happens during a transition season can help parents to monitor their children’s stress levels during times of change. Not only does this knowledge prevent children staying in the Red Zone for an unhealthy period of time, but it also gives parents strategies for improving family health and tools for making adjustments to get each family member on the right track if it doesn’t seem to be happening naturally.

There is so much hope in knowing what normal looks like and having tools to help your children when their transition stress goes beyond that point. To learn more about going through transitions of any kind, especially as a family, check out TCK Training’s self-directed Transitions Course.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

Parent Self-Care: Moving Past the Buzzword to Prioritizing Well-being in the Midst of Life Abroad

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

As much as self-care has become a popular term in recent years, the essence of it has devolved from its intended meaning – doing things, big or small, for our holistic well-being – to being primarily about bubble baths and charcuterie boards. Rest assured, as much as I love a bubble bath and a good charcuterie board, as much as I think a bubble bath and charcuterie board can be good ‘small things’ for our holistic well-being, as much as I wonder how many times I can get away with using bubble baths and charcuterie boards in a single paragraph, I’m not talking about bubble baths and charcuterie boards.

I’m talking about all the important aspects of self-care, from emotional processing, to healthy boundaries, to planting green zone moments. And I’m talking about this because, in our research at TCK Training, we’ve seen that mental illness (including depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses) in TCK parents is high. And this impacts our well-being, our children’s well-being, and our ministry’s well-being.  

You may have gotten the memo. It’s a pretty commonly accepted fact: Life on the Field is Hard. And there are a lot of factors that make it harder, like popular theologies of suffering, expectations on what missionary life should be, and our own pride in how much we can endure. As if that’s not hard enough, life on the field makes good self-care harder to do with a lack of resources, overworked teams, and a shortage of amenities. But wait, there’s more! 

Because we also expect to be able to do it all, we rarely tally up how hard things are, and we often just shame ourselves for having a hard time at all. 

I believe that when you outline your core values, you can find the time and the means to make them happen. Usually when I’m talking to missionary families, they want to have a healthy family and a thriving ministry. I believe that’s possible. But only through following the example of Jesus. Jesus had a thriving ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, but he had a core objective of preaching and teaching – just like we have a core objective of leading our families in the ways they should go.

In Mark 1:35, Jesus finished a great day of his thriving ministry, woke up, prioritized his own well-being (he went off to an isolated place to pray), and then set up boundaries around how much time he would spend on his thriving ministry (even though there were crowds of people expecting him to resume his work). Being imitators of Christ, let’s follow his example of taking time to prioritize his own well-being.  

Emotional Processing

Oftentimes when talking with TCK parents about the unique struggles their kids face, we hear a lot of surprise. “How is this a unique challenge for TCKs? We also went through these same experiences.” I won’t be addressing that particular question in this article, but I acknowledge that, yes, parents go through many of the same things their children do, which means that, yes, parents need to be emotionally processing their grief, too.

Here’s a unique struggle for TCK parents: while TCKs haven’t always learned how to hold together their big emotions in public spaces, TCK parents have. So you’re in these moments where you’d really love to sit down and have a good cry, but you can’t. Because you’re living in a fishbowl. Because you’re managing everyone else’s emotions. Because you know that it doesn’t fix anything. But there never seems to be a convenient time to have a good cry, so things don’t get processed.

We need to stop waiting for time to process the challenges we’ve faced in our expat life and start making time. Take some time to journal or talk through hard things that have happened and how that impacted you. Print out our free Processing Questions worksheet, and on the back write out the things you really ought to process. You can carve time out of your weekly schedule, or you can double up on tasks. Try laminating our processing questions printable and thinking through the questions while you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. We know that showers are the perfect place to solve the world’s problems. Let’s repurpose them to solve our own.  

Healthy Boundaries

Living on the field usually looks like immersion. You’re there 24 hours a day, with the people you’re trying to serve. There are calls at all hours, and demands for more than you can possibly give. So you die to yourself and pick up your cross and go on and on trying to meet all the needs. At some point you start to wonder how long you can do this because looking at the road ahead or behind you, 10, 20, or 30 years seems a lot longer of a journey than the road to Calvary. You thought you heard that the burden is easy and the yoke is light, but that must be for the people you’re serving. Not for you. So you set your jaw and hoist up the cross and carry on. 

