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 “We worried when he seemed to get more and more withdrawn, but we kept telling ourselves this was the normal transition stress everyone warned us about.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  • Appearing down or withdrawn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.

What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 3: The Journey of Post-Traumatic Growth

by Shonna Ingram

Welcome to Part 3 of our series, where we’ll explore each re-entry season in depth, uncovering how to apply the principles of post-traumatic growth and offering specific resources for each season of the journey. (If you missed them, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 at these links.)

The concept of Post-Traumatic Growth hypothesizes that while trauma inflicts deep wounds, it can also create change. Through the post-traumatic growth journey, individuals can uncover new strengths, gain new perspectives, and explore new possibilities. More importantly, it can help them find restoration and a deeper connection to God. By embracing the post-traumatic growth model and committing to the journey, missionaries can discover their next step in ministry.

While not all individuals experience trauma during re-entry, a trauma-informed perspective acknowledges the possibility of trauma. In the following sections, we will explore the different facets of the re-entry journey, shedding light on the experiences and challenges missionaries may encounter along the way.

Season 1: Return (Pre-Departure and Arrival)

This phase of re-entry is covered extensively in most re-entry literature, which focuses on “saying healthy goodbyes” and “preparing for landing.” As we discussed in Part 1, ideally, missionaries have time for pre-departure preparations; however, unforeseen circumstances may disrupt this. Regardless, the Return phase marks the start of settling back home, from pre-departure readiness to initial arrival and approximately six months after they arrive.

Pre-Departure Preparation: Typically starting nine to six months before departure, this phase involves logistical, emotional, and mental readiness. Prioritizing intentional farewells, addressing logistics early, and engaging in reflection is crucial for a smoother transition.

Initial Arrival (0-3 months) Preparation: This season can be especially hard if there is no pre-departure preparation. This phase addresses practical responsibilities like housing, transportation, and internet service. It is important to be aware of the emotional undercurrents accompanying these responsibilities.

Extended Arrival (3-6 months) Preparation: This phase sees missionaries exploring life in their home country, navigating ongoing adjustment, and settling in. Challenges may persist despite time passing, inviting reflection on overall well-being, family dynamics, career trajectory, and how to manage continued reverse culture shock.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your return, you may grapple with the complexities of leaving behind your life overseas. You may exhibit a range of behaviors indicative of trauma responses, including fight responses by asserting control over your circumstances, fleeing from overwhelming emotions, freezing by looking like you are in indecision, or engaging in fawning behaviors to appease others. Being aware of these normal responses is essential in finding effective support during this transitional phase.

During the initial Return season, consider the following strategies:

  • Find a comprehensive checklist outlining essential tasks and considerations for preparing to return home. This checklist should encompass logistical arrangements, emotional preparedness, and strategies for self-care. Check out our free checklist here.
  • Beware of circumstances surrounding your departure so that you can ensure that you receive the assistance needed to navigate the complexities of re-entry effectively.
  • Foster awareness of the first re-entry season among other missionaries and support networks. This way you can better anticipate and address the challenges that arise in this season.
  • Create environments that validate your re-entry experiences.

Starting with these tips will help ensure that the journey to your home country can be done with confidence. 

Season 2: Restore (Navigating the Space in Between)

The Restore phase follows the initial adjustments of re-entry, representing a crucial period. This season involves navigating space between two life chapters and may span from a few years to a lifetime if not addressed.

During Restore, you may confront a range of emotions and experiences, including ambiguity, waiting, and uncertainty. Particularly important to address during this season are family dynamics, career shifts, and overall well-being. 

This phase presents unique challenges, such as supporting children through their adjustment and navigating shifts in faith. If done well, it can prompt spiritual growth while addressing unprocessed emotions, trauma, or even positive life changes.

Navigating this transitional phase involves a fluctuating journey, marked by moments of feeling stuck and longing for clarity, especially when neither the overseas nor passport culture feels entirely familiar. Questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to grapple with their new realities and search for their place in their communities.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to the Restore season is vital, considering that you may be wrestling with hidden traumas during this phase. Common trauma events observed during this season include: 

Acute trauma, which stems from one-time events like theft or accident.

Compound trauma, which arises from insufficient time to process between smaller transitions or smaller one-time events.

Survivor’s Guilt, which occurs when a person survives an event or leaves others to fend for themselves (this happened during the pandemic, especially if the worker had to leave national friends and coworkers behind). 

Moral Injury, which occurs when individuals have to act against their values, such as breaking laws to achieve certain objectives or witnessing others do so.

Unresolved childhood attachment issues, which lead individuals to feel unsafe or insecure.

It is imperative to be in a supportive environment where you feel empowered to address these parts of your journey in this season. 

During the transitional Restore season, consider the following strategies:

  • Adopt a holistic view of well-being and recognize all areas of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
  • Be a part of a supportive community where you can find understanding and encouragement. Check out our Restore groups. 
  • Address traumas effectively. A team of counselors or coaches specializing in re-entry trauma, older couples, pastors, or organizations familiar with the re-entry space can all be helpful here.

It’s crucial to create a supportive environment where missionaries feel empowered to address trauma and to work from a post-traumatic growth model effectively as part of their journey toward restoration and healing during the Restore season.

Season 3: Rebuild (Developing the Next Step)

The Rebuild season marks a significant shift in how we spend our time, being able to move beyond the hard places, trauma, or liminal space that held us in a Restore season. This is when our brains shift out of survival mode, allowing us to move forward with openness and curiosity. We integrate past experiences, accepting the present while still allowing space for grief. It is also a time to embrace the future with hope.

Key areas of focus during the Rebuild season include cultivating cultural awareness, unfolding one’s faith journey, and embracing growth and transformation. By reflecting on your re-entry journey, leveraging your international experiences, setting new goals and aspirations, and embracing change and adaptability, you can step into a future filled with purpose and fulfillment in your passport country. 

During the Rebuild season, our attention shifts towards narrative development within the post-traumatic growth model. Utilizing resources such as re-entry workbooks and seeking guidance from coaches or trusted friends, individuals can explore their new values and motivations, recognizing both their strengths and areas for growth. Through the process of crafting a new purpose statement and adopting a forward-thinking mindset, you can actively shape your new narrative to cultivate growth and resilience.

