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

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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.

How to Talk With Our Children About Abuse of Power Within the Church

NOTE: In choosing to focus this article on abuse of power within the Church, I recognize that I have not addressed every possible instance of abuse. In particular, I am not addressing child sexual abuse. That is a topic which requires very careful and extensive treatment not possible in a short article such as this. Child sexual abuse is a heinous act of evil that should be reported to authorities in every case and dealt with by trained professionals.

My children and I have studied church history together. We’ve read about abuses and excesses of the medieval Church, when men garnered undue power and wealth from their positions.

Going back further in time, we have the New Testament’s witness. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day rejected his message and his identity because they feared losing their following and more (John 12:19). Their jealousy for their own power was so strong that they crucified the Messiah, the Son of God.

In more ancient times, we read of the kings of Israel and Judah who, rather than leading God’s people in covenant faithfulness, practiced idolatry, exploited their people for their own gain, and reveled in worldly rewards.

Throughout human history, including the history of the Church, sin has led men to love power and wealth and influence more than they love God. When those in the Church love power more than Jesus Christ, there is one result: corruption (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 2 Peter 2:19).

We could speak at length of the inner corruption that flows from idolatry. The Bible is clear that when man “exchange[s] the truth about God for a lie and worship[s] and serve[s] the creature rather than the Creator,” God “[gives] them up to a debased mind.” The idols of power, success, and money, far from bringing glory to man, bring about his corruption and his downfall. This also is vanity, to quote the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

But it doesn’t stop there. This corruption is not confined to a single man’s inward world. Idolatry leads to corruption within the Church.

Corruption in the Church Today

You may have experienced the pain and disillusionment of being part of a church or missions team that fell apart due to misuse of power. We’ve all read about more cases of pastors and Christian leaders falling than we care to know about. It reflects poorly on the Gospel. And we know that there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people harmed whenever a leader or organization defames the name of Christ.

As parents we feel, rightly, that we do not need to discuss every example of sin within the Church with our young children. But as they age and mature, and become more conversant with nuance, we need to examine that impulse carefully. Do we fear that acknowledging the existence of fallen church leaders will cause them to turn away from their ultimate leader, Christ? Do we fear that knowing about sin within Christian groups will cause them to hate the body of Christ?

The truth is just the opposite. When our maturing children see us acknowledging and condemning serious sin within the Church, while affirming that this does not alter God’s character or his mission, we protect them from the worst kind of disillusionment: thinking that God doesn’t see or care.

Our growing children will eventually learn about the presence of corruption in a nearby church, or in a denomination, or in their own church. At the very least, when they are grown they will come to understand things that eluded them in their childhood, and they will certainly witness the damaging effects of serious sin in their adult lives. We cannot hide it from them. We can, however, guide them in how to understand and address sin in the Church proactively with a Biblical foundation.

Why is there sin in the church?

Why is there sin in the Church? In part the answer is simple. Even we who have put our trust in Christ, who are a new creation, still struggle with putting off the old self (Ephesians 4:22-24). In this life, God is sanctifying us, making us more holy; one day we will be glorified and fully free from sin. In the meantime, we will fight against sin and the old self until we die. Every Christian still sins, and this causes personal and institutional harm in a myriad of ways (1 John 1:8). Thank God he gives us the gift of repentance and forgiveness.

You may ask, “But what about unrepentant sinners who continue to wreak devastation on the Church? What about wolves who eat sheep rather than shepherd them?”

Jesus tells us to recognize wolves, or false teachers, by their fruit. A bad tree does not produce good fruit, and vice versa (Matthew 7:15-20). Ultimately, God is the judge. But if a leader’s “fruit” is destroying the lives and faith of believers, it is anathema to God and should be anathema to those who follow him.

If we recognize that Scripture and history repeatedly reveal the destructive reality of corruption in the Church, we are not surprised when we see it firsthand. We recognize God’s wrath “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7, Jeremiah 6:13-15).