Let me speak the gospel truth for you: Jesus beckons you to him, and his burden is easy and the yoke is light. Laying down your life and picking up the cross? You’re already doing that. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove, because Jesus doesn’t measure his love for you in how much you do for him. He says, “Let me teach you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Wearing yourself out is not what Jesus has in mind for you. 

Saying “no” is an important spiritual discipline. Think about your values, and and then look at your calendar, your choices, and your life, and decide where you need to put boundaries so you have time for the things you value. 

How many hours will you work? What hours will you not work? How much wiggle room do you put in for emergencies? What defines an emergency? At the end of the day, how do you want your family to perceive you, and what choices do you need to make to present that way?

Green Zone Moments

It’s time to talk about bubble baths and charcuterie boards again! In stressful moments – which happen a lot on the field – our bodies can get into the red zone. These are high stress levels with lots of cortisol (the stress chemical) and adrenaline. These chemicals cue your body to move into survival mode. Fight, flight, freeze, be really irritable with your family members — there are a number of ways that this can show up, but the symptoms reveal the chemical balance in our brains. For holistic well-being, we need to get relief from all those stress chemicals. One strategic way of doing this is through Green Zone moments. 

A Green Zone Moment is a moment that you know you’ll enjoy so much that it will bring you peace and lower your stress chemicals – at least for a bit. Even better, positive anticipation of Green Zone Moments can also help reduce cortisol levels! This means looking forward to a bubble bath or a delicious charcuterie board is good for your mental health. But it doesn’t have to be a bubble bath or charcuterie board. 

What activities bring you joy? It doesn’t have to be practical. Listen, Jesus could have gone into an inner room to pray, but instead Jesus regularly went on a hike alone into the wilderness. Not because it was a practical option, but because, I posit, it was delightful to him. 

It doesn’t even have to be big or different from what you already do. I went through a season where I had a list of 30 tiny luxuries, and I tried to get 10 everyday. From a cup of coffee to snuggling with my kids to taking the time to get music playing. I didn’t add more than a couple of minutes to my day, but I purposely valued the little things I can do or even already do for myself. 

The Why

I think this culture of downplaying our own needs and elevating the needs of others is problematic and leads to burnout more than it leads to healthy communities. I saved “the why” for last because I don’t want to have to say it at all. I don’t want to have to convince you that you’re worth caring for.  I don’t want to have to convince you that your losses deserve to be processed, that your time and energy deserves to have boundaries, that you deserve to have tiny frivolous moments of joy recklessly seasoning your life, that you deserve well-being. 

And I know this culture well. I know how suggestions for making life easier can be dismissed with “I’m fine.” I know how truths can be met with “That seems true for everyone but me.” I know how pervasive it is and how hard it is to combat this world view that our needs don’t matter. 

I think that you should do this for yourself. I think that when the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” it starts with loving yourself. So you should do this for you. But if you can’t: research shows that your mental health has a huge impact on your children’s holistic health. 

The CDC-Kaiser survey of Americans shows 19% of people said they grew up in a home with an adult suffering from mental illness. In our survey, 39% of TCKs (and 39% of MKs) said the same. Additionally, the rate of TCKs reporting mental illness at home went up over time, from 1 in 3 TCKs born before 1960, to half of Gen Z. Mental illness of an adult is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) because the research shows that it has a strong impact on a child’s lifelong well-being. In fact, TCKs who reported this ACE also reported significantly higher rates of abuse and neglect – including 64% reporting emotional abuse and 58% reporting emotional neglect. 

We as parents need to do what it takes to stay mentally well. 

The prescription is to process your grief, protect your time and energy, and plant delightful moments throughout your day, week, and life. When you do these three things, you’ll see the positive impact of these investments in all areas of your life.

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

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Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

When Culture Shock Makes You Cuss

It was summer 2008, and I was the only female in my language class. It was my turn to say a simple past-tense sentence, and I had once again managed to maintain my streak of zero percent accuracy. I was on my sixth try that day, and I was failing on all fronts. But that sixth sentence was the last straw, as they say. I abruptly stood up and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom, and I’m going be there for a while.” 

