Accessing the Power of Good Debriefing

A colleague of mine at TCK Training spent time preparing and travelling to facilitate a two-day debrief with a family who were on home assignment in their passport country. As they all introduced themselves and began to get to know each other, she asked what their hopes were for their time together over the next two days. The parents looked at each other and then back at her as they sheepishly admitted, “Actually, we have no idea. This is something our organisation requires, so we just signed up because we were supposed to. We have no clue what a debrief actually involves.” 

While debriefing has grown in popularity and more missionaries are at least familiar with the concept, the actual nuts and bolts of a debrief can be a bit murky. Because of that, it can be hard to even know, “What is a good debrief?” What should your expectation be of the debrief you signed up for? How do you know a debrief went “well”? 

As we’ve worked with hundreds of families at TCK Training, we’ve heard about a wide array of debrief experiences. There’s a vast mixture in what they received and how effective it was. We would love to see a broader understanding of the hallmarks of a good debrief, even if the execution differs.

In this article I am going to explore what a good debrief involves, why good debriefing can be so powerful, and how to access quality debriefing – no matter what services are (or are not) made available to you in your own situation.

Q: What is a good debrief?

1) A good debrief is preventive. 

That is, the debrief is not in response to a crisis situation but is part of a program of regular care. At TCK Training, we recommend that all families experiencing global mobility do a full debrief (two full days set aside for the sole purpose of debriefing the entire family) every 3-4 years and a check-in style “annual debrief” each year in between. While crisis situations also need to be addressed, this should not be the only situation in which a debrief occurs.

2) A good debrief crafts an intentional, open-ended journey.

Good debriefing is more than verbal processing, prompted with questions along the lines of “Tell me what happened? How did it go? What happened next?” A good debrief instead asks about all different facets of life, and is open to unexpected answers, not just looking to check items off a list. A good debrief asks intentional and purposeful questions that are crafted to lead you and your TCKs through a journey of discovery, finding things that need processing – even if you weren’t consciously aware of them.

For children, this element of a good debrief involves engaging in a variety of ways. Since we all know that sitting across from a child and asking them direct questions isn’t particularly effective, we need to make sure that movement and creativity are a central part of a TCK debrief. 

3) A good debrief creates a sacred space for hard things.

During a good debrief, you feel safe to explore difficult experiences and the difficult emotions that go with them. You are not shamed for your emotions, worried that your emotions might be used against you, or that what you share might result in you losing your job. In the sacred space of a good debrief, you know there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. 

4) A good debrief embraces both shared and individual experiences.

At TCK Training we believe in the power of families working through debrief materials together. We all have shared experiences as a family, and it is helpful and healing to process those shared experiences together. During the debrief, parents get the opportunity to model expressing hard feelings and doing the hard work of emotional processing, with expert guidance to support them. As their children watch this, it will help them recognize the importance of this work and how to do it, as well as give them permission to do this work with their parents, not only in the moment but in the future.

In addition, there will always be aspects of our lives as a family that are individual. Children and parents do not have the same experiences, nor does each child or each parent have the same experiences. Having individual sessions as well as family sessions is necessary to build self-awareness and for personal growth.

Q: Why is a good debrief powerful?

Making debriefs part of a regular program of preventive care leads to more beneficial outcomes. Reactive care – a debrief that takes place in the aftermath of a particularly stressful event – occurs when individuals are full of heightened and heavy emotions and aren’t able to fully engage in the debriefing process. During a preventive care-style debrief, individuals are less occupied with a specific need and can engage in the process of working through all the small things they have experienced over time. This leads to greater learning about themselves and their needs and greater likelihood of retaining that learning over time. 

As part of an individual debrief, teenagers and adults alike get the opportunity to work through their experiences with guided assistance. The crafted questions of a good debrief help us recognise things we didn’t even know were hiding under the surface of our hearts and minds. We debrief our emotions, identity, grief and loss, subconscious expectations, and more. 

Debriefing as a family helps us see where these different facts do and do not line up with each other – where we have different perspectives on the same events. Children are provided a safe space and a mediated opportunity to share emotions they have struggled to express. Parents can help fill in the gaps where children were missing part of the story. These can be powerful family moments.

One Adult TCK shared with me that as a child, their missionary family had something called a “debrief” every four years through their parents’ missionary agency while on home assignment. Yet this experience never included anything individual for them as a child or teenager, where they could explore their feelings. In addition, they felt constrained to not speak about certain events. A debrief that created sacred space and acknowledged their individual journey would have been far more powerful. It would have combatted the loneliness far too many TCKs struggle with and instilled the value that they are worth being individually cared for.

Q: How can our family access a quality debrief? 

If your organisation offers (or requires) a debrief, try to get some information about what debrief means to them. You might ask what the debrief consists of, how children are involved, what the goals/aims of the debrief are, and how the debriefers are trained. 

If your organisation does not provide debriefing, or the debriefing offered is not comprehensive, you could ask them to outsource these services to another organisation or to cover the cost of your family procuring a debrief elsewhere. Knowing what a good debrief is and why it matters will help in explaining why this is important to you.

Our priority at TCK Training is ensuring that families have access to quality debriefing, both inside and outside the missionary world, and we are not the only group with this goal. Other sources of quality debriefs include MTI (Mission Training International), Alongside Ministries, TRAIN, and Safe Place Ministry. 

TCK Training provides debriefing services (both in-person and virtual), and we also train others to provide good debriefs. (We have trained hundreds of people in how to conduct quality debriefs, including staff at various mission organisations.) To make quality debriefing even more accessible, we now offer a resource to help parents lead their own family debrief at home. We also have a FREE processing worksheet with great questions to ask yourself or someone else to help work through emotions. This free resource is a great place to start if you want to learn more about what a quality debrief can look like.