How Do We Help Our Children?

So how do we help our children preserve their love for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and their commitment to Christ’s body, while discerning and fleeing from evil masquerading as light?

We remind them of Scriptural truth. As Paul states so beautifully in Ephesians 5, Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Scripture witnesses to Jesus’s faithful, effective love for his bride: he has given himself up for her, he is sanctifying her, he has cleansed and washed her, and he will present her spotless and without blemish at the last. Jesus, who knows fully what is in man (John 2:24), nevertheless has not and will not abandon his Church. Man’s faithlessness does not nullify Christ’s faithfulness.

Now, there is a call implicit in this discussion: We, who together are the Church, must forsake the love of idols that leads us away from Christ and into corruption. We must teach our children what it is that God requires of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We must teach them that we are to treasure God above all else and to obey him. We who have been bought at a price by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who are raised to newness of life with him in his resurrection, must be found in him, having a righteousness that comes from faith in him, ever pressing onward to make it our own (Philippians 3:9-12).

We must also recognize and care for the deep injuries some believers have received in the Church. We affirm that we are called to be part of the body of Christ, and both we ourselves and the Church lose much if we give up on it. And we offer compassion and tangible help to those who are hurting.

All abuse within the Church should be reported appropriately (including according to applicable laws) and dealt with according to responsible and credible methods. The organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is a good starting point if you or your church have questions about what to do.

Holding Fast To Our Hope

If sinful leaders existed in the second millennium B.C.; if the people went after idols throughout Israel’s history; if the first century witnessed leaders caring more about power and image than the purity of the Church; if the past millennium has seen the visible Church cave to idolatry in too many ways; if the people of God have suffered these realities for thousands of years, then we know two things: 1) It will likely happen in our generation, and 2) God will always preserve a remnant: those who have not bowed the knee to idols (1 Kings 19:18).

The spate of revelations of abuse of power within the Church is disturbing and will not evade God’s eyes (Psalm 94:7-11). But we are not without hope: the gates of hell shall never prevail against Christ’s Church (Matthew 16:18). Let us inculcate this sure, unfading hope within the next generation.

When Saying Goodbye Again is Too Much

“I have to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone, because I am not supposed to know this yet.” 

I receive this text from my teammate and good friend.

“Oookaaay…. What’s going on?”

“The Smiths* are leaving.”

I immediately shoot back a bunch of crying emojis.

The Smiths have a daughter who is best friends with both my daughter and my teammate’s daughter. Their trio is about to be broken. 

Our mama hearts hurt for our daughters. 

Goodbyes have been a painful thing for us in our life overseas. My daughter wrote a poem a while back about all the friends she has had to say goodbye to. She had prayed often (and so had I) for a really safe friend here. So when I find out that this dear, much longed for friend in this country is leaving, the tears flow freely. Not again, Lord.

For a few moments that night, I feel ready to quit this life altogether. Why choose a life where there is this kind of grief, that is both frequent and also unexpected? Unlike diplomats or the military, who know the length of their terms, we are never sure when we will have to say goodbye to those we love or when it will be our turn to be the ones who leave. 

//

A few weeks later, I host a goodbye party for this sweet friend with all the girls in her class. I tell them we’ll start with a more serious activity and then move to more fun.

I create space for them to feel whatever they are feeling about saying goodbye. These precious expat girls know the pain of constant goodbyes. I ask them to breathe in deeply and to think about what is on their hearts. I give them a few minutes to get in touch with where they are.

Then I read Psalm 84 to them, a psalm about pilgrims longing for the presence of God as they travel. My voice breaks as I read, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” No good thing. He is our sun and shield. A day with him as our best friend is better than a thousand with our dearest friends. Oh Father, this is so beautifully true. Thank you.

After this, we listen together to Christy Nockels’s song Home. They all have blank paper and markers, and I ask them to draw, doodle, write, whatever they want as they listen to what God has for them. We go through the whole song. They ask to listen a second time, as they creatively process with the Lord. So we do.