In a country where nearly everyone had giardia or some other parasite prowling around in their stomachs, my classmates understood my announcement to mean that I needed the toilet in a prolonged and urgent fashion. On that particular day, however, my gut was fine. I marched myself to the upstairs bathroom and locked the door. With my face to the window, I let the sobs come rolling out. I cried for a solid twenty minutes. 

“Why am I such a miserable failure at this?” I asked out loud. “Why can’t I just speak correctly and show my teacher that I’m not a dummy?” 

After a serious ugly cry, I exited the bathroom and sat back down in my classroom. The cry had actually helped a little, but I decided not to let any of my classmates know that I had gone to the bathroom to unleash my tears rather than my gastrointestinal distress. 

When we changed fields and moved to the Middle East, I figured I was long past the days of culture shock. “After all,” I reasoned, “this is where I used to come for vacations!” 

On one particularly hot day, I was collecting my daughter and some neighbor kids from school. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, the school traffic was insane, and tempers were running high. The kids were piling into my SUV, and I was about to put our stroller in the trunk. I eyed the passageway between my car and the one parked next to me, trying to calculate if my stroller would fit between my perfectly parked car and the minivan parked by some idiot next to mine.  “Doable,” I thought. 

It was not. 

Two steps forward, and my stroller was firmly lodged between the two cars. It was hot, I was sweaty, and car horns were being honked at deafening volumes. I shook the stroller, then tried to pull it backward to dislodge it, but to no avail. 

The word that came flying out of my mouth at that point cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of four letters that would merit censorship on network television. 

Suddenly, the darkly tinted window of the obscenely parked minivan buzzed downward. I had failed to notice anyone sitting inside that van during my expletive-laden outburst. The open window revealed a face that I instantly recognized from church.

“Need help?” he cheerfully asked.

“Oh, no thanks! I’m fine!” I lied.

“Maybe try to fold it up,” he suggested. I did not respond, but I did heed his advice and collapsed the stroller there between our two cars.  Mercifully, it worked, and I was quickly able to pack the enormous stroller into my trunk. 

It was not just the awkwardly stuck stroller, or the heat, or the car horns. It was all of it plus many other small grievances. Traffic, miscommunication, language barriers, and simply not being known were all other factors in my mini-meltdown. I chalked it up to being a crappy mother and feeling overwhelmed. What I could not wrap my head around at that moment was that all of the anger and frustration I felt was actually culture shock.

In our circles we talk a lot about culture shock prior to moving overseas, but it seems we undersell just how pervasive and long-lasting it can be. Without a name for what we are feeling, we can sometimes mislabel ourselves or become so self-critical that we begin believing that we just were not cut out for this life after all. 

Culture shock can take on many forms, but it is rarely one singular event that causes the dam to break. Usually, there are many struggles or tension points that, on their own, feel inconsequential. But after enough of those stressors have compounded, it may only take something as tame as an ill-timed language mishap to bring calamity. 

Culture shock can take the form of feeling overwhelmed by your incompetence, or even by the feeling that you are the only one who actually is competent. 

It can be the deep longing for rhythms and seasons that once sustained you. A longing that may sting even more with the realization that finding new ways to sustain yourself will involve trial, error, and awkwardness.  

Culture shock can take the form of feeling unknown and unseen, with no immediate avenue towards a relationship where you might finally be known and seen. 

Wherever the culture shock train may be taking you, it’s vital to ask how you got there. Get curious and ask yourself the hard questions.

What makes your current feelings so heavy or debilitating? 

Why are you are feeling the way you are, and what you were feeling before you got to this place? 

Were there other things that had you unsettled? When and where did they happen? 

How did the events prime you for feeling even worse when the next disappointment came?

If you have a story that might help someone in the thick of their own culture shock, we would love to read it in the comments.

Parenting in Real Life: Ministry Version

by Mandi Hart

As long as I can remember,  I have been captivated by the thought that we reproduce who we are in others. We will reproduce not only what we say, but who we are. It is something that is ‘caught’ and not ‘taught’. Apple trees will reproduce apples and orange trees will produce oranges. I first heard that concept many years ago when I was learning about discipling others and the teacher was telling us that we need to live out of who we are in Christ.

Joseph Chilton Pearce says that what we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become. We really do reproduce who we are in our children even when we don’t want to admit it. Our children know without being taught whether you are sincere or not. They see through our masks in ways that adults often can’t.

