Transitions are a normal part of human experience, but for TCKs and their families they tend to happen quite often and be major cross cultural transitions.
Sadly, this frequency does not mean that TCKs become used to change, and walking with children through the process is one of the hardest situations missionary parents have to cope with. While struggling with adjusting oneself, it is easy to feel guilty for putting children through the pain of transition and feel inadequate to support them.
Transition can be a time when families draw closer together and strengthen family ties, and thinking intentionally about how to help children work through these times is one of the ways this can happen.
A healthy transition is the ability to adapt and adjust to change in a positive way so it is important to understand the factors that can interfere with this process, such as the speed of transition, difference between the two situations and the ability to process the inevitable grief involved. Some transitions are sudden and unexpected and advance preparation cannot be made. Understanding transition and its effect on children can make retrospective help effective.
Stages of transition
Ulrika Ernvik and Marion Knell describe the stages of transition as a bridge, with the foundation on each side of the bridge being ‘belonging’. In between, a child goes through many stages.
Preparations begin as they start to untie the ropes that have tied them to this place and these people. The feeling of not belonging starts to sneak in as they begin to disengage and as people start withdrawing. They are pushed out of their comfort zone and have to go through ‘goodbyes’ and take time to grieve what is left behind.
In the immediate aftermath of the move, there is a period when there is no sense of belonging – the old has been left behind, but they don’t yet belong in the new. They watch, listen and learn and try to find their identity and place in the new. This is an exhausting phase and emotions will be many and mixed.
With the help of people who understand the new place, they begin to feel that they fit in, having crossed over a river of emotions, and some chaos! The feeling of really belonging can take years!
Prepare for transition
With this in mind, it is important that we do our best to prepare for transition, whilst being careful not to inadvertently intensify children’s anxiety, rather than addressing it!
Answer specific questions as honestly as you can, with a focus on reassuring them that you will be in it together. Children need a lot of safety and security during times of transition. Try to stick to familiar routines which give a sense of stability in the midst of it all.
Encourage them to have confidence in the Lord’s promises to equip them with everything they will need to navigate change that he allows. The God who knows them inside out will sustain them.
Some days it will feel as though it is all going smoothly and other days it will feel overwhelming. The ebb and flow is normal.
Build a RAFT
- Think Destination
Reconciliation of conflicts
It is easy to deal with tensions in relationships by ignoring them and thinking, “I will never see this person again, so why bother trying to work out this misunderstanding.” Unfortunately, when interpersonal conflicts are not resolved, proper closure does not happen and the difficulties don’t go away with the move. Instead we, or our children, risk carrying the mental baggage of unresolved problems, which can interfere with new relationships and also mean that revisiting that place will be much harder.
Reconciliation involves the need to forgive, and to be forgiven and how that happens may vary among cultures. True reconciliation obviously depends on the cooperation and response of the other party, but we need to help our children, as far as possible, to reconcile any broken relationships before leaving. If physical meeting is impossible because of restrictions, or speed of departure, a phone call or letter may be the only means possible.
Affirmation of important relationships
Relationships are built and maintained through affirmation. Encourage your children to take the time to say thank you, perhaps in writing or drawing, to friends, neighbours, or teachers letting them know what they appreciated. Affirming others helps both parties. It solidifies relationships for future contact, and reminds children what they have gained from living in this place. Part of good closure is acknowledging our blessings, both rejoicing and mourning their passing.
Farewells performed in culturally appropriate ways
Saying goodbye to people, places, pets and possessions in culturally appropriate ways is important if we don’t want to have deep regrets later. We need to schedule time for these farewells during the last weeks and days. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, restrictions on meeting up may mean that other means have to be used.
Helping children say farewell may include writing a note, or baking cookies together for that special person or something else that acknowledges the importance of that relationship and says, “Thank you, I will miss you.”
Saying goodbye to places is also important, as children may be losing their whole world in one plane journey. Part of healthy closure involves visiting such places to reminisce and saying farewell. If this is not possible physically, a photo book could be created to document the special places for that child.
Saying goodbye to pets and knowing that provision has been made for their care is very important to children. Possessions will need to be gone through and a good many left behind, but it is important to discuss with the child which ones are left behind and what will happen to them, for example, who they can be given to. Some treasured items, chosen by the child, should be brought to the new location if possible.
If transition is sudden and unexpected, it may still be possible to go through some of these steps retrospectively, before attempting to move forward.
Thinking realistically and positively about one’s destination
Even as we are saying the goodbyes and processing the realities of leaving, we need to think realistically about the destination. Make children as aware as possible of what positive and negatives they can expect to find and how the family will adjust to the new situation.