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Send Help. My Husband Believes in Me.

My husband Joshua has the annoying habit of believing I am capable and strong, like some kind of Wonder Woman, except with a super-modest, incarnational wardrobe instead of a metal corset. He is always encouraging me and pep-talking me and going on about how I can do anything and change the world and blah blah blah. 

A perfect example of this was on our second day in our current country of service. There was a birthday in the family, so we piled into a taxi and went to one of the more interesting markets in our town, with its labyrinthian, Technicolor alleys.

Slatted wooden roofs kept the narrow streets cool, and we walked and walked and walked, past kaftans and brass lanterns, leather shoes and round bean bag chairs, stray cats and fresh juice and French pastries and fake scorpion fossils and hippie-dippie beaded jewelry. Four or five languages, along with the beeps of motorcycle horns and the lazy fluting of snake charmers, filled the air with sound. 

Next, we rode camels on a sidewalk. From atop my camel, whose name was, ironically, Madonna, I looked around. Traffic lurched and sped, then stopped suddenly for a wave of pedestrians. The white lines on the road made feeble suggestions that everyone ignored. How did people cross the street in this country? How did they drive? More importantly, how would I drive?!

I had driven in India. But we’d been in a rural mountain village, and there had been one road. I had never had to leave third gear.

But here we were in a new country, in the city, with all kinds of roads to take, “lanes” to drive in, and speed limits to adjust to, each representing a decision I must make in a fraction of a second. I told Joshua I would never, ever be able to drive in this country, so don’t even ask, because it ain’t happening, honey. Especially not a stick shift, which we would soon acquire.

“You can do it, Abby,” he told me, oozing with faith, hope, and love. I wished Joshua could just get in my head for five seconds and understand my anxiety on a visceral level. How it’s like being stuck in an endless game of whack-a-mole at a pizza joint. The second you conquer one anxiety, another one pops up. Sometimes you just want to go find a cabinet to crawl into where you can close your eyes and hug your knees and stop fighting the little varmints.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” I said.

“I know you can do it,” he said. 

I had been hoping Joshua would offer to drive me around for the rest of my life, like my grandfather had done for my grandma. Or like Richard did for Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. Was that so unreasonable?

I examined Joshua’s face. He was so cute and eager, like a puppy who has just heard the word “walk.” All hopeful eyebrows. I even detected the hint of a little happy whine, as though he was imagining me going out in my cape and conquering the world. 

Later, I got a piece of scratch paper and wrote a couple of prayer requests on it: “1. Find a home in the country that can be the backdrop of the kids’ childhood. 2. Learn to drive here without feeling anxious.” I knew that last one was impossible, but I put the piece of paper in my Bible and told God He was going to have to pull out His Red Sea stick, His pillar of fire, and His spat-upon dirt. I needed a miracle.

*

“We’re moving,” I told my family one afternoon. “God provided a place!” And so we packed up our stuff and moved 45 minutes away from the city center to a house in the countryside.

Our kids were already enrolled in all kinds of activities that city children are involved in. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. Someone had to drive them there. Conveniently, or perhaps conspiratorially, my husband’s schedule would not allow him to be the chauffeur. 

I don’t remember the first time I transported my fragile young children in our smashable metal vehicle. Nor the second. Maybe it’s a traumatic memory buried deep in my amygdala, who knows? What I do know is that over the course of several months, a miracle happened. I got comfortable driving.

At first, I would literally talk to myself. The kids in the backseat would hear their mother say, “Water. We’re all just flowing like water. This intersection is a bend in the river and we’re just all flowing around it. Aaaand we’re flowing. We’re flowing.” 

Then I began to learn. I learned that people don’t drive in the right lane because there’s too much going on there—taxis stopping, motorcycles passing each other, carts peddling sweets. But they don’t move fully to the left lane because then they’d never get back over to make a right turn. 

Left turns are even more interesting. If you want to make a left turn, you have to swing your car as far into oncoming traffic as possible, and then complete your turn when enough other cars have built up in that area, or the oncoming lessens.

There was a road culture in this new place, with rules, just like a normal culture has. It seemed like chaos, but there was a system to it. And I had cracked the code. I felt like a feminine, slightly more mentally stable version of Champollion, the guy who figured out ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I felt capable.

*

Sometimes Joshua’s faith in me can be tiring. If I’m honest, sometimes I would rather my anxieties be accepted as unchangeable. I would rather be coddled. To be helped down from tall buses, to sit helplessly a fair bit of the time. I would rather not be expected to keep whacking moles every day, rather not be expected to keep putting on my cape and showing up in situations where success will most certainly require miracles. 

But I am finding that what I want today, in this moment, is not the same as what I want for my life. Today I may want to hide in the cabinet. But for my life, I want a Wonder Woman story. I want to see miracles. I want to drive across town, to write, to share Christ, to sing, to pray aloud, to climb mountains, to laugh at the days to come.

I guess God knew that about me when He put Joshua in my life. 

Here’s to many more years of miracles.

On the Fringe

But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others. –Henri Nouwen

Cresting the hill overlooking the community where our campus sits, I hear the chatter of my daughters in the seats behind me. My mind, however, is miles (or kilometers, shall we say) away. I had just run into a few friends, whom we have known for many years now, and chatted briefly.

As I herded my children into my car, I reflected on the experience. Though it was good to run into them (was it, though?), it was also painful – a reminder, again, that we are the outsiders. These friends have a seemingly vibrant, interdependent community – one for which my husband and I have longed. For a wide array of reasons, we have succeeded in knowing a lot of people from a variety of communities, but we have not leaned in to just one. We’re “on the fringe,” we like to say, of a lot of communities.