One of the challenges I have encountered since becoming a missionary is that we pray for the work on the field, we plan various activities on how to reach those who do not know Jesus, and our conversations centre around the gospel most of the day. And then we come home. Our children need us, and my husband and I discovered that we had poured ourselves out to their detriment during the day.

Our children go to a ‘secular’ school. We prayed as a family and all agreed the Lord was leading them to be around children their own age from all spheres of life. As a matter of fact, this helps us. It is a great reminder that we are the primary source for teaching our children about the Lord. The Old Testament reminds of that as well. It’s so easy to let the churches or schools teach our children about God and His ways.

One evening, my husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads in sadness. We realised that we were too tired from all our conversations during the day to speak to our teens about the Lord. Then, one day, we had a valuable discussion about it and understood how purposeful we really needed to be with them.

We have to parent intentionally. The result was that we changed a few things in our schedules so that we could be more available to our children. We stopped having afternoon meetings at our home and removed many of the work items from our lounge and dining room. Our home had started feeling like a missions base and not a safe place.

Within a short period of time, we started to notice a few changes in our children’s hearts. We had more energy to have those spiritual discussions them too. All of us started to enjoy doing Bible studies again, and we spent more time discipling them.

Whilst we don’t always have it right, we’ve learned some things through this experience:

1. Keep your home a haven — a safe place from the world (for you and your children).

2. Set some boundaries around your work so that your children feel like they can enjoy being at home.

3. Make sure that you have enough energy left to spend time with them. You need to intentionally invest spiritually into your children.

4. Admit your mistakes and be real.

5. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you as you parent and love them.

Being a missionary doesn’t mean that my mission field is only ‘out there’; it starts at home with my children. They are the ones I want to minister to first. After all, I will reproduce who I am in them rather that what I say or do.

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Mandi Hart lives in Cape Town, South Africa but carries the nations in her heart. She and her husband, Neil, are the leaders of All Nations Cape Town and have been involved in church planting, discipleship, and missionary training for over a decade. Mandi holds a certification in counseling and a degree in communications and has ministered to mothers and families in a number of ways over the years, including leading a moms group of over 75 moms of babies and toddlers. She has run parenting workshops in Africa & the Middle East and thinks that every stage of parenting is the best stage (she currently has two teenagers). Mandi loves spontaneous adventures, traveling, and sharing a delicious meal with friends and has just released her book Parenting With Courage.

My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

mkan1

We don’t go into cross cultural missions without a fair degree of idealism. We would never leave our home, family, friends and culture if we didn’t think it was our calling and that we would make a difference. As parents, our children become part of that idealism. We can’t help having expectations and dreams of how our kids will be shaped by an amazing cross cultural experience.  As I look back over the years, I can see how my ideals didn’t line up so well with our family reality. For me, growth has included embracing a continual lowering of expectations and perhaps a little more acceptance of being who we are.

My sons are now 19 and 17. As a family we are about to leave SE Asia for a season to help them settle, or become unsettled (depending on how it goes), back into our passport country. They were born in our passport country and moved with my husband and me to SE Asia at the ages of 4 and 6.

We had already spent 3 years in that country before they were born and had a reasonable grasp of the language. We wanted to go deeper this time. I imagined us becoming a culturally-integrated and truly incarnational family, making a profound impact by our deep identification with the people. We somehow thought that immersing our kids into the culture would be easy even though our own previous experience of living in that culture had been extremely challenging. So many people had told us that kids are incredibly adaptable and resilient. They teased that our boys would soon be much more fluent in the language than we were and love all the new experiences.  It didn’t work out like that for us.

It’s easy to see things clearer in hindsight. At the time it seemed like a good idea to please our local friends by placing our boys in a national school of 6,000 students, where our children were the only little blond foreigners that the school had ever had. That was the beginning of an exhausting and painful inner struggle that felt like a tug-of-war in my guts. I was torn between what was best for my kids (helping them grow, learn, and be stretched, but still protected) and doing whatever it took to build relationships with local people and feel accepted by them.

We did come up with a strategy, after a few disastrous experiences, for how our kids could avoid being touched, kissed and pinched by strangers, or teachers who should know better, and still maintain some level of respectfulness. We made it clear to them that snarling like a rabid dog as adults approach is not OK. But giving the formal greeting of hands in front of the face and then running off before they can touch you is usually acceptable.