It feels like a sacred space, as I see them sprawled all over the basement, under stairs, behind couches, in corners, listening to the Lord. I pray the Spirit will come and meet them in ways he only can.

He meets me too. Isn’t that so like him? I am captivated by the phrase Nockels repeats over and over: “Further up and farther in.” 

That is when it hits me. That even though our paths are going in separate ways, the invitation is the same for all of us: to go further up and farther into the love of our Father in Christ. We are all still traveling home, just on different paths. It fills me with so much hope for my daughter and her friends. Jesus will from his own fullness give them “what he takes away.It gives me a sense of purpose in this nomadic life and its goodbyes. Each one is producing an eternal weight of glory — in both us as parents and in our kids.

Later, we laugh and play with water balloons and dunk cake and marshmallows in fudge and munch on lemon bars . . . because Christ is in all of it. In both lament and feast.

//

Friend, if you too are going through heart-wrenching goodbyes, may you accept the invitation from our Father to keep journeying further up and farther into the fullness of the Son. Christ is the God who journeys with us in the mountains and valleys. When he brings us through the valley of tears, we experience more of his heart, more of his presence, more of his goodness.  May the very presence of Christ buoy your soul in all the farewells that this life calls us to. And may He transform the valley into a place where we taste more deeply the love that never lets us go. 

 

*name changed to protect identity

Parent Self-Care: Moving Past the Buzzword to Prioritizing Well-being in the Midst of Life Abroad

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

As much as self-care has become a popular term in recent years, the essence of it has devolved from its intended meaning – doing things, big or small, for our holistic well-being – to being primarily about bubble baths and charcuterie boards. Rest assured, as much as I love a bubble bath and a good charcuterie board, as much as I think a bubble bath and charcuterie board can be good ‘small things’ for our holistic well-being, as much as I wonder how many times I can get away with using bubble baths and charcuterie boards in a single paragraph, I’m not talking about bubble baths and charcuterie boards.

I’m talking about all the important aspects of self-care, from emotional processing, to healthy boundaries, to planting green zone moments. And I’m talking about this because, in our research at TCK Training, we’ve seen that mental illness (including depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses) in TCK parents is high. And this impacts our well-being, our children’s well-being, and our ministry’s well-being.  

You may have gotten the memo. It’s a pretty commonly accepted fact: Life on the Field is Hard. And there are a lot of factors that make it harder, like popular theologies of suffering, expectations on what missionary life should be, and our own pride in how much we can endure. As if that’s not hard enough, life on the field makes good self-care harder to do with a lack of resources, overworked teams, and a shortage of amenities. But wait, there’s more! 

Because we also expect to be able to do it all, we rarely tally up how hard things are, and we often just shame ourselves for having a hard time at all. 

I believe that when you outline your core values, you can find the time and the means to make them happen. Usually when I’m talking to missionary families, they want to have a healthy family and a thriving ministry. I believe that’s possible. But only through following the example of Jesus. Jesus had a thriving ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, but he had a core objective of preaching and teaching – just like we have a core objective of leading our families in the ways they should go.

In Mark 1:35, Jesus finished a great day of his thriving ministry, woke up, prioritized his own well-being (he went off to an isolated place to pray), and then set up boundaries around how much time he would spend on his thriving ministry (even though there were crowds of people expecting him to resume his work). Being imitators of Christ, let’s follow his example of taking time to prioritize his own well-being.  

Emotional Processing

Oftentimes when talking with TCK parents about the unique struggles their kids face, we hear a lot of surprise. “How is this a unique challenge for TCKs? We also went through these same experiences.” I won’t be addressing that particular question in this article, but I acknowledge that, yes, parents go through many of the same things their children do, which means that, yes, parents need to be emotionally processing their grief, too.

