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How to Help Third Culture Kids Facing Mental Health Struggles

OMF Blog

By Galina Hitching

What’s Your Superpower?

Adapting to any environment is pretty much the super power of most Third Culture Kids (TCKs). While many kids in their home country are stockpiling social currency, TCKs are navigating multicultural communication, constant goodbyes and the expectations of others. But, Third Culture Kids aren’t superheroes. They are children who need to feel safe and accepted in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty. Because of this, the mental health of TCK’s is an important conversation in world missions.

Acceptance and Belonging

The missionary lifestyle can naturally erode those feelings of safety and belonging, no matter how supportive a child’s parents may be. Consider what happens inside a person when they must constantly adapt. Constantly face loss. Constantly start over.

We often talk about the struggle of culture shock and how it wears away our ability to respond with patience and kindness. I’ll be honest, I’ve experienced culture shock that left me questioning everything. It’s easy to view children as more adaptable and therefore immune to the struggles we face as adults.

The Impact of Global Living

Yet, a child may be even more susceptible to the pain and confusion of global living. Additionally, children often are unable or not allowed to process the grief they experience. All these things impact the mental health of TCK’s.

Every missionary I’ve talked to has mentioned in some way the ongoing experience of loss. TCKs experience this loss too, during a time of life when stability and security are vital.

“Having lived as an American in Thailand until the age of eight, my identity was wrapped around the elephant-shaped peninsula I called home. When we moved to the States, I was very conscious of how time was causing precious memories of home to become more foreign, diluting my ‘Thai’ identity.

 I still remember turning 17 and thinking, ‘I have officially spent more time in America than I have in Thailand’. It was kind of a sad and confusing moment for me, causing me to see time as an enemy that was slowly stealing my identity. 

 I’m 28 now, and my childhood home becomes more and more foreign every year, but the fear is gone because I proudly cling to my identity in Christ and know that he has used time to help me grow closer to him!”
-Harmony Niphakis
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Many times, as adults, we don’t understand why we have to say goodbye to people, places and things. Children have a greater inability to understand these things that often have no answers; they may internalize negative experiences as being something they caused.

Mental Health of TCK’s

Shame, self-blame and unresolved grief form a foundation that may lead to depression and other mental health challenges. Even if a TCK doesn’t experience shame, the feelings of loss and isolation contribute to anxiety and stress.

A TCK will often struggle with understanding who they are and where they belong. Additionally, their ability to adapt to any situation may become a negative coping mechanism that removes their sense of identity and causes them to feel the need to perform for others.

As believers, we should gather around TCK’s and others experiencing mental health struggles to give them support. While this is not an extensive list, we have 10 tips to help you interact with Third Culture Kids in a way that is supportive and loving.

10 Things You Can Do to Help:
  1. Listen with your heart to what TCKs do and don’t say.
  2. Ask questions and let them talk.
  3. Remember they are kids.
  4. Be a safe nonjudgmental space so you don’t alienate them or increase the pressure they already feel.
  5. If you are in a position to make decisions for the TCK, explore the role of counseling or other outside help in their life.
  6. Provide parents with support.
  7. Remember the call to missions is the parents’ not the child’s.
  8. Let the TCK know it’s ok to feel grief, be sad and even be angry.
  9. Don’t demand perfection or that they act like the perfect Christian.
  10. Realize these struggles extend into adulthood.
The Upside

Does that mean every TCK struggles with mental health difficulties and has difficulty coping with life? Definitely not. But the reality is, being a TCK isn’t easy and it plays a profound role on who he or she becomes as an adult.

Even though it was difficult, many TCKs wouldn’t trade their experiences for the world. The Third Culture Kid often understands suffering and challenges are an opportunity to grow and become a better person.

“As a Korean-American missionary kid to East Asia, I discovered few stable environments in which I could safely explore my identity and seek acceptance and belonging.

Through the rare, safe relationships I was able to develop with family and friends, I grew to appreciate my heritage as a Korean, my nationality as an American, my experiences as a TCK, and my citizenship in the kingdom and home of God.

 I deeply value and celebrate how God is using my cultures to help me see him in different ways, from thinking communally to considering the importance of food and hospitality.” – Samuel 
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We All Need to Belong

What every TCK and every person needs to know is that our acceptance and belonging are in the father heart of God. No matter what our life experiences, we can all identify with times where we feel rejected, confused and unaccepted. As his beloved sons and daughters, we have hope. We serve a heavenly father who wants to heal us from the past and grow us into the future he has called us to.

If you would like to learn more about TCKs and how you can pray or serve them, please go here.

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