During the Rebuild season, consider the following strategies:

  • Explore your renewed purpose and possibly consider further education or training to align with your values to foster a profound sense of purposeful living. You can also join a Rebuild group.
  • Engage in meaningful work or ministry opportunities, which offer avenues for personal and professional growth.
  • Explore new avenues of service, whether through pursuing new job opportunities or engaging in cross-cultural ministry endeavors. 
  • Foster connections within the community, whether through church involvement, professional networks, or volunteer opportunities, as this is essential for building strong support systems and facilitating a smooth transition during re-entry. 

As you start the Rebuild season, you can embrace new opportunities and navigate this transformative phase with confidence and purpose.

You Don’t Have to Go Through Re-entry Alone

As we wrap up our series, remember that you’re not alone in this journey. My consulting company’s new Re-entry program is dedicated to providing resources for each season of your re-entry journey. Whether you’re navigating a season of Return, Restore, or Rebuild, we’re here to equip you with the tools and insights needed to support yourself or others through the re-entry process. From comprehensive digital courses to engaging in small group discussions, we offer a space where you can find understanding, connection, and support. Our team of experienced coaches is ready to walk alongside you, offering guidance and encouragement every step of the way.

If you’re part of an organization with a member care program, consider how you can further support your missionaries by becoming a trained re-entry coach yourself. And if you know someone who could benefit from our resources and community, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Our supportive community is continually growing, so whether you’re planning your return to your passport country, you are still in the process of transitioning back, or you are seeking guidance in retirement, we’re here to assist you. We would love to help you navigate this journey. 

Not sure what season of re-entry you are in? Sign up to take the free quiz.

Our next groups start April 25th and May 3rd. 

Connect with more re-entry resources at shonnaingram.com/resources.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 2: A Case Study of the Three Seasons of Re-entry

by Shonna Ingram

In this second installment of our three-part series on Beyond Reverse Culture Shock (read Part 1 here), I will share a case study to explore the complexities of the three seasons of re-entry. To review:

Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.

Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arrival and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.

Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately from two to five years after returning and entails living out the next phase of one’s life and determining how to show up in this new reality.

Throughout this article, we’ll follow the journey of Sarah as she journeys through each of these seasons, and we’ll look at the challenges and growth she experienced along the way. 

Sarah’s Life on the Field 

Sarah and her husband started on their missionary journey accompanied by their four children, ranging in age from four to nine, and headed to East Africa. Despite Sarah’s background in social work and psychology, which led her to take on the role of on-field care facilitator for their branch, they encountered challenges soon after they arrived. 

In their daily work, these challenges included navigating the complex team dynamics of a young team and wrestling with a partnering organization. As their responsibilities expanded, it became increasingly clear that their primary mission was to hope and pray the new missionaries would return for their second term. 

Living four hours away from quality medical care, Sarah became proficient in managing frequent health issues like malaria and stomach illnesses. They grappled with regular water and power outages, in addition to dealing with multiple missing items which Sarah knew had been stolen. They faced the unexpected deaths of a few national team members and a house helper due to AIDS. 

The trust in any security that she once had no longer was there. It was all so draining. Despite receiving feedback from a missionary care psychologist who indicated the unhealthy nature of their position, Sarah felt compelled to continue, sensing that they had no other choice. Their hearts were burdened for the new missionaries, and they felt responsible for taking care of them.

Amidst these daily challenges were moments of success, such as helping their house girl start her own business and launching ten Bible translation projects.

Sarah’s Pre-departure 

As they approached the five-year mark, her husband said that it was time to go on home assignment and explained that they needed to decide if they were going to return to the field. Sarah found herself hesitant to leave, feeling they had only scratched the surface of their mission. However, it soon became clear that returning to the States was their next step. 

Since they knew in advance that they were leaving their overseas ministry, they followed re-entry book recommendations on how to leave well. They also secured new positions at their international headquarters in the States. Despite feeling somewhat broken yet functional and still in need of a break, they felt like they left the field well.

Sarah’s Arrival (Return)

The first six months started with navigating the housing market, including multiple failed attempts at securing a suitable home due to bidding wars and undisclosed issues. The season was full of stress. They had to find everything that a family of six would need to feel settled, like beds and a car that would hold them all. They made multiple trips to supporting churches explaining their new ministry and the need for more financial support because it was more expensive to live in America.

A few months after they started paying their mortgage, their largest church and individual supporter thanked them for their service in Africa and abruptly discontinued their support. This added to an already fragile state which put a strain on her marriage and her children’s attitudes. 

Reverse Culture Shock in many other areas of life set in and started a downward spiral of not being able to keep it all together. Sarah started having unexplained physical symptoms (beyond the normal perimenopause symptoms that most women feel during their 40s) which she knew were from unprocessed experiences from their time on the field.

Despite a year of fundraising efforts, disappointing results occurred, with discouraging remarks like “You work in the States now; why doesn’t your organization provide your salary?” and “Get a real job and support your family.” These experiences only added more questions about God’s presence, her identity, and her relationship with the church. 

Then one day they received an email from their organization stating that they didn’t have enough funds in their account to get a salary that month. After doing everything she knew to do, she was done with missions and very angry with God for not providing and protecting her and her family even as they tried desperately to do the right thing. They had given up everything to move across the world, and this is what they get? This intensified Sarah’s emotional and physical pain, culminating with bouts of pneumonia and eventually being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.  

It became evident that their return season consisted of two distinct parts: While they managed the pre-departure phase fairly easily, it wasn’t until they arrived that they found themselves not being able to get out of survival mode, since they could not even get their basic needs met. 

Sarah’s In-Between Season (Restore) 

A few years later, as she continued to navigate a season of uncertainty, Sarah was introduced to the study of trauma. It was there she recognized its grip on her—feeling trapped in a constant cycle of fight or flight, numbing out, and being easily triggered by seemingly insignificant events. 

Her journey into trauma recovery led her to confront her heart wounds. She learned how to face loss head-on and to address feelings of disappointment and resentment stemming from past experiences, including things that happened before she went to the field. Engaging in the practice of lament over past hurts, she began the journey of forgiveness, extending it to others, herself, and God.

This shift marked the beginning of her path toward healing and hope, transforming her approach from merely doing work for God to partnering with Him. This part of the healing journey wasn’t a one-time event but a lifestyle change of healing and growth.

In addition, Sarah began healing her body through specific somatic exercises and nervous system regulation techniques. Furthermore, she learned how trauma impacts brain chemistry and how the brain can rewire itself. Armed with this knowledge, she navigated the connections between her heart, mind, and body, fostering a deeper sense of self-awareness. 

A few years later, looking back on her re-entry journey, she realized that if she had known this information earlier, her recovery might have been quicker. As she shared her story and spoke with others going through similar transitions, she found that many could relate. Seeing the value in her own journey of healing, she felt motivated to assist others on their path to recovery.