There are definite perks to this; but tonight, I am just lonely.

//

This past summer, we had a three and a half-month home assignment in the U.S. It was hectic, as they are. And I was keenly aware that my daughters seemed to have more friends in the U.S., where we have not lived for almost eight years, than they do in our ministry area, where they have essentially grown up.

I pondered this for some time. Was it true? Would they/we have these friends if we lived in the U.S.? There was of course the reality that we visited many different states and churches, nearly all the people we know stateside. In the end, I wondered, is it that friendships feel easier in their “home” culture, even though they haven’t grown up in the U.S.? Do they sense that we are “on the fringe” here too?

//

I have a feeling that you can relate. As cross-cultural workers, we can work alongside people all day, we can attend a vibrant church or co-op, we can be part of groups and workplaces, and still feel unknown. We can spend countless hours pursuing others, opening the doors of our home, building relationships, and have maybe one or two that takes off and goes deep – but otherwise feel like outsiders the rest of the time.

Seven years into international ministry, I am no longer surprised by this reality. It used to be a sharp reminder of our otherness; these days, it is more of a dull ache, a sense of loneliness. God has been gracious in the midst of this struggle for belonging. These are a few truths God has used to comfort me:

The longing to belong is a good, God-given one. This desire to know and be known is part of our human, image-bearing experience. This longing reflects our spiritual, emotional, and mental capacities for relationship and meaning. Any feelings of being ‘unknown’ are part of our experience in this broken world; alternatively, the joy of feeling “known” reflects the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s kingdom coming.

I am known, deeply. The truth is that each one of us is deeply known by God himself, more deeply than we know ourselves. While this may sound trite at times, I have found profound comfort in embracing the reality that the God of the universe knows me, on every level, through and through, and cares deeply for me. Nothing in my life is hidden from him; he knows the best and worst of me and loves me still. What a joy!

He knows what it is to be “on the fringe.” Christ himself came from the Father, to an earth which was not his home, in order to minister and serve and give the ultimate sacrifice for others. Though his “otherness” was different than ours, he is familiar with the struggle to belong. In his life, I find a model of living “on the fringe” which gives me a path forward in my overseas life.

I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where he shares a simple mission statement for his coming to earth: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

Jesus is our ultimate example of coming to a place, fully knowing he would not belong, and giving of himself anyway. When I put aside my own feelings of “otherness” and seek to offer my life for others, I am imitating Christ. When I accept the reality that I will not fit as I would ideally love to and continue to serve anyway, I am imaging Jesus.

So I continue to lean in and pursue others, but less for what they can mean to me, and more for how I can faithfully serve both them and Christ. I am working toward setting aside my own needs for belonging and living joyfully anyway. This is only possible because of the confidence we have in Christ. He knows me, he knows the ache, and he served in love still. Jesus, help me to do the same.

Home Invasion: Giving Missionary Kids Their Safe Place Back

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. 

 

Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Trauma. What does this word make you think of? Does it worry you, even scare you? Does it bring to mind certain events from your own life? Have you seen it used so often that it’s beginning to lose meaning for you? 

I found the definition of trauma Shonna Ingram shared in her post The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does very helpful:

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Over the years, A Life Overseas has not shied away from difficult topics – including trauma on the mission field and how it impacts missionaries and their children. Together we have written about how to understand trauma and heal from it; specific experiences of trauma and how to process them; the long-term impact of trauma on the field, including on mental health; theology of risk; toxic positivity; moral injury; and more. I have also shared research insights from my work with TCK Training, looking at the experiences of missionary kids and their families over time.

Today I come with new data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) together with the collected wisdom of A Life Overseas’ authors. I’ll discuss data on potentially traumatic events witnessed by TCKs and reference excellent articles from the A Life Overseas (ALO) library. I’ll list these resources at the end.

Why do we need to talk about trauma?

In TCK Training’s research, which involved over 1,000 missionary kids (MKs), exposure to potentially traumatic events was one of two key risk factors linked to high ACE scores. High ACE scores in turn are linked with increased risk of a range of negative outcomes in adulthood. (The other key risk factor was high mobility, which I wrote about in Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help.)

It’s important to start by recognizing that trauma can, and does, happen everywhere all over the world. Staying in your passport country does not make you immune to trauma, and leaving for the mission field does not guarantee a traumatic outcome. Abigail Follows explained this nicely in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, where she wrote that “disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere.”

In addition, there is a difference between potential trauma and actual trauma. Witnessing a potentially traumatic event does not mean an individual will necessarily experience it as traumatic.

As Kay Bruner wrote in Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma, “The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.” 

In fact, lack of control means that sometimes children feel a deeper sense of trauma from an event than an adult might in that situation. In other cases, not understanding the full impact of what is happening might mean a child is less impacted. The important point is that we cannot know how each individual will respond, so assumptions are unhelpful.

As we start to look at some difficult numbers together, let’s keep in mind these two pieces of wisdom:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

Witnessing Potentially Traumatic Events

The 1,904 ATCKs who took our survey were asked both if they had witnessed a certain type of event at all, and if they had witnessed this ‘regularly.’ The events we asked about included:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Serious traffic accident
  • Armed conflict
  • Traumatic death (human)
  • Traumatic death (animal)
  • Physical violence

86% of missionary kids witnessed at least one of these potentially traumatic events; more than half of missionary kids witnessed potentially traumatic events regularly (53%).

Extreme Poverty

77% of missionary kids reported they had witnessed extreme poverty at least once, and 61% said they witnessed this regularly. Living among those experiencing extreme poverty and knowing you cannot fix it can lead to what Rachel Pieh Jones labelled ‘moral injury.’

