• Becky Matchullis

Help Your TCK Deal with Stress

Updated: May 3, 2019




The first time we entered the international school our children would be attending in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, I was shocked! The old Russian building had no air conditioning, the paint was dull and walls were made of old wood. A very rustic look indeed. Classrooms were stifling hot. The playground looked forlorn, with two lonely swings and a whole lot of kicked up dry dust. Coming from a beautiful public school in Canada, I could tell my 2nd and 4th grader were becoming more stressed as we continued the tour. Frantically I scanned my brain for something positive. One of our family motto’s is: Find the Adventure in All Experiences. All I could think of was “Hey kids, this looks like a school grandma and grandpa would have gone to.” That did it! They perked up, and 20+ years later, they still refer with fondness on that expression!


I wish other stresses my kids have gone through were that easy to ‘fix’. Other challenges came – deep grief as we repatriated the first time; relentless bullying at an international school; academic competitiveness that almost drowned self-esteem; and panic attacks in a perceived ‘unsafe’ environment to name several.


Children and teens often perceive themselves as powerless, at the mercy of parents and school. They struggle with pressures that we didn’t, from increased homework to being constantly plugged in. TCK’s have the added pressure from frequent change. If they aren’t moving, a friend is. Constant relocation can disrupt identity development. Living in a new culture – where the comfort of being in the ‘know’ is stripped away - can cause stress and anxiety.


Emotional regulation is one of the brain’s primary executive functions (which happens at the front of the brain). It’s so much more than just learning to control temper. As Dr. Kenneth Barish writes in his book Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems, emotional regulation “allows a child to express her feelings in constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful ways”. As kids grow, they get better at managing their emotions and coping with stress. At 2, a meltdown shows up as a tantrum. At 15, there’s still meltdowns, but hopefully no writhing on the floor! That shows a maturing cortex – not ever fast enough for us parents.


We have to remember that our TCK’s executive functions are ‘under construction’.

They need lots of practice in calming themselves, considering alternative actions and adapting to overwhelming situations. They also need great patience and understanding from us! One of the things we can accept about parenting TCK’s is knowing they’ll get plenty of experiences in which we can teach them how to deal with stress! You know this all too well - transitions, real and perceived dangers, ‘due dates’ for projects at school, and pressure from peers and the unknown! How do you become fully present to stress in your child’s life?


Here’s a proven formula:

1. Speak what you notice Name the feeling you notice. ("You seem sad.") Don’t make it sound like an accusation, rather a casual observation. Kids/teens don’t always feel like talking about what’s bothering them. If you get resistance, that’s ok. Let them know you’re there if and when they want to talk.


2. Listen Ask your child to tell you what’s happening. Be attentive, calm and slow to answer. “Uh huh”, ‘mmmm” and “tell me more” show you’re listening. Get the whole story. Often kids tell parents part of the story to see if it’s safe to tell the whole story. With teens, ask 1-2 strategic questions – less is more! Avoid judgement, blame, or a lecture. The idea is ONLY to let your child's concerns (and feelings) be heard. Take time, knowing you’re protecting and supporting your child best this way.


3. Comment on what you hear You might say:

"No wonder you felt ______ when…”

"That must have seemed ______ to you”.

Younger kids don’t have words yet for their feelings. Using words helps them learn to identify and label emotions and allows them to feel supported, especially important in times of stress. You may also want to identify by sharing a very short story about when you felt that particular emotion. “I felt that way when _____ happened to me”.


4. Allow expression of feelings Sometimes talking about feelings releases the emotion. Other times children and teens need to release the feelings through crying, physical play (anything active, using large muscles works best), or through allowing them to be creative: draw, write, poetry or compose music… If negative behavior is what started a conversation, take time to empathize and understand before asking the child what different behavior they can try next time.


5. Empower for solutions If there's something causing the stress or behavior, problem solve together. Encourage your child to think of ideas. You can help, but don't do all the work. Your child's active participation will build confidence. Ask:

“What might you try next?”

"How do you think this will work?"

"What’s another idea?"

"If you do this, what do you think might happen?"

"Which do you like best? Why?"

Sometimes the feelings are too big and raw to problem solve when you initially talk about the it. If so, provide emotional support through words and physical touch and let your child/teen know that you’ll come back to the problem later. Then make sure you do.



Talking and feeling understood is often all that's needed to help a child's stress begin to melt away. If the time seems right, change the subject and move on to something more positive or relaxing. Help your child think of something to do to feel better. Don't give the problem more attention than it deserves. Find something to laugh about!


Several other helpful points:

Watch for signs of stress Notice any changes that occur in your child/teen. Kids may show physical, emotional or behavioral signs (or all three). Some of the common ones include: headaches, chest tightness, stomach aches, tiredness, withdrawal from usual activities, emotional outbursts, aggression, trouble concentrating, changes in school marks. The American Psychological Association has more information on identifying stressors in kids and teens.


Normalize stress The more your child knows that stress is a normal part of life and that everyone deals with it, the more they can accept it for themselves.


Stress is subjective What may be stressful to one child may not be stressful to another. So take time to explore what stress is for each of your kids by asking these questions:What does the word “stress” mean to you? How do you know when you’re stressed? What causes you to worry or feel stressed? What do you do to feel better when you’re stressed?

Answers will help you know what triggers stress for them and how they are coping.

There. You have it. Let me know what happens. Make ordinary, everyday miracles this day with your children and teens.


My coaching can help you find solutions when you feel isolated, unsure and stressed. Contact me at: expatresilience@gmail.com

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