Navigating the phase “in-between” two life chapters often entails moments of feeling stuck and a strong desire for clarity, especially when struggling to fully adjust to either the overseas context or the passport culture. Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has experienced at least a few days in this in-between season, but some people get stuck in this season. Additionally, during this phase, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to wrestle with their new realities and seek their place within their communities.

Sarah’s New Narrative (Rebuild)

Driven by her passion for helping others heal, she immersed herself in various trauma recovery trainings. Through those trainings, she noticed a significant gap in available resources for those in the church and missions world. 

At the beginning of 2020, she created a new post-traumatic growth program for churches. Later that year, she was asked to help her organization establish a re-entry program. Eager to contribute, she created new resources specifically for returning missionaries. Other organizations worldwide started reaching out to her as they saw what she was doing to help missionaries return well. This led her to create a new organization geared toward those on the re-entry journey. She is now able to impact more lives than she ever did while she was on the mission field.

The Rebuild Season signifies new beginnings, offering an opportunity to reevaluate our contributions to the ongoing narrative of ministry. It’s not a one-time event but a continuous journey of growth and hope, where we discover our evolving purpose and embrace the next chapter of our ministry.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is mine. I am Sarah.

In the next article, we will look at trauma-informed care in each season of the re-entry journey.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 1: Trauma-Informed Care for the Re-entry Journey

by Shonna Ingram

As I stepped off the plane at Houston International Airport with my husband and four children between the ages of 9 and 14, my thoughts were all over the place. We thought we were ready for the next season. A little broken, sure. A little uncertain sure, but isn’t that what God called us to? 

We had read a re-entry book that guided us in ending our overseas service well, which led me to believe this next chapter shouldn’t be too difficult, since we had only been overseas for five years. However, the months and years that followed show a different story that I hope to never repeat. That was over ten years ago, and nothing has been the same since. 

Navigating the Changing Mission Landscape

The missionary care landscape experienced a significant change with the sudden onset of the pandemic, particularly impacting missionaries who had to unexpectedly return from their field. Missionaries found themselves forced to leave their country of service within 24 hours’ notice—a situation seldom witnessed in recent history, if ever. Even before the pandemic, there was a notable trend of missionaries returning home due to factors such as visa complications, burnout, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. 

Additionally, there has been a noticeable shift in the duration of missionary service, with many individuals opting for shorter overseas assignments, deviating from the traditional model of long-term commitments. As someone closely involved in a Bible translation organization, where projects typically span several decades, this evolving trend has prompted concerns and reflections. 

I found myself pondering these trends. Are these changes viewed as failures or simply a natural progression within the missionary journey? These reflections led to further questions about the preparation and support available for returning missionaries.

Throughout this series, we will delve into the re-entry journey across three key seasons, exploring its impact on missionaries and offering practical insights for navigating this critical phase of the missionary sending process.

Defining Re-entry

At first glance, re-entry is simply the process of returning to one’s passport country after a period of overseas service, whether returning from a short mission trip or ending a lifelong career as an overseas worker. No matter how long you live overseas, it does something deep within you. However, for those who have at one time dedicated their lives to overseas Christian service, re-entry can be a confusing and complicated season.

It is also important to note that re-entry comes in two forms: planned returns and unplanned returns. Planned returns can often be marked by the completion of a project, retirement, or at least entering into the season knowing that they will be returning to their home country after a period of overseas service. It may entail celebratory send-offs and opportunities for reflective gatherings to honor the missionary’s service. Many resources are available to aid missionaries in this initial phase of re-entry, through books, articles, and checklists focusing on ensuring a successful conclusion to their on-field service.

On the other hand, unplanned returns are a different type of return. These unexpected departures can stem from various reasons, such as health concerns affecting the missionary or their family, marital crises, visa complications, or unforeseen global events like pandemics. Missionaries facing these unplanned returns require a different approach and guidance in navigating the re-entry process.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the return, the re-entry journey is not merely a physical relocation but a transition that affects emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions and can be a complex experience that demands careful attention and support. 

Understanding the Re-entry Journey

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of being part of an organizational think tank tasked with establishing a re-entry program. My involvement stemmed from my expertise in crisis and trauma support, career development, spiritual formation, and my own re-entry journey struggles. We wanted to comprehensively understand the journey of returning missionaries and identify strategies to facilitate their transition.

Our initial inquiries revolved around the difference in experiences among returning missionaries. Why do some navigate the re-entry journey more easily, while others find it profoundly challenging? We then conducted interviews and focus groups, soliciting feedback on what helped, what didn’t, and what could have been beneficial during different phases of the process.

Then I went one step further and took into account the SAMHSA definition of trauma, which states:

Trauma arises from an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. This trauma can have lasting adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s well-being, including their mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and spiritual well-being.

One glaring observation emerged: while existing resources predominantly catered to those experiencing expected returns, we were experiencing a significant number of missionaries facing unexpected circumstances around their return. Moreover, we identified a progression through a few distinct stages.

We distilled the missionary re-entry journey into five key phases which I turned into three key seasons:

  • Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.
  • Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arriving and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.
  • Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately two to five years after returning where they integrate their overseas time into their next life season.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that these stages are fluid and not strictly bound by timelines. External factors such as marital issues or health concerns can indeed impact the progression through these stages, potentially causing delays or requiring additional attention and support. While we’ve outlined approximate timelines for each stage, it’s important to acknowledge that individual experiences may vary, and flexibility is key in navigating the re-entry journey effectively.

By reframing the re-entry process through the lens of these stages (which I prefer to call seasons), we gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities on the journey. This approach allows us to anticipate and address the unique needs of returning missionaries more effectively and to facilitate smoother transitions.

In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the three seasons of re-entry through the use of a case study.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

The Emotional Progression of a Home Assignment

The last four weeks leading up to our first home assignment were chaotic. It was our first return to our passport country after three years. Our to-do list was 38 items strong, some items as simple as “pick up extra cat food” and some as complex as “find a car.” By the time we had said all of the final goodbyes and boarded our first flight, the relief was palpable. We were finally on our way, and what was done was done. (And perhaps more importantly, what wasn’t done wasn’t.)

Our first day outside of our ministry location was blissful. I distinctly remember feeling as free as bird – and being slightly disturbed for feeling so very free. What exactly were those weights lifted that resulted in such a weightless feeling? At the end of our first week, I had identified three key cultural stress areas that had clearly been affecting me more than I realized, and the idea of entering back into those specific difficulties was more than I could bear. And so began the tumultuous emotional journey of our first home assignment.

