Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

It’s a while since we discussed TCKs, and since we reviewed reverse culture shock a few months ago, this might be a good opportunity to focus specifically on how this affects TCKs.  TCKS are Third Culture Kids – people who spent a significant part of their formative years growing up in a culture which was not that of their parents.  They don’t fully fit in either in their parents’ home country, or the country (or countries) in which they grew up, so they form their own third culture which features aspects of both.  Where the parents are mission workers, they are also known as Mission Kids (MKs).

Among the many huge challenges facing TCKs is the question of where home is.  They can often experience significant confusion over the issue, particularly when they’ve lived as mission kids in more than two countries.  But they seldom agree with their parents that the original sending country is home.  This complicates returning to the sending country, whether temporarily for home assignment or permanently, as in relocating for educational reasons.

Home... or away?

Home… or away?

Parents can easily talk about this as ‘going home’, which it may well be for them, but for the children, it is more like going to a foreign country.  They may be familiar with aspects of it but it is probably not home.  They are leaving home!  Their wider family in the sending country, and also in their ‘home’ church may reinforce this view, asking children who are already feeling lonely, bewildered and homesick how it feels to be ‘home’.  It’s not surprising if they occasionally get a hostile response.

Recognising that any such transition is a huge challenge for young people is the first step in dealing with it.  Some of our top tips for helping TCKs cope with this transition are:

  • ensure that the parents can spend more time than usual with their children, since they are a key point of stability in a different world;
  • connect with old friends back home through social media to maintain meaningful relationships;
  • bring with you favourite toys, furniture and food supplies so that you can continue to celebrate where you’ve come from;
  • meet with people from their host culture in the new country, and connect with other TCKs who have already made the transition;
  • continue to speak in the language of your host country to reinforce your connection with it;
  • take children and teens to Rekonnect – a summer camp specially designed for TCKs;
  • ensure that key features of life and culture in the new country are explained.  Don’t take it for granted that TCKs know how to tie shoelaces or button a dufflecoat if they didn’t have shoes and coats as they grew up!
TCKs in Brazil - Pam and her four sisters

TCKs in Brazil – Pam and her four sisters

One of Syzygy’s trustees, Pam Serpell, herself a TCK who grew up in Brazil, wrote a dissertation on this subject for her degree, and has given us permission to publish it here.   In her research she discovered that TCKs who reflected back on their experience of relocating to the UK used words like depressed, misunderstood, belittled, lonely, excluded, trapped and even suicidal.  This will not come as a surprise to those who have already been through this transition, but indicates how seriously the challenges for TCKs need to be taken.

Pam also looked at what helped prepare the TCKs for the transition, supported them through it, and what else they thought might have helped.  She clearly felt there is a need for sending agencies to do more to help prepare TCKs, perhaps through a formal orientation programme, and to support them through it.  Fortunately, in the 10 years that have elapsed since she did her research, many agencies have made great progress in this area.

Yet despite the evident challenges involved in being a TCK, Pam concludes:

All the people who took part in my research expressed being grateful for their upbringing and the experiences they had in ‘growing up between worlds’ and I would encourage any TCK to concentrate on the benefits of their experience and look for the positives.

You can read a pdf of Pam’s dissertation here.  As with all material on the Syzygy website, it is available for reuse where appropriate as long as the author receives due credit.