In her article on the topic, she writes: “All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit. And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.”

Witnessing extreme poverty was the only item on the above list not linked to higher-than-average risk. That is, MKs who only witnessed extreme poverty (18% of the group) had an ACE risk similar to that seen in the general TCK population.

Serious Traffic Accident

In some countries traffic accidents are more common, and where cars regularly share badly maintained roads with motorcycles (and helmets are not worn), accidents can be particularly traumatic to witness. As Anna Glenn writes in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries, “[When] you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.” 

Three out of every five missionary kids (40%) had witnessed a serious traffic accident by age 18. Nearly a quarter of those (9% of all missionary kids) witnessed serious accidents regularly. 

When originally crafting this survey, we made sure to ask about serious traffic accidents because we’ve seen the impact of ongoing struggles related to witnessed accidents, even when TCKs were not directly involved in the accident themselves. A variety of reactions, including fear, anxiety, nightmares, reluctance to drive/learn to drive, and PTSD, can be involved. 

Witnessing Violence

More than half of missionary kids (59%) witnessed one of the final four types of potentially traumatic events we listed: 

  1. armed conflict
  2. human death
  3. traumatic animal death
  4. physical violence

For the purpose of our survey, we defined armed conflict as “two groups fighting with weapons.” We found that 20% of missionary kids had witnessed armed conflict.

One quarter of missionary kids had witnessed the traumatic death of a person (24%), including 4% who witnessed a murder. They had the same increased ACE risk as those who witnessed armed conflict (28% of the group had high-risk ACE scores). The risk was higher again for MKs who regularly witnessed any kind of human death, with one third of this group having a high ACE score (33%), nearly double the rate for MKs overall. 

In our work with adult TCKs, we have often found that animal death comes up as an event requiring debriefing as it had not been processed effectively at the time it occurred. More than one third of missionary kids (35%) reported witnessing the traumatic death of an animal. Witnessing animal death came with an increased ACE risk, especially when it happened regularly. The risk associated with regularly witnessing traumatic animal death was the same as the risk associated with regularly witnessing human death.

What do we do about this?

Based on the research around trauma, including the data we have on what MKs are experiencing, I have four suggestions about what we should do next. In my next article, I expand on these four ideas with practical suggestions and more quotes from the ALO library: 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

The Good News

Not all TCKs, and not all missionary kids, witnessed these types of potentially traumatic events. When we review the data on those who were not exposed, we find some wonderful news!

Looking at the missionary kids who did not regularly witness traumatic events, only 9% had a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score (4 or more out of 10), compared to 12.5% of Americans and 17% of MKs overall.

Looking then at missionary kids who did not witness ANY potentially traumatic events, only 6% of recorded 4 or more ACEs – lower than seen in any study we could find in any country using the same question framing.

This is really good news. It suggests that when MKs grow up in environments where they are not witnessing these types of potentially traumatic events, their families are healthier overall. 

Read part two: What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Resources referenced:

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (TCK Training)

Moral Injury

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Photo by Nimrod Persson on Unsplash

 

It takes a village – including for missionary families

There’s an old adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ While it’s often called an African proverb – and there are several that come close, like the Kijita/Wajita proverb from Tanzania, “Omwana ni wa bhone” – the specific origin isn’t important for today’s discussion.

When I say ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ what I mean is that parents can’t do everything needed for a child’s raising on their own. We are, each of us, designed for community. We need each other – and no less so than when faced with the blessing and burden of child-rearing.

Research into what helps individuals thrive, even when their upbringing is difficult, identified eight Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) which act as a protective buffer. Five of the eight PCEs take place outside the home. To raise healthy children who thrive long-term, we really do need to be in community and to rely on each other. 

Sometimes that can be a scary prospect. It’s scary to think we can’t do it all ourselves. It takes some of the control out of parents’ hands. On the other hand, it also acknowledges that parents are not supposed to carry the entire weight of ensuring their children’s future all on their own. We are, all of us, created for community.

But what happens when you live internationally? Community may feel hard to find, hard to break into, or hard to hold onto. There are language barriers, cultural differences, and time zones separating you from people you care about. People move away. You move away. Sometimes it really seems like the best option to turn inward and focus your energy on your immediate family, on being your own community as a family. 

In this article we’ll look at the five PCEs that take place in community and what these can look like for missionaries. My goal is to encourage you to see value in continuing to invest in community that meets your children’s needs throughout their lives.

Belonging in Community

The first two community PCEs are about being part of a community: feeling a sense of belonging in a wider community and taking part in community traditions. Churches, mission organisations, and school communities can all be wonderful sources of these community PCEs. These communities are not just for us – they are for our children. Ensuring that our children feel at ease and feel a sense of belonging in the groups where we spend our leisure time is essential to their long-term thriving. 

The traditions we participate in also connect us to our communities – both the specific groups of people we celebrate with and the local community we observe traditions with. When your family moves locations, look for ways to bring traditions with you. Examples might be celebrating Chinese New Year with your new friends in France, introducing your Australian friends to Songkran, or observing three different national days for three different countries your heart is connected to.

Most often, our biggest hurdle here is finding the emotional energy to continue to invest in community when our lives are busy and it gets hard to make time for all the things we could possibly be doing. Knowing that community is important for our kids’ wellbeing helps provide us with motivation to keep investing in community. This also means that community life needs to be a priority — even if it means we need to cut back on other tasks, such as ministry commitments, in order to have the time and energy to commit to community engagement.

Peer Relationships

The next two community PCEs are having supportive friends throughout childhood and having a sense of belonging in high school. Do your children have supportive friends? For some parents, this is a stressful thought. Perhaps one child does, and one does not. Perhaps you have watched your child lose a best friend every year as families move away from your location. Perhaps they sometimes play with local children, but the only friends who speak their heart language live hundreds of miles away. 

