img_4490Understanding the Emotional Needs of TCKs and How to Support Them

By: The Chews

A Focus Paper written for ACTI Course, April-May 2015

 1) Introduction

From the beginning of our relationship, we were very clear about God’s call for us to serve Him in the mission field. We knew that our desire would be to serve God as a family in another culture. However, after having our two daughters, we realized the implication our decision would have on them and many questions and thoughts started to overwhelm us.

“Our girls will not be able to have a close relationship with their grandparents and loved ones. Will the move affect them emotionally and in their development? Saying goodbye is so hard. How will our older daughter, who is more sensitive, cope with these changes? Will they be able to fit back into our education system? What if they question God and walk away from the faith because of our call? …”

These were the different issues and questions we had to lay before God as we decided to obey His call. But it wasn’t enough to just say we trust God. We felt that we needed to understand the experiences of third culture kids (TCKs) to know how to help our daughters with the transitions and adjustments they have to make. We know that no amount of preparation can shelter them from the challenges they will face. However, by understanding the possible experiences they might face, this can help us to find ways to support them and cushion the impact of these challenges.

In following our call and making preparations for language learning and ministry, it is just as important to care for the needs of our children. This was emphasized a number of times by our lecturers during the time of training at ACTI. Dr Winston Chiu shared that in mission work, we will face spiritual warfare and these attacks can come in the form of discouragement in our family life. Thus it is important for us not only to be engaged in attacking our enemy in the battlefield but also in defending our territories, especially in the aspects of our marriage and family life. Dr Thang also concurred with this point as the health of our family life is essential in the pursuit of our call. He shared of missionaries who had neglected this aspect and had to stop their service as their family life faced a crisis. Serving God is a marathon and to finish well, we need to also care for the needs of our children and help them to adjust as they follow us in our obedience to the Lord.

2) A definition of TCKs

As missionaries, when we bring our children into the mission field with us, they become what is know as ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs). A helpful definition of a TCK is “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parent’s culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”[1]


Below is a graphical representation of the world of TCKs:[2]


The TCK’s struggle with identity is beautifully captured in one TCK’s poem:

I am a
confusion of cultures.
Uniquely me.

I think this is good
because I can
the traveler, sojourner, foreigner,
the homesickness
that comes.
I think this is also bad
because I cannot
be understood
by the person who has sown and grown in one place.
They know not
the real meaning of homesickness
that hits me
now and then.
Sometimes I despair of
understanding them.
I am
an island
a United Nations.
Who can recognize either in me
but God?
— ‘Uniquely Me’ by Alex Graham James[3]

3) The focus of this paper

Relocation is a stressful transition for adults. It involves a physical move from one country to another which impacts us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. If it is such a challenging transition for adults, what more for children who thrive when there is routine, familiarity and structure.

In this paper, we seek to understand how being a TCK affects children emotionally by studying the reflections of various TCKs and summarising their experiences. The second part of this paper focuses on how we as parents can help to cushion the impact these changes have on them and how we can engage our community to also support them.

4) Emotional impact on TCKs

Most TCKs will go through a range of emotional struggles because of the many changes and transitions in their lives. Janet Armstrong highlights this:

“Many times parents/caregivers don’t understand the pressure TCKs experience when they move between places and relationships. Their senses may vacillate between negative and positive – feeling bewildered or fascinated, isolated or the centre of attention, angry or excited, guarded or open, etc.”[4]

Children (and adults) may respond in different ways to the stresses of these transitions. Armstrong observes how “Extroverts and introverts may differ in struggles or in making friends in another culture:

4a) Sadness, grief, a sense of loss and insecurity

Missionary Beate Knauber sums up some of the most common emotions TCKs struggle with: “I don’t think we can overstress the fact how very difficult it can be for TCKs, especially in times of transition. There is a lot of sadness and grief from the many losses that the kids are facing. There is frustration and anger coming from a deep sense of insecurity because they simply don’t belong.”[6]

4b) Struggles with social life, sense of identity and development

The transitions and emotional stress also have an impact on the social life and development of the TCK. Two TCKs share about their struggles with this:

“Because of constant moves, meeting new people, and not really knowing what culture I am a part of, coupled with being an introvert, all tend to make it hard to jump into deep relationships with people. It hurts to build good friendships and then to constantly have to say goodbye, when you don’t know when you will see them next. Many times, I hold back in a relationship or scare people away with my independent outer shell.”[7]

“As an MK, my many relocations have caused me to easily sense rejection from others in different cultures. Somehow, I never quite seemed to get it just right and always felt like an outsider. This caused me, like Cain, to often hide my true self and present a pseudo-self to others that I thought could be more acceptable. However, this only ended up being a personality made up of my own self-effort that was not helpful in getting close to God or to others.”[8]

