Often the inevitable changes we experience in our lives are for good and positive reasons, but change in whatever form it takes involves unknowns and having to learn new things.
Change means that life will never be the same again. It involves loss of some description, even if it is the loss of an unpleasant familiarity. As Christians, we know that all change is within God’s sovereign control and that we can point our families to the unchanging God, who is at work in all things.
‘Change is constant. Change is inevitable.’
Benjamin Disraeli (former British Prime Minister)
What kinds of change and loss do TCKs experience?
The lifestyle which Third Culture Kids (TCKs) lead typically involves more changes and therefore losses than most children experience. In addition, TCKs are largely dependent on the choices and decisions that their parents make on their behalf.
So, what are some of the changes and losses they may experience? More obvious ones include:
- People – not being able to see extended family members; death of a relative; colleagues moving away or going on home assignment; classmates and teachers; friends; church friends
- Place – smells, sounds, tastes, cultural rituals, climate, place-specific opportunities; moving house; moving school; going and returning from Home Assignment; favourite café, church
- Pets – who are often a companion
- Possessions – often the symbolic or emotional value of the object rather than its monetary value
There are also what are termed ‘hidden losses’, including:
- Status – a role within the community/ school or mission organisation
- Routines – homeschooling or going to school; visiting friends
- Lifestyle – eg. particular activities enjoyed; benefits of international school; having access to air conditioning
- Life goes on – knowing that their friends will have carried on without them
- Losses of their childhood – not being able to attend a grandparent’s funeral due to distance; not having been educated using a particular approach
- Territory – wondering where they belong in the world
In addition, there are family crises (including illness and death), periods of ill health (physical or mental) as well as other times of great fear, sadness or upset which also have an impact on individual children and the family.
I asked Claire*, former UFM-er who returned to the UK from Eurasia four years ago with her two children (who were at the time age 6 and 3) about the losses her children felt:
“Friends for our oldest child, in particular one child. He missed his school as well because he went from a really small school to a school ten times bigger. He also missed foods that you couldn’t buy here. And toys that he couldn’t bring back. He missed different pieces of furniture… in fact there were certain pieces of furniture that we bought in IKEA that were in his room and whenever we went to IKEA here after that for a good couple of years, it used to trigger something and he used to cry when he saw this piece of furniture, and he literally had to walk past. Also, the country where we lived had very clear seasons so we had snow half the year and that was such a part of life and of course Britain doesn’t.”
But aren’t TCKs particularly resilient? Won’t they just get over it?
If change always involves a loss of some description, and loss involves grief, then logically change should involve grief. Grief in this sense, is a period of sadness and/ or distress that gradually eases as the loss is accepted and we move on.
However, with the daily pressures of parenting, making decisions and wanting to make upcoming changes seem positive, it can be easy to intentionally or unintentionally not take the time to talk about what is going to be missed.
If these losses are not acknowledged, they may appear in later teen or adult life as forms of ‘unresolved grief’: denial, anger, sadness/ depression, withdrawal, rebellion, and delayed grief.
How can we start to talk about change and loss with our TCKs?
1. Normalise the feelings
Talk to your child about the change process and the feelings they have. Reassure them that these feelings are normal and that adults too have these feelings when things are changing. Make sure your child knows that talking about things they miss and the feelings they have are acceptable topics of conversation – and that you will listen to them.
2. Give them an emotional vocabulary
If you child learns to identify and name their emotions from an early age, it will make it much easier for them to express themselves in the middle of their grief. Parents can model this to their child, eg. “It’s going to be difficult and upsetting to leave some of your toys behind, isn’t it?”
3. Name the losses
Parents need to take the lead in acknowledging the things they will miss and naming them. If you are about to move, it is important to not just focus on the positives of the change but to acknowledge what is going to be different and what you will miss, eg. “I’m really going to miss the market when we go back, the fruit is just so much better here.”
4. Acknowledge their sadness
Reassure your child that what they are feeling is valid. Be careful not to dismiss their feelings with comments such as “ …but if we were living in X things would have been so much worse.” (downplaying) or “I never even had one of those when I was your age.” (competing). Try to avoid defending yourself, for example saying, “We only did it because we thought you’d benefit.”, or to counter with a positive response such as, “But look how well you speak Spanish now!”
5. Show them ways to grieve well and provide comfort
The way in which your child works through the loss will very much depend on their age, temperament and preferred activities. Some will find drawing helpful, other may want to make a photo collage of favourite places. Some will want to talk at length with someone, while others will want to be alone with favourite music or cry for long periods of time. Offer comfort in the usual ways which they appreciate such as a hug, sitting close to you, going for a walk etc.
6. Point them to Christ who comforts
It’s important to convey to TCKs, whatever their age, that God is not distant or uninterested. He is gracious and compassionate; he sees, hears and understands their grief in their losses. He will never leave them, wherever they go in the world. We want our children to shed tears, while trusting in God’s perfect ways for their life and his sovereignty over events.
An approach to talking about change and loss: The Grief Tower
One approach to supporting TCKs and their families with changes and loss has been developed by Lauren Wells, a TCK Consultant. She has developed the concept of ‘The Grief Tower’ as a semi-structured approach which families can use to talk about changes and loss. Her book, The Grief Tower, outlines her approach in more detail and is worth taking the time to read.
Her main idea is that each loss or significant change that a child experiences is represented as a block. The more changes and losses they experience, the higher their tower of blocks becomes.
The problem is how best to deal with these different blocks that are stacking up. Naturally, it is better to metaphorically unstack the tower than to let it topple and come crashing down.
In her book, Lauren Wells outlines various ways of using ‘The Grief Tower’ image as a whole family and then individually with children.
She recommends that families together create a ‘Grief Tower Timeline’ (see picture) of physical places the children have lived in (including holidays and Home Assignments). Older children are also encouraged to create their own timeline.
Once the blocks have been unstacked, children can be encouraged to process the events and their feelings about each one. Some will be happy to talk, while others may prefer to use art, journalling, creative writing, music, exercise or other ways to process their thoughts and feelings, dependent on their age and preferences.
An ‘Annual Grief Tower timeline’ can be also be created to provide more frequent opportunities for family members to process events over the past year and help keep the Grief Tower short!
- Pollock, D., Van Reken, R., Pollock, M.V. (2017), Third Culture Kids (especially ch5)
- Wells, L. (2021), The Grief Tower
- Lauren Wells speaking on the Life and Mission podcast about The Grief Tower
- Suggested books on the TCK resources website
This article was written by Rebecca Wright, UFM Volunteer Educational Psychologist.
* name has been changed