Emotional resolution #1: I don’t think we can ever return.

Over the next couple of months, my husband and I talked extensively through these cultural stress areas. We also debriefed with our member care friend and with other close friends around us. Questions of calling began to arise. Were we serving overseas because we thought it was the most meaningful way we could serve God? Were we basically deceiving ourselves with a works-based mentality of earning favor with God? And, wow, if any of this was deeply true, should we even be doing this kind of work?

Emotional resolution #2: I don’t know if I want to be a mission worker anymore.

The ambiguity of our future increased because our return was uncertain for reasons outside of our control. And that caused us to question even more. Maybe we were not supposed to be living in that ministry area. Maybe we were not supposed to be involved in mission work anymore. We considered career changes, country changes, all of the changes. Maybe we should not be in ministry, maybe we are not qualified for ministry.

I began to tire of the traveling life of home assignment and of the lack of personal space for our family. I missed our friends and coworkers in our ministry area. All of the questioning and traveling and evaluating and discerning took a heavy emotional toll. And all of this transpired in the middle of seeking to honestly share about our life and work in our ministry area at churches, with partners and friends. The desire for my own bed and my own kitchen and my own routine was deep and strong.

My emotional resolution #3: I’m ready to go home…wherever that is.

We continued sorting through questions of calling. What did we even believe about God’s call on our lives? We talked more about God’s sovereignty and our own selfishness in making decisions and how God works in spite of all that. We talked through what we felt we were gifted at and what we liked to do. We sorted through the many needs that faced us and tried to discern where best to focus our time and energy. We began to feel renewed and rested, spiritually and emotionally, and refreshed in our roles as parents, as spouses, as mission workers. We began to regain the smallest sense of passion for the work we had been doing.

Emotional resolution #4: I think maybe God has called us to this ministry area.

Where God leads, he also provides sustaining grace. Had I not experienced so very much of God’s good grace over the last three years? Had he not sustained our family so well despite stresses and hardships? Our understanding of God’s calling matured, and our desire to serve him in ministry was refreshed, not from a place of owing God or working for him, but rather from a place of surrender of our lives, of committing to be part of the bigger kingdom work. All work is God’s work, and our role is to be faithful with the work he has given, where he has given it to us.

Emotional resolution #5: I am ready and willing, Father; use me as you see fit.

With some level of excitement, we anticipated our return, less than a month away now. The ambiguity of our return remained, but we felt confident God would bring us back to this work.

As God would have it, we received visas and the green light to go ahead back to our ministry area in March 2020. We arrived three days before our country shut its borders, with Covid enveloping the world.

//

Our family has just returned to our ministry area after our second home assignment. We have now lived and worked in South Africa for over seven years, and there’s a sense of rootedness that comes with time and investment. Even still, I am grateful to have realized that there will always be an emotional progression on a home assignment. We will always need to do deep emotional work while away from our overseas home.

And while this second home assignment did not look exactly the same as our first home assignment, the stages were remarkably similar and had a sense of familiarity about them. Oh, I’ve been here before, my heart could say. In hope, I could look forward to God bringing my heart back around to willing service and obedience. And with gratitude, I can say that he did.

I Hate Moving

by Katherine Seat

A string of fairy lights ties memories of my first baby to a night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We decorated our house with the lights, along with postcards and photos. Giving birth in a country we had never lived in was surreal. 

I tried to make our room feel like home right away. I couldn’t invest too much though; we would only be there for three months.

//

I tacked up, taped up, and tied up satiny scarves from the local market to begin my first year in Cambodia. Brown marks littered my bedroom walls from the last person’s posters. The ceiling was too low. Natural light and airflow did not exist. 

I needed to make my room feel like home right away. I couldn’t invest too much though; I would only be there for ten months.

//

To combat the dark months of a northeast Chinese winter, I populated my apartment with pot plants. I arranged photos and pictures above the radiator. The colourful doona cover I received from college friends brightened up my sofa. It was a challenge finding a place for the washing machine that still allowed me to use the kitchen. 

I needed to make my room feel like home right away. I couldn’t invest too much though; I would only be there for eighteen months.

//

As a group, we cross cultural-workers frequently pack and unpack. We’re not the only ones, but it is a characteristic of ours – and I’m not talking about vacations. Sometimes we live in temporary housing for training. Sometimes we go to a different country for medical care. Sometimes we spend months visiting supporters in multiple locations. We are often living out of bags and often without a home base.  

What do you do if you only have a short time left in a cold climate and your shoes break? It feels like a waste of money to buy brand new shoes that you will only wear for a limited time. But you also cannot walk around with bare feet. And what if it’s not the first time you’ve had to make that decision? And what if you have a hundred other similar dilemmas?   

How do you cope if you constantly have to be settled enough to function but are never able to fully settle? Always feeling like you want to go home but knowing that nowhere feels like home.

“I hate having to pack up again; I never get to unpack properly. But I know I have an eternal home waiting for me, and Jesus didn’t have anywhere to rest. And anyway, at least I have somewhere to live; some people don’t even have that. What’s more, I have electricity and indoor plumbing, so my life is easier than most. I have so much to be thankful for, stop complaining.”

Have you ever talked to yourself (or a friend) like that? I know I have. As if knowing I have a better home waiting for me will cancel out the feeling of wanting to rest. Maybe we think if we really believe in our eternal home, we shouldn’t feel difficult emotions around moving house. 

I’m reminded of Peter Scazzero’s words in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality:

We inflate ourselves with a false confidence to make those feelings go away. We quote Scripture, pray Scripture, and memorize Scripture—anything to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by those feelings! 

“Like most Christians, I was taught that almost all feelings are unreliable and not to be trusted. They go up and down and are the last thing we should be attending to in our spiritual lives. It is true that some Christians live in the extreme of following their feelings in an unhealthy, unbiblical way. It is more common, however, to encounter Christians who do not believe they have permission to admit their feelings or express them openly. This applies especially to ‘difficult’ feelings as fear, sadness, shame, anger, hurt, and pain.”

Am I suggesting we stop reminding ourselves and each other of God’s truth? No, but let’s notice how we do it. What is happening when we tell ourselves, “I have an eternal home waiting for me”? Are we trying to make the feeling go away, or are we leaving room for feelings alongside the truth?

