When the Third Culture Kids Are Not Alright

by Elizabeth Smith

Editor’s Note: Christianity Today recently published an article by Rebecca Hopkins (who has written for A Life Overseas in the past) titled “The Missionary Kids Are Not Alright.” This guest piece by Elizabeth Smith was submitted prior to the publication of the Christianity Today article, but it beautifully addresses the concerns raised in the article. ~Elizabeth Trotter

I don’t know how many times my father told me that he had been around the block a time or two. All the troubles I faced in my childhood, he had faced too. He had experience to guide me through the complexities of life. What a gift to possess that level of expertise! I can’t relate.

That’s because years later, I looked into the eyes of my own baby as a helicopter took off behind me, leaving us in a village in the middle of the jungle. There were no blocks here. I had not been around them. I had no experience for my own cross-cultural challenges, let alone my son’s third culture challenges. While I navigated American sleep-training in Papua New Guinean baby bilums (portable baby hammocks), I could only wonder what it would be like growing up in a world of blended cultures. 

What was it like ducking under a mosquito net to pull up Paw Patrol on the tablet?  What was it like deciding between cereal or roasted taro root for breakfast? What was it like transitioning from running naked and free in the village to having to wear clothes all the time in America? (That one I knew would be hard!)

In those years, there weren’t a lot of resources for little Third Culture Kids. Most resources came in the form of terrifying statistics of suicide rates among TCKs or support groups for struggling adult TCKs. When it came to preventively nurturing TCKs, there was a void. Until Raising up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids was published.  When the author, Lauren Wells, founded TCK Training, she outlined the unique needs of TCKs and how to support them in practical ways. 

Finally I saw how TCKs are influenced by more than one culture but belong to none of them, and I saw how that impacted their identity. I saw how TCKs were praised for smiling through the confusion and uncertainty of transitions, and I saw how that stunted their emotional intelligence. I saw how TCKs normalized loss, transitions, deep poverty, social injustice, crime and more, and I saw how that added to an unstable Grief Tower threatening to collapse. I saw how TCKs expect to go back to their passport countries as adults, and I saw how subconscious expectations set them up for lives fraught with disappointment. 

Most importantly, I learned that when supportive adults provide preventive care, these challenges can be mitigated. When TCKs receive support and preventive care like this, they experience the unique gifts they’re entitled to: high emotional intelligence, healthy empathy, responsible adaptability, a beautiful mosaic identity, and rich contentment in life. I clearly shared a passion with TCK Training, and in time I joined their team, helping to train TCK parents and caregivers in preventive care.  

The question most of us have is: How do we as supportive adults provide preventive care for the TCKs we love? That is the question TCK Training was created to answer! Here are some of the ways TCK Training can help you as you seek to help the TCKs in your lives. 

 

  1. Parent and Caregiver Education. We realized early on that the most efficient and practical way to care for TCKs is to empower the adults already in their lives. For that purpose, we have a huge archive of workshops, with more being added monthly. We have practical tips for all ages, from TCK toddlers and elementary-aged kids to teens and university-aged TCKs, but the foundational information on how to practically care for TCKs is found in our Raising Healthy TCKs workshop.
  2. Family Curriculum. To take the education we provide in workshops and bring that to your TCKs, we developed the Family Curriculum. These are fun lessons that you can do as a whole family that specifically target the key challenge areas for TCKs. 
  3. Debriefs. There is a very widely spread myth that children are resilient. What this looks like in practice is that they don’t receive the care that their parents receive from their sending agency. So TCK Training offers debriefs geared specifically for the kids or for the whole family. Again targeting the key challenge areas for TCKs, our debriefs focus on the TCKs while also supporting the parents with practical ideas on how to care preventively. 
  4. Family Care Packages. Our family care packages are a year of care in the form of monthly or bi-monthly check-ins. These packages are excellent for families who want someone in their lives who is prioritizing the emotional lives of their TCKs. 

 

As I’m writing this, we’re packing up from our time in Egypt and preparing to transition to Jordan. My son is a pre-griever, so we’re making space now to think through our losses.  We’re breathing deeply as we do brunch one last time on the Nile. We’re talking about how much we’ll miss our resident stray cat as we dip pita bread into baba ganoush. We’re thinking about how much time we’ve spent in Egypt and wondering how this will change us. We’re crying because it was beautiful, and we will miss it. 

I still haven’t been around the block. The village streets in Egypt are more like a labyrinth, anyway. But I’ve been around the globe, digging into research and collecting stories from TCKs worldwide. Through my work with TCK Training, I’ve learned that the number one thing TCKs need is for their parents to make space for their grief and loss and to sit with them and say, “It makes sense that you feel that way. I do, too. Let’s learn together how to walk around this block.” 

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Elizabeth and her family are full-time travelers. They started their global journey doing mission work in Papua New Guinea for 5 years. Now Elizabeth works remote for TCK Training, traveling for in-person debriefs, conferences, and speaking engagements. She never travels without her French press, chef’s knife, flyswatter, and pop-up hamper. Elizabeth is the author of the upcoming book The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabethvaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining

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Editor

A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.