TCK Training’s white paper “Sources of Trauma in International Families” has a section on Peer Relationships. In this section we share research explaining why “Peer relationships in childhood are an important part of social development that is necessary for childhood wellbeing and also for gaining important social skills needed in adulthood,” and cite a study which demonstrated that “93% of children surveyed could understand and can articulate the feeling of loneliness and lack of peers by age eight.”

The good news from our research was that more than half of TCKs (and 46% of Missionary Kids, or MKs) had a peer group their own age. 15% of MKs had only their siblings for company. 10% of each group had no appropriate peers, including 2% who had no peers. Homeschooled MKs were less likely to have peers: only 17% had peers their own age, 38% had only their siblings, and 6% had no peers at all.

TCKs with peers their own age reported fewer Adverse Childhood Experiences, and this was true across all sectors, ages, and education types. 13% of MKs with peers their own age had a high ACE score – compared to 12.5% of Americans in the baseline Kaiser study. By contrast, 21% of MKs with no peers or only siblings for peers had a high ACE score.

But language comfort also mattered. When the peers an MK spent time with spoke a language they were not comfortable speaking, 29% had a high ACE score, almost double the rate seen in those who shared a fluent language with their peers (15%). While 24% of MKs spoke with their peers in a language they weren’t fluent with, only 8% said they spoke a language they weren’t fluent in with their closest friends.

Held together, these different types of research are all telling us something similar: our kids need friends they can share their lives with. Friends they can speak to easily. Part of meeting children’s needs means providing opportunities for them to make connections with peers around the same age who could possibly become this type of friend — and supporting the continuation of those connections wherever we are in the world. 

Mentor Figures

The final community PCE is having two non-parent adults who take a genuine interest in you during childhood. There are lots of ways this PCE can be met! Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends can fill this role. Teachers, coaches, tutors, and pastors can fill this role. Nannies, babysitters, and other community members can fill this role. It is not about the quantity of time an adult spends with a child but about whether the adult really makes the child feel seen and valued whenever they are around each other. 

I’ve heard stories from MKs about very significant adults in their lives whom they saw once a month or even less often. I will never forget overhearing a teenage girl who lived in far north China and came to Beijing twice a year to attend youth camps I ran explaining to her friend who I was: “This is my youth pastor from my youth group in Beijing.”

These adult connections are extremely important to children and teens. Here are four simple things that can make a significant connection with an MK, even if you do not see them regularly:

  1. Know their preferred name and use it.
  2. See them as their own person, separate from their family and their parents’ ministry.
  3. Learn and remember their individual interests.
  4. Follow up on previous conversations.

The ease with which a connection with a caring adult can become significant to a TCK could explain one of the findings in our research. We asked the 1,904 Adult TCKs in our survey if anyone in their household (adult or child) or any caregiving adult (who did not live in their home) passed away during their childhood. The type of death associated with the most significant rise in ACE scores was that of non-residential, non-family caregivers — which points to their importance. 

36% of TCKs who reported the death of a non-residential caregiver during childhood had a high risk ACE score; when the caregiver who died was not a family friend or family member, 43% had a high risk ACE score. In contrast, only 24% of TCKs who reported the death of a household member (adult or child) had a high risk ACE score.

We don’t believe this means that a death in the family does not greatly impact children. So what does it mean? There are few things that might explain this correlation. First, it may reflect the importance these adults have to the family as a whole: their passing impacts not only the child, but their parents as well (which then impacts what happens in the household, along with their ACE score).

Second, it may reflect that household deaths are seen as a significant event, so families receive support and space to grieve. On the other hand, the death of a non-residential caregiver, while sad, may not result in the same recognition or support. Whatever the reason behind it, these numbers demonstrate that adults who provide care to missionary kids and other TCKs can have a significant impact.

What can we do about this?

The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need. 

If you are parenting abroad, take some time to acknowledge the village that is helping you raise your child/ren. Show your appreciation to those who are there, supporting you and supporting your kids.

Next, look for the gaps in your village. Are you missing group community, people to celebrate traditions with? Are your kids lacking for peers, especially those they share a language with? Are you in need of more adults to engage meaningfully with your kids? Identify the particular gaps, and target those areas for more community engagement. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help; child-rearing was never meant to be a burden that you shouldered alone.

If you are living abroad, look around to notice any missionary kids and families you are in community with – or whose village you might be able to join. Could you be part of their regular community life? Could you take the time to know their kids by name and engage with them when you routinely see them? Are there other ways you would like to offer community?

If you are supporting a family abroad, whether you are a sending church or family/friends ‘left behind,’ look for creative ways you can stand in the gap for the missionary families you know. How can you be part of their village? What can you do that acknowledges their children as individuals and not just the missionary’s kids? What traditions can you make part of your interaction with their family? How can you help them feel connected to what you’re doing in your community in another land?

No matter where you are, there is something you can do to support the missionary families you know. You are part of the village, and you are needed.

 

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

How many years abroad is safe for kids?

“How many years abroad is safe for kids?”

This is a question we have been asked many times at TCK Training. I have also heard similar questions from missionary organizations – at what point do families need transition prep and repatriation support? How many years overseas is safe? At what point does it become dangerous?

I only lived outside my passport country for two years as a teenager. Speaking from personal experience, I had a rocky entry to life there and a rocky re-entry to my passport country. But I can’t speak for everyone. So when TCK Training did our survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile TCKs, one of the questions we asked was “How many years did you live outside your passport country?” And now we have some answers.