Perhaps we need to acknowledge the problem in order to receive God’s comfort.  It’s not until I took notice of the unsettledness and how much I hated it that I was reminded that God was with me. If we are trying to deny unpleasant feelings, perhaps we will also miss the comfort.

Yes, we can be glad we have our eternal home waiting for us and that we have a roof over our heads. That acknowledgement doesn’t cancel out the difficulties. We still feel homeless and unsettled.

In some cases it may be wise to take a break from pain for a while, or maybe we need help to face it safely. But in many cases of moving-house-pain, we may just need to acknowledge that it is really hard and that we hate it.

I suspect that to help others with their pain, we need to deal with our own pain first. If we are trying to reach people for Christ or bringing up children, this is all the more important. Are we sharing a faith that makes uncomfortable feelings go away as soon as they arise? Is it our goal to make people happy as soon as possible? Or are we living a faith that brings real long-term comfort?

I live among people whose daily life is hard. Complex and severe issues seem to impact them every step of the way. What if I were to treat my neighbors’ problems by glossing over them with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be”? Or by telling them I will fix their problem? Or by quoting out-of-context Bible verses about hope? I don’t think any of those would be useful. 

How can I point them to the source of Hope while they are living with so many difficulties? I don’t write as one who is an expert at this; rather I’m reflecting on being on the receiving end. The most useful pastoral care I’ve received is from people who listen and help me notice that my pain exists. It helps me see what is really happening, and it feels like they are with me, which reminds me that God is with me.  

Other people I’ve gone to for help either haven’t realised the depth of my pain or have been in a hurry to apply the correct solution so we can all continue on, happy as usual. It can make me feel like I shouldn’t be in pain. Am I doing something wrong? Am I beyond help?

If our reaction to pain is to solve the problem or explain why it is not painful, it may be that we never sit with the pain long enough to receive comfort.

Perhaps we can learn to notice our own feelings while remembering God is with us in the packing, the unpacking, and everything in between. Then perhaps our awareness of pain and our experience of God’s comfort will help us to bring God’s comfort to others.

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Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. Read Katherine’s other posts at Linktree and connect with her on Instagram.

Staying isn’t always good. Leaving isn’t always bad.

by Sue Eenigenburg and Eva Burkholder

Missions is hard. Really hard. Ministry is difficult. Cross-cultural living makes any expat question their resolve to stay. Unexpected changes, finding their niche, juggling multiple roles, and messy relationships reflect just a few of the challenges missionaries face. And don’t forget the revolving door of teammates and the endless goodbyes.

Missionaries are often under-prepared for how difficult this endeavor actually is. Some leave the field prematurely. In fact, 47% leave within the first five years. But it isn’t just hard in the first term. Mid-term and even end-of-career workers have their own set of challenges.

Gospel messengers can be tempted to lose heart, choose the easy path, run away, or give up, especially when seeing others leave their agency, location, or church. They believe lies like: Im not cut out for this. Im ruining my children’s lives. No one else struggles as much as me. If I were in a different organization, relationship, or country, things would be better. I am not needed. If I had different gifts, the ministry would flourish.

These challenges can cause global workers to wonder if they can persevere or if it’s time to go. But staying isnt always good, and leaving isnt always bad. Both require grit and grace. How do people know when it is time to go?

As someone who was tempted to leave too soon, global worker and author, Sue Eenigenburg, wanted to develop a resource that would help both men and women, newcomers and veterans, not to leave too soon or stay too long. To equip them to stay even when life and ministry feel overwhelming, but also to decide wisely when it is time to go. So she asked her colleague, Eva Burkholder, to collaborate on a new project.

The result is a story-driven, interactive, resource-filled workbook: Grit to Stay Grace to Go: Staying Well in Cross-Cultural Ministry.

Sue and Eva wrote this book because they desire to encourage global workers to develop grit to stay well even when it would seem easier to quit or when teammates leave unexpectedly. But the book also helps people discern wisely when to go — and to experience grace whatever they decide.

Grit to Stay Grace to Go has three parts:

In part one, Sue discusses the many challenges global workers face and the lies they believe that tempt them to leave too soon. Through her own stories and others’ experiences, she encourages global workers to not only stay, but to stay well by clinging to truth when circumstances are intense. She hopes readers will take away a renewed commitment to persevere by remembering truth and remaining unswayed by lies when cross-cultural ministry seems impossible.

Part two, which Eva focuses on, explores more deeply one specific challenge to staying well—the difficulty of watching teammates and friends depart. Testimony after testimony from fellow missionaries illustrate the reactions of hurt, disappointment, grief, guilt, and even judgment this revolving door brings. She hopes that stayers will turn this challenge into an opportunity to extend grace to goers—to forgive, bless, release, and live in the present, helping those who stay say goodbye well to those who go.

Sometimes workers choose to leave the field in the heat of conflict, when they are burned out, or in isolation after a stressful season. Sometimes God leads his messengers to leave the field or change roles. And going is also hard. After all, it doesn’t just take grit to stay, it also takes grit to go.

Therefore, in part three, Sue and Eva offer thoughtful questions to help readers make an intentional, rather than reactive, decision when they are undecided. Questions such as: Why do I want to transition? Whom do I need to talk to and when? What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Have I already moved on? What would I be going to? They hope that thoughtful reflection will help those considering whether to go, to do so in a healthy way with grace no matter the outcome.

The authors also encourage readers to pause after each chapter to engage with poignant reflection questions, suggested spiritual practices, and prayers. Additional resources offer more hope and encouragement to stay or go with grit and grace.

Grit to Stay Grace to Go is an effective preparation tool to help newcomers normalize their struggles and identify faulty thinking. For those with experience in ministry and in the fray, it is a resource for persevering when it seems easier to quit, especially when others leave them to carry on alone.

For those in the throes of determining whether to go or stay, it will be a valuable guide for the decision-making process. And for those who send and pray for global workers, this book will help them to empathize with the challenges of those they send and offer grace when their global partners return to them.

Grit to Stay Grace to Go is a practical guide to help cross-cultural workers and those who send them (or anyone who serves on a ministry team for that matter) develop grit and grace to stay or go. Get your copy at William Carey Publishing and other major book retailers.

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Sue Eenigenburg graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Lancaster Bible College. She has served with Christar in cross-cultural ministry on four different continents for more than thirty-five years. She and her husband Don have four married children and twelve grandchildren. She is the author of Screams in the Desert and More Screams, Different Deserts. She also co-authored Expectations and Burnout and Sacred Siblings.

