Issues for Parents of Third Culture Kids

by Elsie Purnell1

Very practically speaking, here are some of the most important issues that come up in the adult third culture kid meetings I’ve been holding for the last six years. They also come from many, many conversations with adults who grew up as third culture kids.

  1. The relationship between husband and wife is paramount. The kids know if Mom and Dad love and respect each other.
  2. Both parents need not only to love their children, but to know how to show their love to them. Kids need affirmation. You wouldn’t believe how lacking this is in many families serving in ministry overseas.
  3. The absent father is one of the biggest issues. However, a father’s attitude toward his children is what counts, even if he must be absent a lot because of his work. If his children know he loves them, if he affirms them and is attentive to their needs, then more time with them isn’t the only answer. There are, however, bound to be times when Dad could make a decision in the children’s favor—when he really could stay home with them even though the work may be crying out for attention.
  4. Family traditions seem to be very important—even more so overseas than with other families (although I think it’s important for everyone). One thing I’ve learned in Scripture is that God is into celebration! Some of the happiest times we had on the field were the birthday parties and holidays. One adult TCK I know never had a Christmas stocking until she was twenty-one years old and stayed with friends for the holidays. She had missed out on so much because her family never celebrated anything.
  5. This next issue is not limited to fathers of third culture kids, but it is a significant one. It is the importance of fathers who affirm the sex of their children— who appreciate boys as boys and girls as girls. (A great book on this subject is Crisis in Masculinity by Leanne Payne).
  6. One thing we need to talk about is educational options. The cardinal rule is “never say never.” Remain open to the best option for each child. There are many factors to consider when choosing an appropriate way to meet a child’s educational needs.
  7. It is very important that you help your children learn to say effective “good-byes.” The most universal issue with third culture kids is compounded and unresolved grief. They are always saying good-bye. This affects them the rest of their lives. It has a definite effect on their relationships and especially on marriage. Parents can do a lot to help their children through the partings. They can also assist in seeing that friendships are maintained even after parting.
  8. Acquaint yourself with reentry issues. I probably don’t have to tell you that coming back into the home culture is usually more difficult than going through culture shock overseas. We think we should feel at home in “our” culture, but that is often not the case.
  9. Simply put, be sensitive to the kids’ needs and do all you can to make transitions easier for them. One mistake parents seem to make is talking all about the wonderful new friends and activities in the new place—when the kids are dreading leaving the present friendships and places behind. Acknowledge their pain. Whatever you do, encourage them to express their feelings.

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  1. Elsie Purnell is founder and director of Third Culture Family Services in Pasadena, California. She and her husband served in Southeast Asia for fourteen years. All four of their children were born in Asia. The contents of this article are taken from a letter Elsie wrote to a parent prior to the family’s departure for service in India. [Note: Elsie went to be with the Lord in 2005.]