Here’s a unique struggle for TCK parents: while TCKs haven’t always learned how to hold together their big emotions in public spaces, TCK parents have. So you’re in these moments where you’d really love to sit down and have a good cry, but you can’t. Because you’re living in a fishbowl. Because you’re managing everyone else’s emotions. Because you know that it doesn’t fix anything. But there never seems to be a convenient time to have a good cry, so things don’t get processed.

We need to stop waiting for time to process the challenges we’ve faced in our expat life and start making time. Take some time to journal or talk through hard things that have happened and how that impacted you. Print out our free Processing Questions worksheet, and on the back write out the things you really ought to process. You can carve time out of your weekly schedule, or you can double up on tasks. Try laminating our processing questions printable and thinking through the questions while you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. We know that showers are the perfect place to solve the world’s problems. Let’s repurpose them to solve our own.  

Healthy Boundaries

Living on the field usually looks like immersion. You’re there 24 hours a day, with the people you’re trying to serve. There are calls at all hours, and demands for more than you can possibly give. So you die to yourself and pick up your cross and go on and on trying to meet all the needs. At some point you start to wonder how long you can do this because looking at the road ahead or behind you, 10, 20, or 30 years seems a lot longer of a journey than the road to Calvary. You thought you heard that the burden is easy and the yoke is light, but that must be for the people you’re serving. Not for you. So you set your jaw and hoist up the cross and carry on. 

Let me speak the gospel truth for you: Jesus beckons you to him, and his burden is easy and the yoke is light. Laying down your life and picking up the cross? You’re already doing that. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove, because Jesus doesn’t measure his love for you in how much you do for him. He says, “Let me teach you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Wearing yourself out is not what Jesus has in mind for you. 

Saying “no” is an important spiritual discipline. Think about your values, and and then look at your calendar, your choices, and your life, and decide where you need to put boundaries so you have time for the things you value. 

How many hours will you work? What hours will you not work? How much wiggle room do you put in for emergencies? What defines an emergency? At the end of the day, how do you want your family to perceive you, and what choices do you need to make to present that way?

Green Zone Moments

It’s time to talk about bubble baths and charcuterie boards again! In stressful moments – which happen a lot on the field – our bodies can get into the red zone. These are high stress levels with lots of cortisol (the stress chemical) and adrenaline. These chemicals cue your body to move into survival mode. Fight, flight, freeze, be really irritable with your family members — there are a number of ways that this can show up, but the symptoms reveal the chemical balance in our brains. For holistic well-being, we need to get relief from all those stress chemicals. One strategic way of doing this is through Green Zone moments. 

A Green Zone Moment is a moment that you know you’ll enjoy so much that it will bring you peace and lower your stress chemicals – at least for a bit. Even better, positive anticipation of Green Zone Moments can also help reduce cortisol levels! This means looking forward to a bubble bath or a delicious charcuterie board is good for your mental health. But it doesn’t have to be a bubble bath or charcuterie board. 

What activities bring you joy? It doesn’t have to be practical. Listen, Jesus could have gone into an inner room to pray, but instead Jesus regularly went on a hike alone into the wilderness. Not because it was a practical option, but because, I posit, it was delightful to him. 

It doesn’t even have to be big or different from what you already do. I went through a season where I had a list of 30 tiny luxuries, and I tried to get 10 everyday. From a cup of coffee to snuggling with my kids to taking the time to get music playing. I didn’t add more than a couple of minutes to my day, but I purposely valued the little things I can do or even already do for myself. 

The Why

I think this culture of downplaying our own needs and elevating the needs of others is problematic and leads to burnout more than it leads to healthy communities. I saved “the why” for last because I don’t want to have to say it at all. I don’t want to have to convince you that you’re worth caring for.  I don’t want to have to convince you that your losses deserve to be processed, that your time and energy deserves to have boundaries, that you deserve to have tiny frivolous moments of joy recklessly seasoning your life, that you deserve well-being. 

And I know this culture well. I know how suggestions for making life easier can be dismissed with “I’m fine.” I know how truths can be met with “That seems true for everyone but me.” I know how pervasive it is and how hard it is to combat this world view that our needs don’t matter. 