Eva Burkholder’s experience as a missionary kid, cross-cultural worker, and member care provider adds a global dimension to her study of scripture and storytelling. Through her blog and her book, Favored Blessed Pierced: A Fresh Look at Mary of Nazareth, Eva invites readers to slow down, reflect, and apply God’s Word. She and her husband live in Texas and enjoy spending time with their two married sons and their wives.

How to Sustain Yourself Spiritually While Living Overseas

I remember when my team leader first spoke about learning to ‘self-feed’ spiritually as a part of living overseas. I didn’t understand what she meant then, during my initial missionary internship, but I certainly know now.

When we moved to Hungary long-term, I was pregnant with our third child. Hungary, like many non-U.S. countries, did not have child care options in most of the national churches. As a mom of young children, I entered a time when church attendance was scarce for me, and those circumstances would lead to floundering spiritually.

The struggle of being a missionary who couldn’t be fed spiritually by church pressed me to self-feed. By this I mean I developed the ability to be sustained spiritually outside of Sunday church or even mid-week fellowship. To be clear, it is very important to integrate into the church of our host countries. Yet, we also need to learn how to grow deep roots in our faith. 

Here are some ways we can feed ourselves spiritually. With time and practice, we can learn to let our doing define our being.

  1. Find consistent teaching or preaching which is gospel-centered: For me, this teaching came most through the ministry of Tim Keller. I felt such a shepherding presence from his consistent, biblically-sound, gospel-driven messages. I will never forget what it meant to repeatedly listen to the ‘Prodigal God’ sermons I had downloaded onto my iPod as I walked the hill by our Budapest flat. (His entire sermon collection is now available for FREE here.) I wept when he recently passed away as a testament to what his long-distance, yet, so close to the heart of God, ministry meant to me.
  2. Meditate on Scripture: When I became a mom, this discipline led me on a deeper journey to learning to self-feed. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I memorized Romans 8. While memorization is not necessary for meditation on Scripture, it is very helpful to know passages so well that we can recall them in part or as a whole. There is a reason why Psalm 119:11 talks about hiding the Word in our hearts so that we might not sin against God. This internalizing of the Word is a journey we walk for ourselves, not counting on any church or small group to do it for us.
  3. Connect with God through Your surroundings: Walks around our neighborhoods or cities are important anywhere we live. But, it is especially important to make what is foreign, familiar. When bill paying can be stressful, note the trees and the birds which perch on them, as we walk or ride or drive to pay a bill or speak our new language in relationship with native speakers or to do any anxiety-laden experience. As we do this, we learn to trust God anew that He is omnipresent and always with us and this world–His world.
  4. Learn to Prioritize Heart Community: Like a good missionary, I didn’t want to become so much a part of the expat community that I wasn’t forming relationships with nationals. While this is a valid concern, there are times when we just need to make sure we have present, solid community where we can share our heart struggles. Some of our best and most safe friends may be nationals, and that is beautiful. However, these relationships tend to take a longer time to develop. If we are feeling isolated, seeking safe, heartfelt community with other expats is not failing to bond with our host country. It is at times necessary to sustain ourselves for the long-term.
  5. Instead of Residing, Dwell: Psalm 37 became a key passage to center and focus me in my overseas journey. Verse 3b in my favorite translation says: Dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness. Dwelling means we find communion with God through being nourished by His faithfulness. Recognizing the steadfast love of God wherever we are in the world comes through the discipline of recounting God’s work on our behalf. We often do this by intentionally practicing thankfulness.
  6. Speak the Gospel over Ourselves Daily: The gospel-centered teaching I mentioned above is important to anchor us. But if we don’t internalize the message of our unmerited favor through the work of Jesus Christ, we will cut ourselves off from the life we desperately need. It is one of the greatest occupational hazards of missionaries that we would withhold from ourselves the gospel-bearing heart of God which we so dearly want to share with others. As our identity is lost through all that is hard and foreign, we cling more deeply to lives of performance. But there is no true sustenance if we cannot melt into that white hot and holy love of God displayed supremely through the gospel.

And in all of our days and ways, as we sustain ourselves, we must remember we are not being nourished in ourselves. It is only through the presence of Immanuel, God with us’ that we have that unending well of spiritual provision. It is His light which will face any darkness and never, ever, ever be overcome.

 photo credit

 

When Expectations Aren’t Reality: Supporting Your TCKs in the First Years of University

by Lauren Wells

I stood on a grassy hill hugging my parents tight as they prepared to drive away and head back to Africa, leaving me at university in Indiana. I had prepared for this transition. I had visited the school, had already made some friends, had earned my driver’s license on a previous home assignment, and felt ready and excited for this new chapter. It was going to be great.

A few days into the semester, I was required to go to an international student workshop. I was excited, thinking this was the part where I’d meet other TCKs. I was surprised to find that all of the other international students came from other passport countries for the purpose of university and that this was their first time living outside their home country.

I was equally surprised when our workshop consisted of teaching American currency (“This is a dollar. This is a penny, it’s worth one cent.”) and explaining how to dial 911. Having lived in the US until I was 13, I quickly realized I was the outsider in the international student group, so after I’d met the requirements, I never went back. 

As the semester went on, I tried to make friends. But it felt like every time I opened my mouth, the words I spoke didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. My attempts to be funny were met with awkward smiles. My attempts to deepen relationships by sharing about something a bit more vulnerable were met with comments that communicated a lack of ability to relate to my experiences and no invitation to continue the conversation.

I quickly felt like I didn’t belong with the monocultural crowd, but I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll only be here long enough to get my degree anyway, and it will be easier to leave if I never make close friends.” I knew what it felt like to leave close friends, so when my initial attempts to build relationship hadn’t worked, that seemed like a good excuse to stop trying.

I became the quiet one who walked through campus trying not to be noticed. I succeeded academically but have no memories of good social experiences. That first Christmas break, I remember feeling like a shell of myself, never having felt that level of emptiness and despair before, and I simultaneously decided that I just needed to toughen up and keep moving forward. 

School resumed, and I took on more classes than recommended, thinking that if I just poured myself into the academics, I could ignore the rest. But then, the grief started to creep in. Not just the grief of that year, but the grief that I had so skillfully pushed down for a long time before that. My Grief Tower was collapsing.

At TCK Training we work with TCKs on both sides of this story – educating families who are raising TCKs on how they can be intentional in caring for the unique needs of TCKs so that they can prevent adverse outcomes in adulthood and serving adult TCKs who reach out to us for support. 