4c) Struggles to meet expectations

Missionary kids (MKs) may also feel that they have to live up to certain expectations from others, to behave well all the time as a good Christian testimony, and to follow in the footsteps of their parents. As one MK put it, “I have been called to be a missionary but, like many other Asian MKs, live in the shadow of my father… This makes it difficult for me to be the person that God has made me to be, and I struggle with the high level of expectation that people place on me without even knowing me. My parents, however, have been a pillar of support in recognizing my uniqueness and in encouraging me to be myself.”[9]

4d) Lack of sense of belonging

It has been mentioned by many MKs and even David C. Pollock that the hardest question for a TCK to answer is “Where do you call home?” As Abbi Benadum shared, “What are we supposed to say? We may have been born in one country and grew up in another or we may have been born in one country and grown in three other countries”[10] For some, this lack of a sense of belonging and home may cause them to question their identity and struggle to find a resolution.

5) Helping our TCKs in their adjustment

In his book Leading Missions, Dr Thang Nghaite wrote that when a couple serves the Lord as missionaries, their children are considered as team members in this ministry and thus also deserve great care and attention for their future. They should not be victimized because of their parents’ call to serve the Lord.[11]  Therefore, just as we are passionate about reaching the lost, we need to be as passionate about ensuring our children’s well-being as it not only affects their future, it can also impede the effectiveness of our long term ministry. As Dr Jeffery Lum mentioned in our lecture, “When your children don’t settle, you don’t settle”.

In this section, we will focus on how we can help to support our children by caring for ourselves, strengthening our marriages, being emotionally available for our children, systems we can put in place to help them and connecting them to a community. We will also end by suggesting some activities we can do with them in this journey so that it can also be enjoyable and meaningful for them.

5a) Self Care

For those of us who fly frequently on a plane, we would have probably heard the safety instructions many times. You might have heard the flight attendant giving instructions on how to use the oxygen mask. Have you noticed the instructions say to “Be sure to put on your own mask before helping your children”? Some may find it strange. Shouldn’t we help our children first so that if anything happens, at least they survive? However, there is wisdom in this statement because in the event that anything happens during this period and our oxygen mask is not on, we will be unable to care for ourselves, let alone our children.

This is the case for caring for our children too in our everyday lives and especially during transitions. Transitions are not only stressful for our children, they are stressful for adults too. If we do not ensure our own well-being and self care, we may not have the capacity to support our children during this time.

One way we can care for ourselves is by being aware of our own emotions and stress, learning to self-soothe and also turning to others for support. A therapist in Singapore, Dr David Blakely, suggested that one simple way is to periodically think of our experiences in a day and identify how we felt. By acknowledging these emotions, we are also learning to cope with them. It will also be helpful to find ways to relax by doing activities we enjoy, talking to others and resting physically. It is also important to find time to rest in the Lord and bring these emotions before Him knowing that He cares for us, just as it is written “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Another way to care for ourselves is to set realistic expectations for ourselves and even our children. Being in a different culture requires adjustments and in the midst of this we may face different stresses. Therefore it is important to give ourselves time to adjust and not place high expectations on what we must accomplish or over commit ourselves to various responsibilities.

As mentioned by Dr Jeffrey Lum in his lesson, it is also important to draw healthy boundaries to guard our personal time and space so that we do not over commit and burnout. This is not only important for our personal well being but also for our family’s, which can also have a long term impact on our ministry.

5b) Strengthening our Marriages 

There is a saying, “The best gift parents can ever give to their children is to love each other.” Very often, when we attend to our children’s needs, we can get so overwhelmed and tired that we may neglect working on our marriages. However, this is important because in the midst of the uncertainties and stress from adjusting to new cultures, our children may feel insecure and need a secure base. If the marital relationship is weak and there is little support and understanding between the couple, this tension can cause more insecurities for the children. In addition, when the marital relationship is tense, there may be little cooperation and mutual support, leaving one or both parties feeling stressed and this is also not good for the emotional wellbeing of the family.

Spending time strengthening our marriages also serves as a protection against temptation and the devil’s schemes. When our marriage is not strong, we are also vulnerable to being attracted to others whom we may compare our spouses with. If we are not careful, we may end up committing adultery and this not only stops our service to God, it will also hurt our spouse and children greatly. Hence, to care for our children’s needs, we also need to love our spouses and make time to meet their needs.

We may not have the luxury of going on dates when we are in a new country. However, we can start by intentionally making time each day to share and pray with each other and to discuss parenting or ministry issues with each other so that we are involved in each others’ lives. And when an opportunity arises, to find time to do something enjoyable together.