Our latest white paper was just published: Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods: Providing Individualized Support to Increase Positive Outcomes for Higher Risk Families (released October 26). It contains ten ‘mini-papers’ looking at different factors in the lives of TCKs and how they impacted Adverse Childhood Experiences. The first factor we looked at was length of time lived abroad. 

As we analyzed the data, something quickly became clear. Those who spent the least time outside their passport countries had the highest ACE scores. That is to say, living a shorter period of time abroad was associated with higher levels of abuse and neglect.

  • 19% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years were physically abused at home, compared to 12% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 13% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported physical neglect, compared to only 6% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 45% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported emotional neglect, compared to 30% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 44% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported that an adult in their childhood home experienced mental illness, compared to 28% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years.
  • 21% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years had a high-risk ACE score, compared to only 7.5% of missionary kids who lived abroad 16-18 years. 

What does this mean?

These numbers demonstrate correlation, not causation. We cannot look at this and say that staying overseas a long time causes healthy families. But we can say that a higher percentage of families who lived overseas a long time were healthier. In the rest of this post we will look at three potential factors related to this, as well as what we can do about it.

Transition is hard

Every location move is a big transition and a disruption to both family life and peer relationships. We previously noted a correlation between high mobility and high-risk ACE scores (see our paper Caution and Hope for more on this). Those who spend a short time overseas are likely to have made two international moves in a short period of time – a high level of transition and disruption. These ‘short term’ families are therefore in more need of transition and repatriation support, not less!

Expat life brings out the hard stuff

Good expat preparation tells individuals and couples to prepare for the hardest parts of their personal lives to go into overdrive due to the stress of transition and intercultural living. Some families discover that the stress of this life is not good for them and choose to return to their passport countries. TCKs who lived their entire lives outside their passport countries are more likely to belong to healthy families, as these families are more likely to choose to stay abroad. 

In order to stay healthy, parents need mental health support. The level of mental illness seen in families who spend shorter times abroad show that this is a big problem in need of addressing.

We can’t blame it on external trauma

Another reason that families may not spend their children’s whole childhood abroad is if a traumatic event takes place. Yet TCKs who lived abroad 13-18 years were more likely to report experiencing or being impacted by a violent event than those who spent 0-6 years abroad. 

Our hypothesis here is that when families have strong communities in which they are supported, giving them personal support to parent well and family support through difficult situations, they are healthier overall. This is better for the family long term than going through an additional transition (with accompanying dislocation and disruption) to receive care elsewhere.

What does ‘safe’ look like? 

This data shatters the myth that there is a ‘safe’ number of years for a family to live abroad. A shorter time abroad may mean a child is less likely to have deep identity and belonging struggles, but that is not true for all TCKs. A shorter time abroad definitely does not mean a family will not struggle with culture shock and reverse culture shock. All families making an international move should receive transition training and repatriation support, no matter how long or short their time abroad. 

If ‘safe’ is not about time, what is it about? I contend that ‘safe’ is all about family health. If parents are emotionally healthy, including mental health supports that enable them to keep their stress levels manageable, they can parent well and be emotionally available to their children. Healthy families have strong parent-child connectedness, so that children feel their parents’ love. This is a key factor in providing safety to children as they transition and grow.

Instead of asking “How many years abroad is safe for kids?” let us start asking “How do we make our homes, families, and communities safe for kids?” We can protect missionary kids by providing emotional safety for them. We can protect missionary kids by caring well for their parents, including mental health support and parenting education. We can protect missionary kids by creating supportive communities that include them and their families. There’s no ‘safe’ number of years abroad for every family, but together we can work to provide every family with the level of care they need to thrive on the field.

 

For more information:

TCK Training’s research. This includes free access to all three white papers, along with blog posts about specific groups, such as missionary kids. 

Free PCEs miniseries. PCEs are Positive Childhood Experiences. This miniseries offers information on providing emotional safety and protection to children as they grow up abroad.

Self-Guided Transitions Course, with videos, exercises, and more. This course is designed to support families (and inform caregivers) through all stages and types of transitions.

Photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

What does the research say about TCKs attending boarding school?

When your family lives abroad, there are a range of educational options available to choose from. For some families and some students, boarding school is a really great option worthy of consideration. And yet there are also horror stories many of us have heard, which can make this decision particularly fraught for parents who are trying to make the best choices for their families. 

In this article I present four findings from TCK Training’s research on the experiences of TCKs who primarily attended boarding schools. These TCKs formed 12% of the total group of 1,904 surveyed and were almost entirely missionary kids. 20% of the missionary kids we surveyed identified boarding school as their primary educational experience, compared to only 2% of those from other sectors. 

1) Boarding school is linked to higher mobility.

High mobility turned out to be a very important factor in our research. TCKs who experienced extreme mobility (10+ location moves or 15+ house moves) were much more likely to report four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – a risk factor associated with negative outcomes in adulthood. 1 in 3 highly mobile TCKs had a high risk ACE score, compared to 1 in 5 TCKs overall.

TCKs who primarily attended boarding school had higher levels of mobility in every metric we measured. They lived in more countries, moved location more often, and moved house more frequently. Statistically speaking, a boarding school TCK could expect to move locations at least once every two years throughout childhood. In addition, nearly half of boarding school students moved house more than 10 times before age 18, compared to one third of all TCKs. 31% of boarding school students reported extreme location mobility, and 26% reported extreme house mobility. Only 5% of boarding school TCKs moved house fewer than five times during childhood. (Source: Caution and Hope for Boarding School Students)

These high rates of extreme mobility among boarding school students are not surprising, but the correlation of high mobility with high ACE scores means we need to take these transitions very seriously. 

An additional impact of boarding school mobility is attachment between parent and child. When boarding school is keeping parent and child apart for too long, it risks damaging important family bonds.