I think that you should do this for yourself. I think that when the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” it starts with loving yourself. So you should do this for you. But if you can’t: research shows that your mental health has a huge impact on your children’s holistic health. 

The CDC-Kaiser survey of Americans shows 19% of people said they grew up in a home with an adult suffering from mental illness. In our survey, 39% of TCKs (and 39% of MKs) said the same. Additionally, the rate of TCKs reporting mental illness at home went up over time, from 1 in 3 TCKs born before 1960, to half of Gen Z. Mental illness of an adult is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) because the research shows that it has a strong impact on a child’s lifelong well-being. In fact, TCKs who reported this ACE also reported significantly higher rates of abuse and neglect – including 64% reporting emotional abuse and 58% reporting emotional neglect. 

We as parents need to do what it takes to stay mentally well. 

The prescription is to process your grief, protect your time and energy, and plant delightful moments throughout your day, week, and life. When you do these three things, you’ll see the positive impact of these investments in all areas of your life.

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

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Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Every Dinner Needs a Side Dish (reflections on being a trailing spouse)

by Rebecca

Every hero needs a sidekick
Every captain needs a mate
Every dinner needs a side dish
(On a slightly smaller plate)

And now we’re seeing eye to eye
It’s so great, we can agree
That Heavenly Father has chosen you and me
Just mostly me

My husband and I joke that this song from the Broadway Musical The Book of Mormon is the anthem of the trailing spouse – the person who has followed their spouse around the world without a defined role of their own. We sing this song to each other with smirks, and we laugh because there are days when it feels like it really hits the nail on the head.

While many organizations have tried to eliminate the role of the ‘trailing spouse’ by making sure that both individuals within a couple share a call and a passion for overseas work, it’s impossible to completely eradicate it. Someone within a couple will always have a more prominent or defined role.

By virtue of marrying a doctor, I often feel like the trailing spouse regardless of where I’m living. Part of that is thanks to our current family dynamic: we have two young children, and someone needs to stay home to care for them. It only makes sense that the doctor be the one to work outside the home.

Someday our kids will be older and will spend a good portion of their day in school, and the slivers of time I have now between naps and meals and housekeeping will grow into larger chunks, and I’ll be able to carve out a role for myself, using my education and giftings too. But for now, for this season, I feel very much like the trailing spouse, and here are some realizations I’ve had that will hopefully encourage you too.

Even though I moved with my family around the world to make disciples of all nations and I have yet to make one friend with someone of the majority faith here, I am daily discipling two little humans who have the potential to be kingdom builders. That’s not an insignificant role. In fact, it is a role that I need to take very seriously and throw myself into whole-heartedly. Raising these children may be the biggest kingdom contribution I will make in my lifetime.

I also remind myself this is a season. It too shall pass – and there may be days when I wish for this season back. And so, I will cherish this season, enjoy the slower pace, and spend my slivers of time alone with God and taking care of myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally. In this season, I can build a safe haven for my family and make space to be their sounding board as they process their new surroundings. I can be the steady in the storm.

Focusing on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do, also helps me to find peace in this season. I can be the encourager of the community in which I live. I can be a welcoming face and resource to new workers who arrive. I can exercise my gift of hospitality and be a peacemaker and unity builder. I can communicate well with our supporters back home. I can be faithful in the language learning I am able to do, even if it doesn’t feel like much. I can be kind and friendly to everyone I meet while running my weekly errands. When I consider all that I can do, I realize there is a lot of potential in this season of trailing.

But I also want to encourage the other trailing spouses out there to remember that just because you have the time and the skills to do something, you don’t need to do it just to fill up your calendar and tell yourself that at least you’re doing something. You’re allowed to be discerning in what you fill your days with.