5c) Supporting our children

“I don’t think we can overstress the fact how very difficult it can be for TCKs, especially in times of transition. There is a lot of sadness and grief from the many losses that the kids are facing. There is frustration and anger coming from a deep sense of insecurity because they simply don’t belong. Today, as I look back, I wish I had known about some of these issues long ago. It would have helped me to be more understanding and supportive of my childrenThe best thing we as parents can do is to extend a lot of patience. After all, this is how God treats us. Wait and pray, and be there for them when they are ready. The rest we have to leave up to the Lord.”[12] – Beate Knauber

As mentioned by Beate Knauber above, there is a mixture of emotions going on inside our TCKs. When this happens, it may affect their behavior. Some may regress in their behaviors, for example going back to thumb-sucking, some may be more reserved or even moody and some may even have more temper tantrums. However, these are all indications that they are under stress and will need more patience and understanding from us to help them through this period while helping them to find ways to express these emotions constructively. Also, during the periods of adjustment, we may be helpful to re-examine our expectations of them. Just as we adults may get physically, emotionally and mentally more tired easily, our children may face the same issues and we may need to slow down the activities they are involved in and give them time to adjust to the new environment, culture and food and not to rush them through this process.

“The losses children face are huge when leaving the country where they have spent a significant part of their formative years. So much so that they may even experience grief issues that may remain unresolved without proper attention. One reason for this is that few people, including parents, know how to help them process their experiences.[13] – Belinda Ng

As Belinda Ng shared above, our children face many losses too when moving to a new country or re-entering home after many years in their host countries. They need help to work through these emotions so they can move forwarded healthily. It is because of this reason that we need to learn to work through our emotions. Otherwise, we will find it difficult to help them through theirs. One way to help them is to allow them to talk about how they are feeling and not to ask them to “get over it as life goes on”. We need to also assure them that it is okay to cry and to ask questions if they have any. Grieving is a process, not an event and every child grieves differently. In an article written by the National Association of School Psychologists, it was stated that “pressing children to resume normal activities without the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems and negative reactions.”[14]

Finally, just as it is important to have boundaries to care for ourselves, we also need to have boundaries to protect the time we have with our children and to spend time with them. This bond that we build will help to give them a sense of stability and to also help them see that they are part of this ministry too. We need to intentionally set aside time to play with them and to come together before God as a family. We need to avail ourselves emotionally to listen to them and to also help them to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in every situation we are in. As MK Roshan Koshy shares below, this can also contribute to drawing them closer to our God and not feeling bitter that He has taken their parents from them.

“Being an MK has never been easy… I had to make peace with not having the things that others in my peer circle had… While at times I found this hard to accept, the bond that we had built as a family since my childhood pulled me through trying times… In spite of being a busy man, my father always made it a point to leave his Saturdays free as our ‘family day’. All this helped me to digest the hard realities that my parents had to sometimes face in living for the gospel. It helped me to understand that I was important to them and that I came before their ministry. This understanding brought me closer to God.”[15]

One benefit that TCKs have now that previous TCKs did not is that there is a lot more research done on TCKs and information about their experiences. This can help parents to normalize their experiences so that they do not feel that there is something wrong with them or that they are the only ones facing these emotions. This normalization can help to bring some assurance and comfort to them. Knowing that others in similar situations have similar experiences can also help to give them a sense of identity and sense of belonging that they might not have felt in their home or host cultures. For older TCKs, there are even online communities that they can get connected to for support.

6. Practical Steps to help our children

“It would have been good if my parents had ‘educated’ us a bit more about the lifestyle and culture in their home country-to be aware of how we would be perceived by our peers…could they have helped us fit in better?”[16]

The above quote was made regarding re-entry preparations. However, this sentiment can be applied both for entering a new country and re-entry to our home country. Children need our help to adjust. In an article written by Ronald L. Koteskey about helping our children to adjust, he suggested some steps that will be helpful[17]:

Get set! (Preparation phase)

It is easy for children to be overwhelmed or think of the negatives as all of us generally prefer what we are familiar with and are resistant to change. Therefore it is also essential to stress positive things about the move while acknowledging their fears and discuss options open to them months in advance of the move.

Go! (Packing)

Life there (Possibilities)

Remember that “Adaptation should not be an event but a process, a time of transition. It involves the children and parents (and others coming alongside them) learning to leave one culture and becoming accustomed or adjusted to another culture.”[20]

6a) Including our community in supporting them

There is an African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child”. We are not alone in supporting our children. We can also include our family members and friends to be there for them as they navigate through the different transitions. Some ways we can do this are:



A special note on Re-entry

The above suggestions are useful for adjusting to a new culture, but also relevant when re-entering our home cultures as it can be equally, if not more challenging for our children as there may be expectations that they should have no problems returning. Therefore we need to be aware that it is another transition and they will still need our help to adjust.