There were many days out visiting in a village where after several hours of intense connecting with local kids I could see my boys were just about to reach that point of things getting ugly. They were exhausted from the cross cultural relating, and it was in all our interests to leave NOW.  Again I felt the inner wrenching of being torn by the desire to stay and go deeper with our local relationships and ministry and giving our kids what they needed.

I now see how children have culture shock and culture stress like we all do, and they don’t just adapt because they are kids. They react according to their personality and a myriad of other factors that can be hard to identify or predict. They need support and acknowledgement of their struggles. We came to realize that although we really valued local relationships and knew they were key to our ministry, our relationship with our kids was the one that would last a life time. That was our top priority. That didn’t mean life was all about them, or we never expected them to learn patience and self-control. It did mean that we wanted them to know we were always there for them and were trying to make the best decisions we could for us as a family, trusting that God was in it all with us. One time this meant relocating to a city where they could attend international school, quite a change and unsettling for our ministry, but definitely the best decision for us as a family.

When the boys were 12 and 14, we moved to another country in SE Asia with a different language and culture. This time I accepted from the beginning that it was the international community that would be their life. My husband and I went to language school again, and they went to an international school. After five years they have friends from all over the world but only speak enough local language to tell directions to a Tuk Tuk (local taxi) driver.  They have not gone to a local church or become friends with the local neighbors. But they do have a supportive school community. They can get around the city independently and are fully engaged in the international church and youth group. I’m more than content with that.

My kids are definitely TCKs, although they don’t like to be labeled as such because, like most of us, they just don’t like being labeled. They are TCKs who connect deepest with other TCKs but they are also their own persons. They have their own experiences of being a TCK and don’t necessarily tick every box on the ‘you know you are a TCK whenlist. They may not have connected very deeply with this culture we live in but that is OK and I really like them.

Sometimes parents of younger children who know my boys and see how they are usually pretty comfortable relating to other kids and adults ask me something like “What are your parenting tips for TCKs?” I don’t think I have anything to offer that is different from what you would read in any quality parenting book. I naturally think my sons are great, but I believe that has more to do with who they are than anything my husband or I did or didn’t do. We made plenty of mistakes. There have been many influences in their lives. If I believe that they are great young people because of my incredible parenting, then I am setting myself up for some difficult days ahead. If they start making decisions I am unhappy about does that mean I really messed up as a parent? We really don’t have that much control. I’m grateful that God leads us all on a journey of grace and healing, our kids included.

Accepting who we are and who my kids are means being willing to not hold too tightly to certain definitions or ideals. It means being open to things being a little fuzzy for a while and different from what we expected, and that can be hard. It means letting our kids be the people they are becoming and letting go of a desire to make them into any kind of extension of ourselves. Yes, we have been in this cross cultural life together as a family and we are all shaped by that, but they are not little missionaries. They are themselves. And I really like them.

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My name is Rachael from Australia. Before having children, my husband and I served in Thailand for three years, working with people living with leprosy and other disabilities. After a significant time back in our home country we returned with our two sons for another five years of working with the Thai national church. We later moved to Cambodia and served in team leadership with our mission for five and a half years. Our boys have done Thai national schooling, home schooling, Australian government schooling, and both Christian and secular international schooling. They will soon be university students in Australia and more importantly, they are still talking to us.

Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)

I sat on the floor, weeping.

I was two whole days into living abroad, and I was already losing it.

Those tears portended more, and in our first year overseas, the thing that knocked me down the most, the thing that discouraged and distracted and depressed me the most, was the sense that I was failing at fatherhood.

I loved being a dad. It was a very core part of my identity, and something I really cherished. Moving to Cambodia, I had expected cross-cultural stress. I had expected transition tension and unmet expectations. I had even expected conflict with other missionaries and nationals. But I never thought I’d feel like my identity as a father was being shredded up and burned in the furnace of a cross-cultural move. That was a surprise.

Have you ever felt that? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?

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We moved overseas when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three.

I suppose my fathering style could have been characterized as, um, B I G. I loved playing with our kids in wide open spaces, throwing things, kicking things, climbing things. We played loud and we took up a lot of space, and that’s how we liked it.

And then we moved to a concrete box with bars on the windows in an urban capital of a developing country. No grass. No yard. No large spaces.