I’ve been offered several opportunities of things to do. Most recently I was asked to teach French to some of the doctors’ children. Can I speak French? Yes. Would I enjoy teaching this age group? Probably not. Is this a gift I can give to members of my community? Yes. Is this how I want to spend my time? I’m not sure. It’s still a possibility that I’m considering and which boundaries I would need to put around it if I say yes to the request.

So don’t be afraid to ask for time to consider a request, and don’t feel like you can’t say ‘no.’ Busy-ness is not a virtue to be upheld. Be wise in how you fill your time.

Lastly, remember that even if you moved around the world because of your spouse’s job and you don’t have a specific job description, God brought you to this place for a purpose. Your presence isn’t just a bonus. He does have something here for you. He sees you, and He has a purpose for you

Let’s face it – the side dish is what makes the meal. We don’t eat a turkey dinner for the turkey. We eat it for the stuffing, the sweet potato casserole, the mashed potatoes, the gravy and — if you’re from the American south – the green bean casserole!

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A wife. Mother. Wordsmith. Coffee dependent. Simultaneously a world traveller and a homebody. Both an Adult TCK and an International Worker. Rebecca has a heart for the nations and to see the global community thrive wherever God has planted them.

When Expectations Aren’t Reality: Supporting Your TCKs in the First Years of University

by Lauren Wells

I stood on a grassy hill hugging my parents tight as they prepared to drive away and head back to Africa, leaving me at university in Indiana. I had prepared for this transition. I had visited the school, had already made some friends, had earned my driver’s license on a previous home assignment, and felt ready and excited for this new chapter. It was going to be great.

A few days into the semester, I was required to go to an international student workshop. I was excited, thinking this was the part where I’d meet other TCKs. I was surprised to find that all of the other international students came from other passport countries for the purpose of university and that this was their first time living outside their home country.

I was equally surprised when our workshop consisted of teaching American currency (“This is a dollar. This is a penny, it’s worth one cent.”) and explaining how to dial 911. Having lived in the US until I was 13, I quickly realized I was the outsider in the international student group, so after I’d met the requirements, I never went back. 

As the semester went on, I tried to make friends. But it felt like every time I opened my mouth, the words I spoke didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. My attempts to be funny were met with awkward smiles. My attempts to deepen relationships by sharing about something a bit more vulnerable were met with comments that communicated a lack of ability to relate to my experiences and no invitation to continue the conversation.

I quickly felt like I didn’t belong with the monocultural crowd, but I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll only be here long enough to get my degree anyway, and it will be easier to leave if I never make close friends.” I knew what it felt like to leave close friends, so when my initial attempts to build relationship hadn’t worked, that seemed like a good excuse to stop trying.

I became the quiet one who walked through campus trying not to be noticed. I succeeded academically but have no memories of good social experiences. That first Christmas break, I remember feeling like a shell of myself, never having felt that level of emptiness and despair before, and I simultaneously decided that I just needed to toughen up and keep moving forward. 

School resumed, and I took on more classes than recommended, thinking that if I just poured myself into the academics, I could ignore the rest. But then, the grief started to creep in. Not just the grief of that year, but the grief that I had so skillfully pushed down for a long time before that. My Grief Tower was collapsing.

At TCK Training we work with TCKs on both sides of this story – educating families who are raising TCKs on how they can be intentional in caring for the unique needs of TCKs so that they can prevent adverse outcomes in adulthood and serving adult TCKs who reach out to us for support. 

In between the two parts of that story, we have found the need for preventive care and support. Sometimes universities have a wonderful TCK program, like MuKappa, that provides community and support for TCKs in their university years. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources available to university-age TCKs to guide them through that season. 

But there is good news! We can be intentional about supporting our university-age TCKs well, especially in those first couple of years. 

