Help for parents of expat teens in crisis

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Advice for parents of teens who self harm

What helps us as parents live through a teen trauma and crisis journey? Here’s what I learned:

1. Don’t isolate yourself.

It’s easy to do, especially if you don’t know people. You want to protect your teen, yourself and your family. Humans aren’t meant to bear burdens this difficult alone; we’re hard wired for connection and compassion. Choose carefully and connect.

a. Get professional help.

Release the lioness within; advocate for yourself and your teen. No one regrets getting help sooner rather than later.
It’s not just your teen’s journey, it’s yours. Having to admit I needed help navigating this place as a parent was vulnerable, yet invaluable. It allowed me to face fear and my own baggage from my TCK upbringing. I found healing alongside my teen.

For resources around the world, check out:

b. Have support around you.

Who are your trusted friends? You need a listening ear and prayers from others. Who can you share the pain with? Ask them to keep confidence. Tell them how they can best help. Two close friends, who had gone through teen crisis in parenting, became my ‘go to people’ when I was lost, needed to vent or emote.

2. Do what you know in your heart is right, no matter what others think or say.

After researching, sit in solitude. Allow your soul to hear the answers within. You’re not here to please others, only to get your teen help. Does this mean moving back to your passport country for a season? Coming together as a family if your teen is in boarding school? Leaving things as is and bringing in professionals? For us it meant returning to Canada –a clear, yet agonizing decision. Many didn’t agree and questioned/judged because we left quickly and quietly to protect our teen. Worst ‘goodbye’ ever, yet it was what was needed.

3. Live from Love, not fear.

This is so much easier to say than do, isn’t it?

a. Love toward yourself.

Believe that love heals. Research has showed this in children with trauma histories.

Emotional healing requires love. When someone is hurting… it takes being loved in order to find a way out of the pain within them… Heather T. Forbes

We cannot love others unless we love ourselves. So love you. Don’t punish yourself like you may feel like doing. What is your self-talk? Everyone goes through the ‘what if’s’ and ‘if onlys’.

For expats, the self-talk goes something like this:

“What if we were living in our passport country instead of here?”
“If only we hadn’t taken so many assignments so close together.”
“What if we didn’t hear God right?”

Rehearsing the past brings up guilt big time. Nothing can change the past. Some processing is normal, however, when you ruminate, it takes you away from the present, where you need to be. Let go of the thoughts and most of all, the guilt and beating yourself up. When I was fully present, I experienced love and could handle whatever happened in that moment, as terrifying as it was at times.

‘What if’s’ also take us to the future:

“What if she kills herself?” “What if the same things happens to her that happened to…”
“What if he never heals from this? We won’t be living abroad then!”
“What if she ends up as a drug addict on the street…?”

What your teen is experiencing today is NOT an indication of what will be in 2 months, 6 months, or a year from now. Remember that!

b. Love toward your teen.

Smile, when you look at or address your teen. Try touch, and if it’s rejected, it’s ok. Let them know you see them for who they are, not for the pain or severe behavior. My thoughts to my teen were: ‘I love you and love heals. We will get through this.’

4. Believe in a Higher Power.

Research shows faith plays a big part in family resilience. If you believe in God, take your emotions to Him; ask for help. Look for daily miracles. When I took notice of what was happening, I found much to be thankful for and my perspective became more hopeful. Connections with professionals lined up in unusual ways; a good sleep facilitated greater well-being… If not God, then what works for you? Believe. Trust. Surrender.

5. Simplify your life.

Pull back on activities outside and inside the home to focus on what’s most important. If working, talk to your boss about cutting back. Inner energy is needed to deal with the “unexpected’s”. Time is needed to find resources, to visit professionals, to attend to emotional healing and allow you to be there for your family.

6. Attend to your marriage.

There’s nothing that puts strain on a marriage like a crisis with children. I saw this as an ICU nurse. I’ve experienced it as an expat. Differences in parenting styles will clash. You are not the enemy. You are a team. Don’t take the pain out on each other. Talk about it together. This experience can bring you closer.

7. Don’t forget the other children.

They are often the forgotten ones, left with emotions and challenges through what they’re seeing and experiencing. Make sure they’re getting the help they need and attention from both their parents. Plan fun times, family times, and 1:1 time.

8. Practice extreme self-care.

Look after yourself. As parents, we want to give our best. That means being our best. Get your rest. Exercise. Eat well. Find outlets for rest and renewal. A fun night out with expat friends, a date with your partner. What do you know needs to be in place for you to be your best? Make that priority.

Having traveled this far along the journey, I can say it’s been the hardest thing in my life. I’m so thankful for grace and forgiveness, love and support, for a Source that has fed into my aching and helpless heart. There is hope beyond trauma! Take heart!

Republished with kind permission of Becky Matchullis via Is Your Third Culture Teen In Crisis? Help for Expat Parents Living with Teen Trauma.

Becky Matchullis, CPCC, PCC is a expatriate family resilience coach who has over 10 years experience coaching individuals, couples, parents and families towards living their best life even in the midst of trials and crisis. She lives what she coaches and has experienced the global life as a TCK, young adult, wife and mother. She has spoken at Families in Global Transition a number of times over the years and is an expert on raising healthy, resilient kids and teens.
Her website is here.


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  1. I have only just read this article written in 2014. And I am very appreciative of the fact that you have experienced expat teenage trauma and have a relatively happy ending to share. We are in the midst of the same issues and realise belatedly how much an international job transfer has damaged our family, and our teenager in particular. We have grappled with many issues, each one more serious than the one before. It’s a horrible place to be. We are so scared and fearful for our child. It’s time to stop and listen to our souls and get ready to make some tough decisions. We are scared of the ‘what ifs’. It has rendered us powerless. Only someone who has gone through the same thing can understand. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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