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Helping Your Children Adjust to the Mission Field

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One of the most difficult things that a missionary and his family must face is adjusting when arriving on the mission field. It is something that is hard to comprehend until you have lived it. Even those who have traveled outside the US may not even understand because it is totally different when you know you are not returning to the US for a long time. There are so many factors and things that you have to adjust to at once, it can be very overwhelming. First there is the language. For those going the first time you can feel like a baby again, not being able to do hardly anything for yourself. You want so badly to understand, but all you hear is gibberish. Even for those who have lived on the mission field for a while, when they return, it can take a few weeks to adjust back to speaking mostly the native language. This can be especially true for children because, depending on their age, they can loose much of the language while away; although it usually only takes a few weeks for them to be back to normal. Then there is the food. Many of the foods, tastes and smells can seem foreign and even repulsive at first and add to that the fact that it can be very offensive if you reject their foods when they offer it. Often you have to swallow with a smile and pray the Lord will help keep it down! I have found though, that when you give yourself to food and try it with an open mind, you end up liking it a lot, sometimes even more than the food you grew up eating. You also have to learn the customs of the people that can be so varied and specific that you wonder if you will ever remember them all. For example, in many South American countries they way an American might call someone can be very offensive. You never use your pointer finger with your palm up, but turn your hand palm down and use all four fingers  to call someone to you. At first these things that seem so small can build like pressure over you until you don’t even want to leave your home or talk to anyone. While we as adults usually take things in stride, I think we often forget that our children face the same things we do. As we have just arrived back on the mission field for our third term I realized this about our children and thought of a few things that might help them adjust back to the mission field.

1. Realize they struggle too:
What we don’t realize as parents is that children don’t always show it. It may seem as if they are fine, and although children are very flexible, they too can struggle with adjustment and not even realize what is happening.  As a parent if you pay close attention you may notice a few signs that they are struggling, like being more irritable, aggressive towards others and especially their siblings, not sleeping well, complaining a lot or whining. One of the first things I learned about culture shock is that the key to overcoming it is first to recognize it. Most people that struggle with culture shock, and don’t overcome it, simply don’t recognize it and deal with it. This can be even more important with children because while you know your own feelings and attitudes, it is more difficult to identify in others. So here are a few things that are key:

 

• Pay close attention to them and their actions.
• Recognize any behaviors that are out of place.
• Talk to them about it.
• Let them know it is ok!

2. Be positive and don’t make it worse.
One sure sign that you are facing culture shock is complaining and wanting to return to your country. The stress, change, and fear of the unknown cause you to think badly about other people and customs which results in a bad attitude, usually isolation, and speaking badly about them. The key then to overcoming culture shock, for anyone, is intentionally changing our thoughts and attitudes which results in a change in our actions and what we do, and say. This is hard part when dealing with children because they don’t recognize bad attitudes and feelings and we can’t change those things for them. The key then, I think, is talking to them about it and most of all setting the example for them. Our children look to us for security and direction. When we are upset, concerned, or have a bad attitude, it will reflect in them also. So, even if we are dealing with culture shock, we must take the lead and help them to know that everything is going to be alright. Here are a few things that are key:

• Don’t complain about the food, language or customs.
• Don’t let your stress and difficulty cause you to be harsh with them.
• Speak positively about the food and culture even if you don’t like it.
• You can talk about the way you feel, but reassure them that the Lord will help you adjust.

3. Give them time and have fun!
If you have the right attitude, and work to learn and adapt to the culture, the only ingredient left is time. It just takes time to adapt to a culture and really have it become part of you. I have heard most people say that you need to give it two years and if you can make it two years, the place you are at will start to feel like home to you and the customs will become natural. The same thing applies to children. Give them time and spend time with them helping them understand and overcome the barriers. Make your family the priority when you first arrive and make sure they are adapting also, so you can serve the Lord as a family. Here are a few things that are key:

• Don’t hide out. (Get out and experience the culture)
• Take time with family before getting into ministry.
• Do fun things with your children.
• Have a designated time that you dedicate solely to your children.

Living on the mission field will be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things you ever do, if you, as a family, can successfully adapt to the culture.  You must keep positive and be determined that you are going to adapt, one day you will be surprised to realize that the things that were difficult before are now natural to you and the customs you had before might even seem strange. The place you are serving will then feel more like home to you than where you are originally from. So, I would love to hear what types of difficulties you have had adapting or questions you might have about helping your family adapt to the mission field.