When I was two years old, after my parents and I returned to Australia from our first time living abroad, our house was burgled while we slept. The thieves took our TV and probably a few other things I don’t remember.
I don’t remember the theft itself, but I clearly remember a nightmare I had a few years later. In my nightmare, men I didn’t know who were silent and invisible came into the house while I was in bed. They picked up my bed with me in it, turning me invisible and silent as well. They carried the bed (and me) out toward the front door, through the living room where my parents were watching TV. I jumped off the bed, at which point they could see and hear me.
When I told my parents about the nightmare, something clicked for them. The living room I described was the old set up from before the robbery, with the old couch and the old TV. Though I didn’t consciously remember the event, something about it had rooted in my subconscious – and with it, a fear of unseen and unheard men entering my house, making me less safe.
According to Statista, New Zealand had the highest burglary rate per capita in 2018, with 1.3% of homes burgled. Australia’s rate was 0.7%, and the U.S. was 0.4%. If we make the bold assumption that different homes were targeted every year, over the 18 years of childhood that makes 23%, 13%, and 7% of families overall (respectively) that would experience burglary. Yet when TCK Training asked missionary kids if they had experienced a break-in, 38% said yes – compared to only 15% of non-missionary TCKs.
A significant part of that 38% were present during a home invasion: 15% of missionary kids were present in their home when a break-in occurred. These MKs were 35% more likely to have a high-risk ACE score than missionary kids overall (23% vs 17%). With more than one third of missionary kids experiencing a break-in during their childhood, this makes it a fairly common experience among their MK peers. Stories of break-ins are common among MKs. If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to your friend(s).
One MK I interviewed talked about a home invasion his family experienced on the field while he was in elementary school. The thieves cut power to their home before entering, and in their rural area there were no streetlights or other external light sources, so the entire experience took place in the dark. He remembered huddling in his parents’ bedroom, with them and his younger brother, in the pitch black. They heard the noises downstairs, the hushed voices and the things being broken. For years afterward, he carried a matchbox in his pocket; he needed to know he could create light if he ever found himself in darkness again.
A teenage MK I interviewed spoke of living in a home with a grill of thick bars across each window and still feeling unsafe inside their home. A thief used a long pole to reach through the bar grill when a window was open, using it to steal small items. This made the MK feel imprisoned at home, with windows shut and thick grills over the closed windows — even during hot and humid days. They would close the curtains to block out the community in which these thefts took place.
Every story of theft, break-in, or home invasion is different. The emotional consequences are similar. Our home becomes less of a haven, less of a safe place, when we learn that ‘bad’ people can enter at any time without warning. They could take our precious possessions, entering our home while we sleep (or hide).
This affront to our sense of safety, security, and comfort in our own home is true for both adults and children. Children have less control over their living situations, however, and sometimes are not given much information about what has happened and what the future may hold. This lack of information (and control) can lead to additional anxiety. When home doesn’t feel like a safe place, children/young people stay ‘on alert’ without feeling safe to fully relax anywhere in their world. This leads to a state called ‘toxic stress’ which has negative impacts on the brain and body.
What Do We Do?
Feeling safe and protected at home, and especially feeling that there is an adult in the home providing this protection, is one of the Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that provide a buffer for children who experience difficult things. PCEs enable children to thrive as adults even if they meet with adversity in childhood.
It is crucial that we provide missionary kids with a strong sense of safety at home. This will look different in different contexts, but there are a few principles that apply anywhere.
Explain the safety measures you have in place – no matter what they are or how obvious they look. Talk your kids through what you are doing to create a safe environment for them. Whenever you stay the night in a different place (including hotels, friends’ homes, and visits to your passport country), have this talk again, and go through the safety measures in place there.
Ask your children what makes them feel safe. Help them identify the feeling of safety and security. Have conversations about what that feels like and looks like, and discuss ways to create it in our homes, families, and even our schools and friendships. (This is a important tool for children to learn at any age, for many reasons.) These conversations will give you insights into how to make your child FEEL safe with you and in your home. Remember to model this for them – explain what makes you feel safe and what safety feels like to you.
Encourage your children to tell you if they feel unsafe – and listen to them! Something that seems obviously safe to you may feel uncomfortable, unusual, or even unsafe to your child. You won’t know how they are feeling unless they tell you, and they won’t tell you unless they know you take their concerns seriously. Taking their concerns seriously might look like validating their emotions (“I see this is troubling you; how can I help you feel more safe?”) before talking about the ‘reality’ of a situation (“I understand that it seems this way, and I’m glad you let me know. Can I show you what I see going on here?”).
Initiate regular conversations around safety. This idea is not about teaching lessons on how to be safe, but rather checking in with how everyone is feeling. Has anything happened in your community that impacts how safe you feel? Has their friend’s home been burgled? Has something been in the news? Keep creating opportunities to talk about what it is like to live where you live, as well as how each family member feels about it – it’s quite likely you’ll all feel differently at different times.
As a small child having a nightmare, I woke upset and went to my parents for comfort. They listened to me, made the connection with the robbery in the past, and were open with me about it. My parents talked to me about the robbery, validating my fears, thus assuring me I wasn’t afraid for no reason.
They also explained the likely motivation behind the theft (they were probably people without much money looking for something they could take away and sell but weren’t wanting to hurt me) and ways they keep me safe (explaining about locks on doors, etc.). I don’t recall having another dream like that or significant fears related to home invasion again.
Even when we do our best to provide a safe home for our children, we live in a broken world where bad things sometimes happen. Providing safety for children is therefore both about objective safety (what we do to create physical safety) and also about our perceptions of safety – what makes us feel safe. Parents, the ways you act to make your children feel safe are vitally important. Engaging with their emotions, validating their fears, and talking to them about the situations you face as a family will make a big difference for them long term.