When Your TCK is Bullied

Praying for Answers

There was a time which seemed to last forever, a time when my kids got bullied.

I wish I could say that, because of my spiritual and emotional maturity and love for our host country’s people, I had a good attitude about this. But I didn’t. Instead, when my kids were hit with pebbles and sticks and had their ice creams thrown in the dirt and were told to go back to America, I wished mean things upon other people’s children. Like acne. Or sinkholes.

Thankfully, we were still learning the language at the time.

My children confided in me. They looked to me for answers I only wished I had. How could I help them? I tried talking to parents, and to the kids themselves, but it didn’t help. Thus began more than a year of research and problem-solving, in which I feared I’d wear out both Google and God, and pretty much everyone else I knew, in my quest for a solution. Perhaps you are facing a similar situation. If so, I want to share six strategies that worked well for us.

1. Give it to God

It can be difficult to know whether a given case of bullying is something that will burn our kids or refine them; crush them or make them stronger. I’ve found that, like in many parenting challenges, I have to bring this kind of issue before God and lay it at His feet, praying for wisdom and guidance. It’s possible that removing your kids from a bullying situation will be the best option. Or God might direct you to stay and work through it. Trust Him, and trust your instincts as a parent.

2. Teach Confidence

According to nearly every article I read on the Internet, bullies want an easy target. Someone who won’t fight back, who will give a good reaction—whining, crying, cowering, tattling. Bullies love this because makes them feel powerful, when, perhaps, they feel powerless in other areas of life. This is sad and disturbing, yet it is true in our sinful world.

I decided to focus on teaching and modeling confidence. We worked on standing straight, chin up; looking around; having a relaxed, pleasant expression. We worked on reacting to unkindness in a calm, amused manner or cheerfully ignoring insults. A fellow TCK mom and good friend of mine also recommended encouraging my kids to focus on people who do like them, and spending time and energy on those people and activities that bring joy.

I was recently with a group of expat teens who were asked to share their biggest struggle in their host country. Several mentioned not knowing the local language. It takes time and effort, but solid language skills can give a huge boost to confidence. If you’re looking for help in this area, you can check out my earlier article, 3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning. 

3. Stay Curious

I know how frustrating it is when your child asks you to explain someone’s behavior, and your only answer is, “Um, yeah, I have no idea.” It hurts our parental pride not to have tidy, sitcom-succinct answers. But press into that discomfort. You may find an opportunity to better understand your host culture.

Find a friend—a local mom, a thoughtful teenager, a language helper—someone you can talk to. Questions might include: Is this normal behavior? Is it seen as a problem here? What do people in your culture normally do about this issue? Why do you think it is happening? 

Involve your child in this cultural research. Approach it like a puzzle. By staying curious, you model how to approach the other cultural mysteries your child will face in his or her life. We learned that in our host country, hitting is seen as a problem-solving option for both children and adults. It’s a part of life. This helped us to see and understand the difference between frustrated, childish whacking and targeted hitting that is meant to intimidate.

4. Make Great Memories

Being bullied takes large withdrawals out of several banks, including the Bank of Self-Esteem and the Bank of Love for the Host Culture. You, as a parent, can help balance this by making deposits.

For the Bank of Self-Esteem, we arranged special times both as a family and for one-on-one dates with Mom or Dad. This gave us a chance to learn more about what each child loves and to give them opportunities to develop their talents and dive into their interests. Consider helping your kids find ways to serve your family such as cooking a meal or fixing bike tires. This will naturally increase self-esteem and put bullying in perspective.

For the Bank of Love for the Host Culture, we sought out other people and families and purposely spent time with those we all got along with. To help your child find new people to hang out with, you could help them join an art or sports club, or learn skills that are unique to your country. One TCK I know learned to play bagpipe when she lived in Scotland; another taught English classes in her Cambodian community; a third learned to tie a sari in India. Look beyond just peers — younger kids and elderly people are also great places to find positive relationships.

5. Be Creative

As I observed the neighbor kids interacting one afternoon, I had an epiphany. These kids were bored! And the more bored they felt, the more they pecked at each other. They needed something to do.

Now, gross motor stills are not my gift from Jesus. I spent most of my elementary PE classes feeling really, really confused. But I swallowed my pride, gathered some of the rocks the neighbor kids had been throwing at each other, and started a relay race. Surprisingly, the bullying nearly disappeared for several weeks. (And I had a childhood dream fulfilled when the kids rang our doorbell and asked me to play!)

Rock relay races may not be applicable in your circumstances, but the problem-solving principle might be. Maybe someone has a habit of putting others down to boost their self-image. Would a one-on-one playdate without group pressure help them feel less threatened? Maybe everyone else knows how to play soccer and your kids love basketball. Could they ask one of the friendlier kids to coach them? Pinpointing the reason for the bullying is the first step in equipping your child and/or other kids to redirect behavior and energy in more positive ways.

6. Practice Forgiveness

Six months after I started this journey with my kids, I got an email from a “mother in Israel,” an elderly woman who prays for us and our mission. She’d read a kids’ article I’d written about the bullying and advised my children to forgive their enemies. I read the letter, then looked around self-consciously. Did she know about the acne and sinkholes? And, more importantly, how did I forget about forgiveness?

I had taught my kids to be diplomatic, to act confident, to walk away, to be helpful to the neighbors, to love themselves as children of God despite their flaws, to know the bullying wasn’t their fault, to be willing to grow. . . . But I’d never mentioned forgiveness.

We began to pray for our enemies. It was hard. Hard for them and for their mama bear. I began a months-long dive into Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the sermon where this famous advice is given. Suddenly, it seemed, the entire sermon was about bullies and bullying and what we’re supposed to do about it all. 

I learned that Jesus wants us to see all people as just that: people. It’s easy to objectify someone who hurts us. Praying for our enemies, forgiving them, and even trying to love them leads us to see them as people. 

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to forgive. Because by forgiving, we realize that our bullies are just as in need of grace and help as we are.

Why We Stayed

I’ll be honest. At the beginning of our bullying journey, I was ready to pack up my cubs and move. After all, our landlord even confessed to our helper that his family moved out because of rude neighbors!

I submitted these plans to God… strictly as a formality. I mean, I assumed God had read all the same articles on bullying and depression and anxiety that I had. He would surely give us the green light and send us to a more emotionally functional neighborhood. But, long story short, God said no. I very clearly sensed Him telling me to wait. I second-guessed myself daily, and talked to God often, ready to rescue my kids from this trial at a moment’s notice.

But as I waited, something unexpected happened. I saw my children grow and mature. I saw them start living their faith. They began to lean on it and to depend on it. I watched them come to Jesus because they didn’t want to forgive, and I saw Jesus help them do the impossible. That is hard heart work. And in the end, this growing relationship with God was more valuable than the comfort of always being loved by everyone.

If you’d like to hear more about our journey, I’ve written about it on my newsletter, Whatsoever Things. I’d love to see you there.

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. Abigail is the author of Hidden Song of the Himalayas: Memoir of a Gospel Seed Sower in the Mountains of India.