In between the two parts of that story, we have found the need for preventive care and support. Sometimes universities have a wonderful TCK program, like MuKappa, that provides community and support for TCKs in their university years. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources available to university-age TCKs to guide them through that season. 

But there is good news! We can be intentional about supporting our university-age TCKs well, especially in those first couple of years. 

  • Set them up for emotional success by making sure they’ve had the opportunity to debrief and unstack their Grief Tower before university. The books The Grief Tower and Unstacking Your Grief Tower can guide you in doing that process in your own family. We recommend doing this at least 3 months before the transition to university so that the grief these conversations bring to the surface has time to begin to heal before they experience the major transition of starting university. 
  • Make sure they have avenues for connection and continued processing with safe people – family, friends, counselors. There will inevitably be difficulty in the transition, but they will not always want to share their hardships with you. Often this is because they won’t want to burden you on top of your international work or because they won’t want to disappoint you at their “failure” to thrive. Take away that shame by regularly asking them what has been hard. Ask them questions, and even when they don’t answer, let them know you don’t expect everything to be easy for them. For more on this, check out KC360’s workshop, “Indicators that University Transition is Going Well (or Not) with Dr. Rachel Cason” included in their free website membership
  • Help them develop a support network. There is potential for heavy, hard, or just unexpected circumstances to arise that require the help of a supportive adult. Asking for help can feel shameful, but that fear and shame can be reduced when the TCK has a list of people who have agreed to be a support to them. It is even more helpful when those people regularly check in with the TCK to see how they’re doing and what they need. Have your TCK help create a “supportive adult” list, and then ask the people on the list to regularly reach out to the TCK – both asking what they need and offering tangible ways they can help. For example, “Can I take you shopping for a winter coat? Can I come help pack up your dorm room for summer break?”
  • Teach them to celebrate wins. Adult TCKs often struggle to acknowledge their victories due to consistently feeling the need to adapt to fit the communities around them. The internal need to continue performing at ever higher levels leads to burnout. Celebrating victories, however, allows for rest, builds confidence and a sense of value, and strengthens their emotional bank to handle the difficult waves that come. 
  • Provide them transition support in their first year or two of university. An example of this is TCK Training’s Launch Pad program, which provides repatriating TCKs with a 10-month virtual cohort community, education, and support directly related to adult TCK experiences. There is space to process and grieve, along with regular checks-ins to celebrate victories and continue developing as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with Adult TCK resources so that you can support your Adult TCK by sending them relevant resources along the way. There is so much available now that simply wasn’t around only a few years ago! You can view all of TCK Training’s ATCK services, workshops, and resources at www.tcktraining.com/for-atcks 

The first couple years of university are notoriously the most difficult transition for TCKs. We believe, however, that with intentionality we can make these years not only healthy, but years that set them up for long-term emotional and relational health. 

Photo by Tim Gouw 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.

4 Ways Parents Can Help Young TCKs in Transition

by Hannah Flatman

We enjoyed setting up home in Brazil again. We had returned to our host country after a year away, eager to settle back into life at home. Discovering all their old toys felt a bit like Christmas for my children.

However, as gently and slowly as we took things, our little ones were sometimes overwhelmed by newness and change. They had forgotten quite a lot of the life they had lived here pre-pandemic. Surely this latest transition would be easier because my husband, the kids, and I were desperately looking forward to coming back ‘home’ to our serving country after the pandemic. And we are professional movers! I can’t count the number of cross-cultural transitions we’ve navigated our three- and five-year-olds through over the past years: Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Our preschooler had gotten past the phase of bed wetting and middle-of-the-night visits to Mum and Dad’s room. However, accidents began occurring fairly frequently and were accompanied by nightmares, a tantrum or two, and a refusal by one of our TCKs to speak anything but their maternal language for a time.

After frantically Googling ‘regression behaviour in young children in transition,’ it was a comfort to find that whilst it is exhausting, frustrating, and embarrassing (especially during long flights!), regression is also totally normal. If we expect tantrums from all young children as they learn to regulate their emotions and express themselves, how much more should we expect regression from young children in transition? This is especially true for cross-cultural transitions.

By regression, I mean temporarily reverting back to a younger or needier way of behaving. Perhaps a young child is using a pacifier again. Or they become clingy when they had been more independent, especially at bed times and goodbyes. A toddler who was speaking might revert to babbling. Children might become fussy about eating or refuse food at meal times. You might hear increased whining and stalling. Bed wetting might begin again.

Our experiences taught us to anticipate a toddler or young child’s regression on some developmental milestones in the weeks and months before, during, and after transition. It is a normal reaction to a big adjustment to their new environment.

When we expect regression, we can remember to allow margin in our full schedules. Parenting a child going through regression, even if short-lived, is intense and sometimes isolating. It often comes at a time when you want to focus on language learning, starting your new ministry, or just working out essential life skills like how to use public transport and where to buy veg. 

Regression may mean you have little energy for anything beyond the demands at home for longer than you expected. If you are a cross-cultural worker returning to your host culture from a time of Sending Country Assignment, your little ones may each take different time frames to adjust and settle back in – just as they would on arriving for the first time.

If this is your family’s first term of service, you’re probably wanting to make a good impression on new colleagues. Demanding perfect behaviour from our little ones (which usually means silence and politeness) in an attempt to validate our ministry or earn respect from our colleagues puts a huge pressure on our family.

When we expect perfection in our TCKs’ behaviour, we may be unconsciously teaching them that they need to hide their emotions, that mistakes are inexcusable, and that it is only acceptable to express (or feel) positive emotions. Let’s not project onto young children in transition the damaging idea that they compromise their parent’s spiritual witness, ministry, or family’s reputation when they demonstrate regression behaviour. People understand that acting out is normal from any toddler, even if they don’t understand the unique pressures of families with a globally mobile lifestyle.

So how do we help our little ones navigate transition and help our whole family navigate our toddler’s regression behaviour? How do we survive and thrive as parents of toddlers in transition? Below I’m sharing four ideas based on our own experiences.

1. Practicing Forbearance
In Ephesians 4:2 Paul exhorts the church to ‘be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.’ Bearing with our little ones in the midst of their transition-induced tantrums encompasses much more than just being patient and putting up with them. It is a choice to forgive, not to take offense, and most of all to love whilst acknowledging the real grievances and trials.

It is much easier to be patient and forbearing with our children when we are rested, in our own culture and home, with a well-established support network around us. In cross-cultural transitions so much is stripped away from us as parents and TCK caregivers that we are more vulnerable. We are often experiencing the disorientations and frustrations of culture shock along with our family. Regression behaviour in our little ones can be difficult to cope with when we want to make good first impressions in our communities, ministries, and churches. 