Celebrate the things that are good about the new place and create a record early on while these are fresh in the mind. This could take the form of a memory book designed to be shown to family and friends in the ‘other place’. Having a focus is good and the idea of explaining things to a ‘significant other’ helps a child take a step back from the situation and see it through new eyes.
Make an effort to take time out to explore your setting and enjoy and appreciate what it has to offer. Try to actively get to know and respect the new culture’s values, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Discuss the new things you are learning, such as social norms, communication styles and manners, but be careful of generalisations such as ‘they are all…’ which engender a condescending attitude.
Be able to laugh at yourself and say sorry when needed. Acknowledge and address your grief in ways that are appropriate for children to process. A healthy mourning process requires permission to grieve and to recognise that it is not childish, unspiritual or immature to grieve our losses. Pray together and talk about how you find comfort in prayer and reading the Bible.
The Bible is full of stories of major transition, so some of the passages about characters such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the children of Israel going through enormous change will be helpful for children and in the Psalms we can read vivid expressions of the emotions associated with transition as well as the comfort to be found in God’s unchanging nature. Write out verses that have helped you and stick them up for the family to see daily.
Beginning to belong
It is important to remember that, however much preparation is made, children often find that the loss comes as a shock to their system, followed by grief. As adults we often grieve in anticipation of loss, but with children it is usually loss first, followed by grief. Allow time to support your children through transition without rushing too quickly into a full schedule on arrival. Children may exhibit regressive behaviours such as excessive clinginess, and will need more parental input than usual. Transition drains everyone’s energy and emotions can run high.
Children need to feel physically and emotionally safe, get as much information as possible to help make the unknown known, and feel that their parents understand what they are going through. They need encouragement when they show flexibility and courage, but they also need a safe space to retreat to when it all becomes too much, such as a quiet corner away from people with a few familiar toys where they can play alone.
Focus on being thankful daily for something. You could make a family timeline charting major life events and important milestones. This can be a whole family exercise and is a good way for each member of the family to express which parts they feel happy about and which parts arouse sadness or confusion. Seeing the family journey as a whole helps children to adjust more easily to transition and see each stage as a new chapter, to be recognised and celebrated even though it might have been tough.
In times of transition, emotions will be many and strong. Children cannot deal with these emotions on their own so parents need to be available for their children in adjustment and settling and create opportunities to listen sensitively, and help them find words for how they feel.
Keep some family traditions in whatever home you are in, and have some constancy in items around you. This is sometimes referred to as ‘moveable roots’! It can be a great comfort to children to see and experience familiar things in different contexts and helps to give much needed continuity to family life. Something as simple as familiar bed linen and favourite soft toys can be very reassuring for a child and help connect one part of life to the next. Try to get their personal space set up as soon as possible and make a point of keeping routines such as bedtime as consistent as possible.
Help your child keep up connections with the place they have left behind, and encourage relatives, friends and church family to keep in touch in appropriate ways. At the same time, be careful not to compare the past favourably with the present. As Heidi Sand-Hart says in her book, ‘Home Keeps Moving,’ “nothing is weird, just different.”
Above, all, in times of transition, prioritise your relationship with God and trust him to give you the wisdom to help your children. Hebrews 13: 5 – 8 reminds us that ‘He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”…… Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’
Steve and Gill Bryant, in their book ‘Serving at the Ends of the Earth,’ cite research carried out by a group of 10 mission agencies in the 1990s. One of the overall conclusions was that “the strength of the parents’ trust in God, the quality of their relationship with each other and the characteristics that they role model to the children are central to successful adjustment…This factor was far more important that any other of the varying MK experiences of the respondents.”
- Third Culture Kids: A gift to care for by Ulrike Ernvik, Familje Glädje (2019)
- Families on the Move by Marion Knell, Monarch Books (2001)
- Third Culture Kids, Growing Up Among Worlds by Dave C. Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken, Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2017)
- Home Keeps Moving by Heidi San-Hart, McDougal Publishing (2010)
- Serving at the ends of the earth, Family life and TCKs by Steve and Gill Bryant, WEC International (2017)
- Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie or Weary Cross-Cultural Christian Worker: Elizabeth & Jonathan Trotter, Resource Publishing (2019)
- https://www.globalconnections.org.uk/sites/newgc.localhost/files/papers/tck_resources.pdf (This one includes a list of children’s books)
Three Mums talk about transition
Read about the first hand experiences of Linda, Joy and Philippa – three Mums who have helped to navigate their families cross cultural transition.