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How Are Your TCKs Doing?

From the series Still Serving in China

In the past 18 months, our family has lived in six borrowed homes in two states. This has been the result of planning, packing, obtaining visas, multiple COVID tests, and then being denied the needed green code twice in our attempts to return to China (read more of our story in “An Invitation to Lament”). As we continue to wait, unsure of what is next, people ask me at least once a week “How are the girls doing?” (my daughters are nearly 10 and 12). I don’t know how to answer that question. From outward appearances, they are doing pretty well. We have created a semblance of normal life in the most recent borrowed home as best we can. But then there are questions like these:

Mom, can we get a pet?

Mom, when I have my own room, I want to decorate like this . . .

Mom, if we’re here this summer, can I go to camp?

Will so-and-so still be there when we move back to China?

[After having moved again] What’s the plan for today?

Mom, remember that ____________. Did you have to throw it away because it didn’t fit in the suitcase?

Mom, will we be with Daddy for my birthday?

All are seemingly benign questions, right? But each question and its corresponding answer represents a loss—albeit some a seemingly small loss—for my kids. Over years of living overseas, or years of living in transition, these losses can add up.

Those of you who are parenting TCKs (Third Culture Kids) could probably quickly make your own list of similar questions. They are often the ones that are very difficult to answer. And the older your children, often the bigger the losses.

The past few decades have brought a windfall of rich TCK research. It is no secret that due to their unique upbringings, TCKs offer a wide host of gifts to the world–resourcefulness, adaptability, outside-of-the-box thinking, and compassion to name a few. However, their often-perceived storybook-adventure lives are not without tremendous loss—losses that the therapy world calls hidden losses or ambiguous losses. In fact, they are losses that TCKs themselves, or their parents, may not even detect or “count” as losses. Losses like the ones mentioned above—not having a sense of home or a room to call their own, not being there for important family events, having to say goodbye a lot, not “fitting in” in either culture, the inability to plan, and so on.

Lauren Wells, in her recently published book, Unstacking Your Grief Tower, likens these losses to a tower that if stacked too tall, will inevitably topple over with potentially devastating effects. Her encouragement to parents and caregivers of TCKs is to proactively help the TCKs in your life recognize and process their losses, to help them grieve. She also mentions that not all “blocks” in a person’s tower hold the same weight. For example, grief from experiencing an armed break-in to your home or having to leave your home suddenly due to political unrest need more attention than saying goodbye to a best friend or moving to a new school. Likely, we do give more attention to these weightier blocks because the trauma is more obvious. However, parents and caregivers of TCKs must be aware that “lighter blocks” that go unprocessed can stack up high, topple, and send a teen, young adult, or adult TCK into tailspin that ends in an unhealthy place. Therefore, the best TCK care is preventative, not reactive. Regularly scheduled debriefs to process heavy and light grief tower blocks, to use Wells’s analogy, is imperative to raising emotionally and physically healthy TCKs. Doing this will hopefully help lower the staggering statistic that 80% of adult TCKs struggle with depression and anxiety disorders (Wells, 31).

To be honest, reading books like the one above at times makes me want to pack up and be done with the expat life. The risks are too great for my daughters. It feels daunting as they get older and likely will experience “heavier blocks” to help them process well. Is this crazy expat, cross-cultural ministry life worth it? Will they be OK? Will the benefits of TCK life outweigh the repeated losses?

When our family moved to China in 2014, my oldest daughter was just beginning her early school years. I had (and still do at times) many doubts about the education she was getting—a hybrid of Chinese school and my own efforts of homeschooling to help her stay on track with her American peers. In questioning her education, I was really questioning what I was doing to her entire childhood. It looked so different from mine growing up in the Midwest. One day while walking alone, I cried out as I am sure many parents have in ages past and present: Was I doing what was right for her? Was she getting everything she needed educationally? Socially? How could I give her what I had growing up in this foreign country? How could she thrive here? And then God spoke. A stunning butterfly landed an arm’s length away and I clearly heard “Eileen, do you believe that even though your daughter’s life looks very different from yours, it can be just as beautiful as this butterfly?”

Yes! I still believe the answer is a resounding Yes! But I know this yes also comes with intention on my part. I, along with my husband, must be intentional to process our own grief as well as provide safe, regular spaces for our daughters to process theirs as well. I am learning how to do this and will share just a couple of practical ideas below, but I encourage all parents and caregivers of TCKs to read applicable material and access resources to help the TCKs in your life.

Practical First Steps

Be aware of your responses to TCKs (or anyone’s) grieving.

I don’t like feeling sad, and I certainly don’t want my children to feel sad. If my children are sad, my natural response is to make it better. I want to fix it. But, quickly pointing out the positives of their TCK experience, or reminding them of how really good they have it, or too quickly helping them reframe a painful situation are not helpful responses. It invalidates whatever pain they are experiencing, sending the message it isn’t that important and they should just suck it up and move on. If this happens repeatedly, especially throughout their developmental years, it results in a very high grief tower of unprocessed pain.

I am learning to sit with my daughters in their pain, however seemingly insignificant. When one of them asks, “Will Daddy be with me for my birthday?”, instead of saying probably not and quickly listing all the other people who will be there and the fun activity we are going to do, I hug her. I let her cry as long as she needs to, and then I say to her, “I don’t think so, and that is really, really sad. I’m so sorry.” If I can shepherd my children’s hearts in this way, it somehow releases me from the pressure of having to make it all OK, because I really can’t. It gives me and my children space to allow God to comfort and heal as only he can.

Set aside a half day and create a family timeline.

My daughters and I did this about a month ago. It was so much fun, good, and hard all at the same time. In the end, we had a timeline stretched across a large piece of butcher paper beginning with our marriage until the present that included significant events, all of our moves, and all of the girls’ educational experiences. For each event, we also put an emoji of how each person felt about it. Above the timeline, we put happy memories; below the timeline, we listed the hard stuff. It was a beautiful way of remembering together–the joy and the pain. To close the time, we thanked God for all the wonderful experiences and good things. For the hard things, one by one we proclaimed, “God, you saw us, and you were with us.”

I hope to do something like this again with my girls on a smaller scale in another two to three months (this is a good reminder to schedule it on my calendar!) for the recent past. As you begin or continue this journey of processing grief with the TCKs in your life, know that it is good, worthwhile work. It is work that will help them to not be bound by unprocessed grief, but rather to break forth as each unique stunning butterfly that they are to bless the world.

This post was informed by Unstacking Your Grief Tower by Lauren Wells. Other helpful books by Wells include The Grief Tower and Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids.

TCK International recently conducted a scientific study of nearly 2,000 adult TCKs using questions adapted from the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Survey. The hypothesis being that TCKs have higher ACE scores than their mono-cultural peers. The results are fascinating, sobering, and yet encouraging. Check out “Information About The 2021 TCK Training Survey Of Developmental Trauma In Third Culture Kids“ on TCK Training for more information and a video of the presentation of initial findings.

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Image credit: David Clode on Unsplash.

Eileen Johns

Eileen Johns (pseudonym) is a wife and mother who longs to be teaching and living in China again. She has an MA from Wheaton College and is passionate about helping people connect with God.View Full Bio

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