I was once told that it usually takes 3-12 months for children to adapt following a transition. Anything outside this window does not necessarily mean that the settling in journey is not going smoothly, or that our little ones are failing to adapt. For example, transitions may take longer or regression behaviour reoccur where there are a series of transitions involved over a number of months or years. However, if the regression behaviour is not short-lived, or if a caregiver is concerned, then do seek professional advice. 

2. Transition Preparedness
Gradually introduce elements of the new culture in the lead up to a cross-cultural transition. This can be as simple as a weekly attempt at making a dish from the new culture, language learning through games and apps, or finding out about cultural practices, special days, or celebrations in our host nation and joining in where possible. These may seem like small steps, but they build excitement about trying new things and can help the family prepare emotionally for departure.

3. Creating Consistency
Even when we are not going through transitions, I try to give my kids a preview of the day over breakfast. We talk about what is going to happen that day and when, often using meal times as references, because most young children are still coming to terms with the concept of time. So I might say, ‘After breakfast we will… and then just before lunch you can…’ That way they know what to expect. We also have a weekly schedule pinned to our fridge – the more pictures the better! We move a magnet along to show where we are in the week.

As soon as possible in the transition, try to establish routines like mealtimes and bedtimes. This helps little ones to feel more secure. We can make our homes warm and safe spaces so that our little ones can relax, be themselves, and have time away from others’ eyes. This could be achieved on Sending Country Assignment, where families don’t always have their own space, with a framed photo or two that comes with them or bed sheets or a toy from home. The child can help pack a small bag of things which are important to them to take. Set aside some time each day to lavish attention and affection on each child. These and other habits can help our children feel at home, even in transition.

4. Emotional Preparation
Giving our TCKs the emotional vocabulary to express how they feel helps alleviate some of their frustrations in being unable to communicate their needs. We have a weekly family check-in on Sunday afternoons where we all talk about, or draw, how our week has been. Mum and Dad share something as well! We hope this practice will help our little ones build emotional vocabulary and  foster open and trusting relationships where they can express any feeling to us. Emotion cards can help with this.

Remember that God is gracious to parents. He cares for the whole family even as he calls the parents to serve Him. Doubts may creep in about the truth of that during lonely moments when we are reeling from our toddlers’ tantrums, attempting to get our little one to eat, or changing wet bed clothes at 3am, again. It is a comfort to me to remember that He sees and knows our parental struggles and fear, as well as our mum/dad guilt. God is alongside us and our little ones in all those moments. His constant presence is our home through all transitions.

 

For additional practical advice from Lauren Wells, see this article.

My story for young TCKs and MKs in transition, A Fish out of Water, is a good conversation starter for parents who want to guide their little ones through cross-cultural moves and culture shock.

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Hannah Flatman writes about culture shock, transitions, and raising resilient Third Culture Kids. She has been serving as a missionary in NE Brazil since 2005 and is mum to two little ones whom she has already guided through several significant cross-cultural transitions. Hannah is responsible for the member care of short-term members of Latin Link Brazil and also serves in South Sudan, where she and her husband have an ongoing commitment to the Ngok Dinka community in Abyei.

Freedom for the Missionaries

by Shannon Brink

It’s been almost five years since we moved overseas.

Not much has gone as we expected. There have been such highs, and such lows, that it’s hard to articulate. We don’t know what the future holds. Are we coming back after this summer’s visit to our passport country, or will we call it quits?

There are so many questions ricocheting around my mind. Unsolved ruminations of what this was all about and what it was all for.

This has all been so much messier than I thought it would be. There is so much pressure to succeed, so much riding on our ‘success.’ People’s money, their tithes, their prayers, their sacrifices. Our children’s childhoods. Can we justify, can we explain, if the ‘mess’ is worth it? What if it’s not?

We need to explain ourselves on both sides of the ocean, be available and relatable to two different worlds and carry the needs of both. We need to justify when we take a break, when we aren’t doing what we thought we’d be doing, when there are disruptions.

We struggle with our own level of productivity, our own desires to be successful, our own fears of not being fruitful. We don’t see what is happening underneath it all, and we can’t even explain it to others sometimes because we don’t know what God is up to.

I haven’t met a single missionary who really understands the bigger picture. In fact, more often I meet others who thought they knew the roadmap and had to throw it all away. If God does anything through any of us, it’s an absolute miracle.

But I wonder if this time would have been different if there had been less pressure. And it hit me — I need more freedom. The freedom I profess to others, I need for myself. So for other missionaries out there, here is my prayer for you as it is my prayer for myself. A prayer of recognition, a prayer of release, a prayer of humility and brokenness:

 

Lord, I pray today for freedom.

I need the freedom to have it all far apart.

I need the freedom from it all making sense.

I need freedom from the fear of messing up my children’s lives.

Lord, give me freedom from the fear of financial ruin.

Free me from my need to make a difference.

I need freedom to be working through the same issues that I had before I arrived in this place.

I pray for freedom to doubt and wonder, to be mad about the losses, to long to be understood.

Freedom to realize that I’m not the super Christian I thought I was.

I need the freedom to still need grace.

I need the freedom to start language learning again, and again.

Freedom to try and fail at making myself known.

I want freedom to wish my story were different.

Oh God, I need freedom from my own unrealistic expectations.

Give me freedom to love and hate all the places I’ve been.

Lord, I need freedom in greater measures than yesterday.

Free me, God, in Christ, for your glory and fame.

Free us all, Lord.

We are an army in chains, marching wounded and terrified. We are struggling with our own fears, doubts, failures, and baggage.

We are rubbed raw and overwhelmed by pressures on ourselves and our own expectations.

We forget that we are the beggars. We are not the ‘have it all togethers.’ We do not need to be strong, we need to be forgiven.

We don’t need to prove our worth, we need to admit our brokenness. We don’t need to be fruitful, we need to be obedient.

You will get the glory then, when we admit that it’s all about you and not about us at all.

Free us, Lord.

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Shannon Brink is a nurse, a mother of four, and a missionary in East Africa. She hails from the west coast of Canada, where her family is returning for a year long home assignment in June. After that, they’re not sure if they will continue overseas or not. Her first book, There’s a Dragon in my Pocket, is designed to help children process their anxiety and was written during the pandemic. Her next book, Waiting is the Night, is about the journey of waiting on God through her chronic struggle with insomnia. It will be released in May.