Concerned, my friend said, “Craig, why would you risk your kid’s well-being on the mission field when there are plenty of ministry opportunities stateside?” It’s a reasonable question. Third culture kid struggles are beyond debate. Every third culture kid, to one degree or another, will experience cross-cultural hardship. But a decade later, my answer is the same. God’s global redemptive purpose is infinitely worth every hardship and sacrifice. So, in obedience, we look to Scripture to mitigate the inherent challenges of a third culture childhood.
Care for Third Culture Kids by Processing Loss, Grief, and Trauma
Chronic loss is an inescapable reality for third culture kids. The transient nature of missionary life makes loss inevitable. The absence of extended family alone is an ever-present sorrow. Consequently, the challenge is not protecting our children from loss. That is impossible. The challenge is helping them process loss in a healthy way.
Teach your child that grief is not shameful or sinful (John 11:35). We grieve deeply because we love deeply. Validating the sadness of loss allows children to mourn without shame. Be attentive to behavior changes because children often lack the maturity to articulate their emotions. In these cases, sharing your grief with your children may be helpful.
Be Quick to Listen and Slow to Explain
At the risk of sounding unspiritual, amid grief, resist reminding your children that God’s global glory is infinitely worthy of every goodbye and relocation. They will only hear you minimizing their pain. Be patient. There will be a time for sharing an eternal perspective. But, in the initial stages of grief, your child finds comfort in your presence, not your words. At this stage, the goal is to understand, not to be understood.
In the initial stages of grief, your child will find comfort in your presence, not your words.
Offer Gospel Hope
Jesus is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). Jesus is intimately acquainted with our sorrow and supremely able to minister comfort to our spirit (Matthew 5:4). Therefore, offer the Great High Priest – who alone can fully empathize with our suffering – to your children (1 Peter 5:7; Hebrews 4:15).
Care for Third Culture Kids by Pursuing Community
third culture kids struggle to forge deep relationships. Acquaintances are plenty, but long-term relationships are fleeting. As a result, a sense of belonging is elusive and loneliness is ongoing. In response, finding and assimilating into a relational community is imperative to our third culture kid’s well-being (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
When possible, establish a deep-rooted community in a local church. The local church is where gospel values transcend cultural preferences and traditions (Ephesians 2:11–22). Identity is grounded in Christ, not culture. Diversity is celebrated, not diminished. Defining values are eternal, not temporal. The local church mirrors the experiences of our third culture kids, thus providing solidarity and an authentic community (Phillippians 3:20).
However, I understand that the local church isn’t an option for many pioneer missionary families. In such cases, pursue community with missionary teammates, third culture kid ministries, or extracurricular clubs and teams.
Care for Third Culture Kids by Prioritizing Your Marriage
We care most for our children by prioritizing the husband-wife relationship over the parent-child relationship (Ephesians 5:22–25; 1 Timothy 3:5). A healthy marriage provides stability for our children, who exist in an unstable world.
There will be physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges on the field. The cumulative stress we experience – both parents and children – exposes our sinfulness and selfishness. However, a healthy marriage, with Christ as the centerpiece, tangibly portrays and applies gospel realities. It creates an atmosphere for our children to observe and experience repentance, forgiveness, faith, and unconditional love.
Care for Third Culture Kids by Protecting their Childhood
My kids are missionaries’ kids, not missionary kids. I’m not minimizing their sacrifice and contribution to the ministry. The oneness of life and ministry for missionary families includes the children. But it is not the child’s responsibility to facilitate or stimulate interest in the ministry. For example, my kids do not dress in native dress and perform on stage at missions conferences. If a mission group visits our village and our kids have other commitments, they attend those commitments.
To protect your kid’s childhood, teach them their vocation is to be a kid, discover their unique passions, and walk in the good works Christ has created for them (Ephesians 2:10). Don’t portray an unrealistic missionary family image. Be consistent with behavioral expectations and hold to the same expectations in public and in private. Lastly, establish the correlation between spiritual health and the local church, not vocational ministry. The intent is to establish identity in Christ, communion with the local body, and then the organic outworking of spiritual activity in their lives as God leads.
Care for Third Culture Kids by Preparing for Reentry
For many third culture kids, the dynamics of reentry are more difficult than adjusting to life overseas. Reverse culture shock is unexpected and disorienting. Reentry requires acculturation to a homeland that is no longer their home. Everything and everyone has changed.
Preventive care helps mitigate the challenges of repatriation. Teach your children the basics: history, geography, the imperial system, traffic laws, and how to pump gas! Discuss appropriate verbal and nonverbal behavior. Explain social cues to avoid being misunderstood. And, please, before you leave the host culture, allow adequate time to say goodbye. Leaving well is imperative to a healthy transition.
God gifts us with wisdom and counsel—from his word and his people—to faithfully fulfill our callings as parents and missionaries.
Parents, as you care for your children, remember you are not alone. Learn from the experiences of veteran missionaries. Consult missionary care professionals. God gifts us with wisdom and counsel—from his word and his people—to faithfully fulfill our callings as parents and missionaries.