The Limits of Parental Separation chart from the book High Risk: Children Without A Conscience by Magid and McKelvey (1989) is a great reference for how to manage separation of parents and children without damaging attachment; this work is regularly referred to in devising custody arrangements. It can also be helpful in safely managing a boarding situation without damaging attachment. For example, the preferable limit for 6-9 year olds is two weeks’ separation from a parent, and the harmful limit is four weeks’ separation from a parent. For a 10-13 year old, it is four and six weeks, and for a 14-18 year old, it is six and nine weeks. 

2) Boarding school is linked to abuse – sort of.

The survey results linked to abuse among TCKs can be difficult to read. This section includes statistics of various types of abuse, but no descriptions of or stories about that abuse.

The rates of abuse among boarding school TCKs are high, but only slightly higher than what is seen in the overall missionary kid population. 20% of boarding school TCKs vs 16% of missionary kids overall experienced physical abuse at home; 43% vs 40% experienced emotional abuse at home, and 27% vs 23% experienced sexual abuse of any kind before age 18. 

The rate at which boarding school TCKs reported experiencing childhood abuse dropped dramatically over time. For those born after 1980 (Millennials and Gen Zs), boarding school TCKs actually had lower rates of physical abuse and emotional abuse in the home than missionary kids overall (11% vs 13% for physical abuse; 33% vs 39% for emotional abuse). 

Over time, reported rates of all types of abuse decreased. Boarding school TCKs born after 1980 were less than half as likely to be physically abused (11% vs 27%), and only one third reported emotional abuse, compared to nearly half of older boarding school TCKs (33% vs 49%). Sexual abuse also decreased, though only from 29% to 24%. (Source: Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs)

The survey also asked about experiences of child-to-child sexual abuse and grooming, although these are not included in the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire. In both areas, the older generation of boarding school TCKs reported the highest rate of the five educational groups. Younger boarding school TCKs, however, reported the third-highest rate of child-to-child sexual abuse (behind local school, and less than 1% behind homeschool), and the second-highest rate of grooming (behind homeschool). (Source: Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs)

The message here for parents considering boarding school is twofold. First, schools are learning from problems in the past; our survey results show that younger generations of boarding school students are at lower risk than their older counterparts. Second, no school experience is entirely safe – even homeschooling. We live in a broken world and cannot prevent all harm from coming to our children. Yet we do our best to protect children through education (for ourselves and also for them) and by carefully scrutinising the child safety policies and education that prospective schools have in place.

3) Boarding school is linked with fewer mental health issues in parents.

Living with an adult who is depressed, mentally ill, or attempts suicide is an Adverse Childhood Experience, one reported by 39% of the TCKs we surveyed (including missionary kids) but only 32% of boarding school TCKs. Not only that, while every other educational sector showed a sharp increase in the percentage of TCKs reporting household adult mental illness, the rate among boarding school TCKs actually decreased. 

We hypothesised that boarding students may be less aware of their parents’ mental health concerns as they are not home all the time. That said, it is also worth recognising that some families are choosing between homeschool and boarding school due to their remote location – and homeschool can be really stressful for some families. In these cases, boarding school may be the healthiest option available. 

4) Boarding school is linked with ongoing relationships.

One of the most important ways to proactively care for your kids is through Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). Many of these are connected to relationships, and this is an area where boarding school can be a gift. Having supportive friends, feeling a sense of belonging in high school, taking part in regular traditions, and having two non-parent adult mentor figures are four of the eight PCEs – and they are ways that boarding schools can give stability to TCKs.

Here’s one TCK’s perspective on boarding school life: “I made close friends that I kept close for many years. My dorm had the same people; we didn’t get anyone new until 10th Grade. We had a full house; it was the largest dorm, with about 17 kids, plus the dorm parents’ three kids. All the way up until 11th Grade we had the same brothers and sisters in my dorm.” (Source: Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, p 85)

When a TCK is deeply impacted by transition – whether they are constantly moving or whether they are seeing people move in and out constantly – boarding school can be an option to offer some relational stability. For TCKs living in remote areas, boarding school can offer the opportunity to make friends in ‘real life’ rather than over a screen. This is equally true for mentor-figures, which is another essential part of a well-rounded childhood.

As I explained in my book, Misunderstood, “Adults who teach and supervise at boarding schools and boarding houses have a huge impact on TCK students. TCKs I interviewed who made close pseudo-family connections with boarding school staff coped much better than those who were less connected.” (Source: Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, p 87)

TCK Training is about to publish some research showing that TCKs do better when they have peers their own age and that their closest friends almost always speak their native language. Boarding schools are sometimes the best option to provide these friendship opportunities.

In conclusion: there is no right (or wrong) answer for TCK education.

A comfort for parents considering boarding school is that younger TCKs who attended boarding schools had fewer Adverse Childhood Experiences than those in the past did. 

Another thing our research shows is that every schooling type comes with some level of risk. There is no perfect choice. Instead, make the best decision for your family — knowing that the best choice for your family may be different to the best choice for another family.

If you can make a choice that limits mobility, that might be a good way to limit risk. If there is a choice that lowers stress for any/all family members, that’s probably a good sign. If you can make a choice that ensures your child has access to friends and belonging, that could be a good way to improve the odds of a positive outcome. 

Whatever schooling choice(s) you make, it is important to learn about preventive care, such as how to care for kids in a way that protects them from unintended emotional abuse and neglect. It’s all too easy to unintentionally ignore our children’s needs when we ourselves are under stress from transition, moving locations, and dealing with the weight of everything involved in an international life. In addition, we need to know who is caring for our kids – at home and at school – and make sure they are educated about being emotionally healthy and safe.