  • Set them up for emotional success by making sure they’ve had the opportunity to debrief and unstack their Grief Tower before university. The books The Grief Tower and Unstacking Your Grief Tower can guide you in doing that process in your own family. We recommend doing this at least 3 months before the transition to university so that the grief these conversations bring to the surface has time to begin to heal before they experience the major transition of starting university. 
  • Make sure they have avenues for connection and continued processing with safe people – family, friends, counselors. There will inevitably be difficulty in the transition, but they will not always want to share their hardships with you. Often this is because they won’t want to burden you on top of your international work or because they won’t want to disappoint you at their “failure” to thrive. Take away that shame by regularly asking them what has been hard. Ask them questions, and even when they don’t answer, let them know you don’t expect everything to be easy for them. For more on this, check out KC360’s workshop, “Indicators that University Transition is Going Well (or Not) with Dr. Rachel Cason” included in their free website membership
  • Help them develop a support network. There is potential for heavy, hard, or just unexpected circumstances to arise that require the help of a supportive adult. Asking for help can feel shameful, but that fear and shame can be reduced when the TCK has a list of people who have agreed to be a support to them. It is even more helpful when those people regularly check in with the TCK to see how they’re doing and what they need. Have your TCK help create a “supportive adult” list, and then ask the people on the list to regularly reach out to the TCK – both asking what they need and offering tangible ways they can help. For example, “Can I take you shopping for a winter coat? Can I come help pack up your dorm room for summer break?”
  • Teach them to celebrate wins. Adult TCKs often struggle to acknowledge their victories due to consistently feeling the need to adapt to fit the communities around them. The internal need to continue performing at ever higher levels leads to burnout. Celebrating victories, however, allows for rest, builds confidence and a sense of value, and strengthens their emotional bank to handle the difficult waves that come. 
  • Provide them transition support in their first year or two of university. An example of this is TCK Training’s Launch Pad program, which provides repatriating TCKs with a 10-month virtual cohort community, education, and support directly related to adult TCK experiences. There is space to process and grieve, along with regular checks-ins to celebrate victories and continue developing as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with Adult TCK resources so that you can support your Adult TCK by sending them relevant resources along the way. There is so much available now that simply wasn’t around only a few years ago! You can view all of TCK Training’s ATCK services, workshops, and resources at www.tcktraining.com/for-atcks 

The first couple years of university are notoriously the most difficult transition for TCKs. We believe, however, that with intentionality we can make these years not only healthy, but years that set them up for long-term emotional and relational health. 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

8 Ways Parents Can Help Their TCKs Prepare for University

by Melynda Schauer

“How are you feeling about going to college?” My parents asked me in a crowded McDonalds in the Asian metropolis of Macau. Tears welled up in my eyes, the goodbyes after graduation from my international high school in Taiwan still stinging. It was hard to imagine starting all over again, in my “home” state of Alabama, but with my parents and younger brothers living half a world away.

“I don’t want to start over again,” I remember answering. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even moved yet.

The transition from high school to college can be difficult for many young adults and their families, not just ones who have been living overseas. But the unique situation of being in separate countries for months at a time can add different stressors to this season.

This article will primarily focus on TCKs moving to a university in North America, but many of the suggestions would apply to other post-high school scenarios (online learning, working, trade schools, etc.) as well.

 

1. Help your TCK be mobile in their new home
For most TCKs going to college in North America, having access to a car they know how to drive will be essential to travel off campus. Getting an American (or Canadian) driver’s license is one of the best ways you can prepare your TCK for life in the U.S. While some larger U.S. cities do have bus systems, taxis and Uber/Lyft options, a car is necessary to get around town in most places.

Once your TCK is old enough to drive, ask yourself: Do they know how to drive and understand the road rules in their passport country? Do they have a driver’s license and car insurance? Do they know what to do if they get into a wreck, or if a police officer pulls them over? Do they have a reliable car they can drive in their passport country? Do they know how to renew their license tag? Even if they don’t own a car, the first step of getting a driver’s license is helpful for providing a valid I.D. for travel, job applications, and banking.