For me, the shift from wide open spaces to urban jungle was rough. I had to adjust, but first I got depressed. Often, it’d happen on a Saturday; I’d wake up just wanting to go outside and throw a football with my kids.

And with the clarity of thought that overwhelms at times like this, I felt like I had moved from a garden to a prison. A prison that was 95 degrees and thick with humidity!

I had traded acres of green for walls of grey. En Gedi for Sheol.

I watched my kids hang from metal bars on windows when they used to hang from giant limbs on oaks. They were happy, but I was dying.

I missed being able to step outside and kick a soccer ball. I missed our fire pit on cold autumn nights. I missed our porch swing. I missed our yard. I missed the way I used to father.

But thank God the story doesn’t end there, with a depressed dad missing what once was. No, the story definitely doesn’t end there…

 

The Dawn
Slowly, I began to realize a few things. First, I still needed to play with my kids, and second, I could still play with my kids. That sounds silly, I know, but in the haze of transition, this realization wasn’t a given.

I knew things had changed; I knew I had lost some stuff. I needed to grieve that loss well and figure out how to adjust and bend and change too. Basically, what I needed was some creativity, a little bit-o-crazy, and the willingness to spend cash.

And so it began.

I penciled in a “man trip” to a national park an hour outside of the city. I took the boys and we hiked and wrestled and joked and ate junk food. It was glorious.

I was invited to speak in Beijing. The boys tagged along (thanks in part to the honorarium), and we walked Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. We ate at McDonald’s. A lot. The younger one navigated the subway system, and “a clear day” took on a whole new meaning.

I took the girls on a staycation. We got a hotel outside of town, stayed up late, and swam a lot. Of course, we also ate junk food. (Don’t tell mom.)

We started Nerf wars, using multiple levels of our row house, with intense battles taking place over the “eagle’s nest” position on the top floor. Best vantage point and all.

I bought a ping-pong table and crammed it in a corner. One side has two feet of clearance, so we use the walls and ceilings as extensions of the table. That table provides lots of “play time” that my kids enjoy and I need. Does that sound weird? It’s true. I need to play with my kids.

Rainy season hit our town, flooding the streets up to our knees. I yelled at the kids to get on the moto and we plowed through the water, making a giant wake with our urban jet ski. Neighbors laughed at the crazy white guy with three little kids screeching with delight in monsoon rains.  In America, we’d find a snow-filled parking lot and drift in our van. Here, we find a flooded street and pretend we’re on a lake! Same Same (but different).

We play “air hockey” on the tile floors, using wooden blocks as pucks and plastic cups as the hand-held hitter things. We use Lego men to play table football. We put a badminton set on the flat roof, supposing that a birdie falling from forty feet would do less damage than a volleyball.

We rent a soccer field for $7/hour to throw a Frisbee or a football. I don’t feel guilty spending the money. In America, we didn’t have to rent the park.

We go “cliff jumping” at the Olympic Stadium pool. My six-year-old actually chipped her tooth jumping from the five meter platform. I was so proud of her. (Don’t tell grandma.)

My youngest daughter loves motorcycles. She wraps her little five-year-old fingers around the handlebar and yells “Faster, Papa! Faster!”

We have disco lights in the bathroom. Long story.

 

Practically Speaking
So, here’s what helped me through this particular parenting crisis. Maybe these will help you too.

1. Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already. So ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

2. Be Crazy. The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed. Are you willing to look a bit weird? (Wait, you’re a missionary, what am I saying?!) But seriously, are you? Your survival might depend on it.

3. Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it. Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question has killed many missionaries, and their children.

 

One Day
My kids still make fun of me for crying in those early days. Thing is, I don’t think they realize I was crying for them; I thought I had lost them. I thought I had lost me. One day they’ll know.

One day they’ll grow up and read this, and when they do, I hope they know how very much I loved being their dad.

In America,
In Asia, and
Anywhere else in
This whole wide world.

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Resources for Parenting Abroad

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid

To the Parents of Third Culture Kids

One Down, Three to Go

Five Longings of a TCK’s Heart

 

Have you ever felt this? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?

How did you deal with it? How are you dealing with it?

What would you add to the “Practically Speaking” section? It doesn’t have to start with a C (but extra points if it does).