In addition to avoiding causes of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), we can promote Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). When a child has 6+ PCEs, this buffers them from the negative effects of even a high ACE score. Responding to your child’s feelings, making them feel safe, and ensuring they are connected to peers, mentors, and communities, really does make a lifelong difference!

 

Photo by Sun Lingyan on Unsplash

A Letter to My Missionary Grandsons

by Oma Joy

Twelve and a half years ago, when our eldest child and only daughter left home for a mission assignment in Asia, my husband and I both shed tears. But we were undergirded by a sense of being part of a purpose greater than ourselves.

I remember my co-workers frequently saying things like, “How can you let her move so far away?” or “I could never do what you are doing.” And my response was that I loved and supported my daughter and wanted to bless her to pursue the calling she was made for. I would say, “I didn’t have children so that they could live down the street just to make me happy.”

But 12 years ago, I had no idea how long a life-time calling would be: how many birthdays and Christmases, Easter dinners and graduations, funerals and weddings we would miss sharing together. And I could not have anticipated what it would be like to miss watching my grandchildren grow up.

Yesterday we said goodbye once again. We know the routine well. The flurry in the days prior to leaving, the “last” trip to the library, the “last” walk to the park, the “last” hug with a grandparent who likely won’t be living when you return, the steady stream of family and friends who come for final goodbyes the day before departure, the banter and photos at the airport, the anxiety over the mountain of luggage and wondering if it will clear the final weight check, the tearful hugs that avoid any total breakdown, the final waves as you slowly disappear down the escalator, and then some real sobs when you are out of sight, and finally the several-hour drive home where we talk about anything other than the departure.

But then we return to the house. The home that we have shared for six months: three generations, two cultures speaking two languages, with very little privacy or sound barrier. A home that has been filled with so much life and laughter and noise. And the silence is deafening. What can I do but put some of your things away and count the ways that I find you?

So I wrote an ode to my grandsons, ages 7 and 9.

How do I miss you? Let me count the ways.

I miss you in the 23 paper airplanes, paper boats and paper rockets that I find upstairs and downstairs. I pick ten to keep on my dining room table for a while.

I miss you in the color yellow (Samuel’s favorite) which seems to be everywhere: yellow dishes, yellow towels, yellow Legos, yellow pillows, a favorite yellow cup. For the rest of my  life I will always think of you when I see yellow.

I miss you in the leftover bottles of shampoo in your shower, whose smell is exactly how you smelled in the mornings when you were freshly dressed for school and gave me wonderful hugs.

I miss you in the children’s health insurance card that I no longer need to carry in my wallet.

I miss you in the bags of library books waiting to be returned. I miss you when I find the note, on yellow paper, which showed the authors or titles we were supposed to look for at the library. Bill Peet, Robert Munsch, Shel Silverstein, and Hopper the Rabbit.

I miss you as I pack away the winter hats and gloves (reminders of a freezing day in our town), which I store for perhaps another winter furlough. But who knows what size you might be then?

I miss you in the kites that were left in our junk room, the ones from a birthday party that have your names on them.

I miss you in the box taped shut, guarding your tin-can telephones and string. I wonder if they will reach all the way to Asia.

I miss you in the tiny silver chain that you found on our trip to Silver Lake, a chain that became Samuel’s focus of the outing and which now hangs by my window.

I miss you at the breakfast table when I watch the momma bird sit on her nest and think about how excited you would have been to see these eggs hatch.

I miss you when I find the special Asia ketchup sauce that you needed for every meal, and I miss you when I overeat your curly cheese snacks, trying to bring you back to my table.

I miss you when I find the car booster seat and think of all the places we went together, and I am happy when I share it with your mother’s friend to use for transporting children to church.

I miss you when I find the white container in the shower that served as your adapted Asian water bathing barrel.

I miss you when I find the box from Jeffery’s friend, delivered the night before you left with a note saying, “I wish I could go with you.” You took the toy, but I’m saving the note from the box. I agree with your friend.

I miss you when I smell microwave popcorn, which you ate every day after school, and when I wash your favorite bowls and cups, and when I look at all your art on my refrigerator.

I miss you every time I sign on to my computer or use numerous apps that need passwords, because clearly that is what grandsons’ birthdays are made for: passwords. (Shh, don’t tell.)

I miss you when your “go to sleep” song is stuck in my head on an endless loop, reminding me of the times that I got to do bedtime with you.

I miss you as I wash your sheets and towels and pillowcases and store your blankets. It is a sacred task. It was not long ago that I had so much fun picking out fuzzy flannel sheets for your winter furlough, a furlough which included the first Christmas here at home together in 12 years. A furlough which included celebrating three of the four birthdays in your family, and a wonderful wedding for your beloved uncle and new aunt. A furlough which included a friend-filled semester at the local elementary school, as well as Sunday school, kid’s club, and children’s choir at our church, a special time at the cabin in the woods, and so much more.

I miss you, and so I promise to keep doing the things I know how to do: reading online children’s books, sending you books through Book Depository, communicating through What’s App and Messenger, playing online Rummikub, sending Christmas care packages in early November, praying day and night, and renting our basement apartment to make money for tickets to come to see you.

As your adaptable minds and hearts have shown us, it is possible to love people on both sides of the world. So we will all keep growing and loving wherever we are planted, until the next time we are planted in the same place for a season. But I will never stop seeing you and hearing you here with me, because you lived in my house, and you always live in my heart. I love you.

Oma

~~~~~~~~~~

Oma Joy is a pastor living in the Southern United States. She and her husband worked with a church development agency in Honduras from 1986-1989 and in the Philippines from 2002-2005. They are the proud parents of three adult TCKs and the grandparents of two TCK grandsons.