“One challenge often mentioned is the re-entry process. The stress of facing rapid changes in society can have an impact far deeper than we realize. The losses children face are huge when leaving the country where they have spent a significant part of their formative years. So much so that they may even experience grief issues that may remain unresolved without proper attention. One reason for this is that few people, including parents, know how to help them process their experiences. Very few understand what MKs go through or are able to identify with them. What they have seen and experienced may be beyond what children their age have been exposed to. As a result, during difficult times, they can feel isolated and lonely. They need friends who can understand and accept them.”[21]

Helping them to connect with other TCKs is therefore a good form of support. As one TCK reflected about his re-entry: “Something that would have made it easier would have been coming back to people I already knew from out there (i.e. other MKs). This became apparent when I was in college and met up with other MKs. We connected very well, and were able to help each other fit in a little better. Somewhat like ongoing support after coming back.”[22]

7) Conclusion

“TCKs are precious gifts the Lord has entrusted to us, and we have the privilege of raising them to love and follow Him. In doing what we know to do, we will be making sure that no TCK will be lost in transition.”[23]

In conclusion, we need to remember that our children are part of our team in this ministry. Just as we pour our energy into ministering to the lost, we need to pour our energy into caring for our children’s needs so that we can move forward together to be effective ministers of our Lord. We must not neglect their needs as it will be liken to. We will not be able to protect them for the pain and losses they might face. However, we can be available to walk them through this journey and most importantly to point our children to the Lord amidst their struggles and help them realise the benefits they have as TCKs. Here are some encouraging testimonies of this:

“I ‘lost’ many things along the way, whether involuntarily or voluntarily: my parents, my mother tongue and home culture, friends, familiarity and stability. But because I had to let go of these things, I found the joys of boarding school and my personal path to God. I found many other cultures and languages. I found new friends and new pieces of life experiences to create my mosaic with. In all honesty, God has given me much more than I have had to give up…[24]

“Missionary kids like myself have an inescapable ability to grow up being flexible. I believe this is partly a gift of adaptation that God gives us to help us grow into the life of adventure we were born into. The other part is an inner strength from His Spirit which allows us to journey through the factors that differentiate us from the cultures and customs around us, into self-discovery.”[25]

“From young I was aware that I didn’t ‘fit’. I was neither one culture nor the other; I identified with both but neither of them at the same time. This struggle for identity made passages such as John 14:23 where Jesus promises He and His Father will make their home with those who love God and keep His commandments all the more precious. Not strongly identifying with one culture has given me greater ease to adapt to other cultures. Knowing what it felt like to be the outsider also gives me insights into struggles that internationals new to my community may be experiencing. I wouldn’t trade my multi-cultural upbringing for anything. Despite seasons of pain where I was (sometimes still am) acutely aware that I don’t quite ‘fit’, I am extremely grateful for having grown up with two cultures.”[26]


Quotes taken from:

[1] David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience, Intercultural Press: 1999, p19.

[2] Asian Mission, Asian Cross-Cultural Training Institute, Dec 2008 issue, p3.

[3] Pollock, p37

[4] Janet Armstrong, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p35

[5] Janet Armstrong, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p35

[6] Beate Knauber, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p7

[7] Cheryl Kline, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p11

[8] Polly C. Ho, ed. Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati? The Untold Stories of Asian MKs. Testimony of Cindy Loong, p13

[9] Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati? Testimony of Rohan Koshy, p40

[10] Abbi Benadum, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p10

[11] Dr Thang Nghaite, Leading Missions, p171-172

[12] Beate Knauber, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p7

[13] Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati, p154

[14] Helping children cope with loss, death and grief: Tips for teachers and parents

[15] Rohan Koshy, Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati, p40

[16] Anonymous adult TCK, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p18

[17] Ronald L. Koteskey. What missionaries ought to know about children’s adjustment. Wilmore: New Hope International Ministries.

[18] Pollock, p239

[19] Warren, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p14

[20] Janet Armstrong, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p35

[21] Belinda Ng, Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati, p154

[22] Warren, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p14

[23] Armstrong, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p35

[24] Sophia To, Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati, pg 28

[25] Sky Siu, Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati, p32

[26] Anonymous adult TCK, Asian Mission Dec 2008, p18

Focus Paper written for ACTI Course, April-May 2015