 

2. Help them set up healthcare
Help your TCK find a primary care physician, dentist and eye doctor (if needed) close by who accept their insurance. Many specialists will not accept new patients without a Primary Care Physician’s referral, so be sure to get in with a PCP first. If your TCK can get an appointment while you’re still with them, you can help them understand the paperwork, insurance coverage, and what to do when they get a healthcare bill. Check out the route to the closest hospital in case of an emergency, and save it as a location in their phone.

It’s also a good idea to have references for mental health professionals and counselors whom your TCK can contact if needed. Many universities offer mental health care for free, but you can also explore other options in the area or online.

 

3. Explore your TCK’s college town and learn the culture
For parents who grew up in America, it can be easy to think you understand American culture even if you’ve lived overseas for years. But it can be a fun and beneficial adventure to treat your TCK’s new town like you would when moving to a new country. Research places to visit, cultural norms, history, generational trends, and the unique culture to their state/city/school. For example, a large state college in the South, a community college in the Midwest, and a private Christian university in the North will have very different cultures from one another, so learn as much as you can about this new place where your TCK may study and live for several years.

Look for an international grocery store that may have some of your TCK’s favorite foods, and try out restaurants that serve food your TCK may miss from their overseas home. I loved introducing my American friends to Taiwanese bubble tea when I found a place to buy it near my college!

 

4. Make a plan for school breaks
Look at the university calendar together to note the dates when your TCK will need to move out of the dorms (if they live on campus) and help them make a plan for where to go. They probably won’t want to decide on spring break plans in the fall before they’ve even made new friends, but it can be good to have an idea of people they could stay with for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or long weekends. For one spring break, I took a road trip with two of my closest TCK friends, and it was a great way to re-connect with them and explore a new part of the U.S. together.

 

5. Talk about emergency situations
Think through some of the possible emergencies your TCK may face, and talk about what to do in their new place. Your TCK may know exactly how to handle an earthquake or tsunami warning but not understand the difference between a tornado watch and warning. Talk them through what to do if their car breaks down, and teach them how to change a flat tire. Decide who their emergency contacts will be, since many forms will require a name, number, and address of an emergency contact.

 

6. Banking, budgeting, and buying what they need
If your TCK doesn’t already have a banking account in country, help them set one up. Credit card companies often target college students, so talk with them about using credit cards, sticking to a budget, and making other financial decisions. Learn about digital banking apps like Venmo and CashApp if you’re unfamiliar with them. Think through the fastest way to give your TCK money in case of an emergency.

Help them buy what they’ll need for either a dorm room or apartment. If they’re living in an apartment, look over the rental agreement together. Help them set up their living space and make it feel like home. Facebook Marketplace can be a great way to find used furniture, and local churches may know of people willing to donate furniture to your TCK. It’s also a good idea to do grocery shop together if they’re not used to shopping in their passport country.

 

7. Look for local connections
Remember your TCK is likely starting over without knowing many people, which is true of most incoming college freshmen. But American freshmen typically have a hometown they can return to, high school friends they can easily see, and parents to visit on breaks. If you have friends or family in the area where your TCK will be living, visit them together before you leave the country.

If you can, visit churches in the area and see ways the local church can welcome your TCK. (Tomorrow, A Life Overseas will publish my follow-up article on 8 ways churches can help TCKs in their community.) If possible, plan your trip so your TCK can attend their university’s orientation week and start meeting fellow students, roommates, and professors.

 

8. Plan ways to stay in touch
As your family prepares for this new season of life, talk about ways you can stay in touch. It can be very helpful before saying goodbye to have a date set for when you’ll see each other again, whether at a Christmas break or in the summertime. You can also talk about your hopes for staying in touch over the phone or Facetime, video apps like Marco Polo, and texts. My family came for a six-month home assignment halfway through my freshman year of college, so knowing it would be just a semester before I’d see them again was helpful as we said goodbye.

Looking back now, I’m so thankful my parents and brothers were able to come with me to the U.S. for several weeks as I prepared to start college. I had many advantages in my adjustment: close relatives within an hour’s drive, a car, a driver’s license, and several years of experience in American culture, but the first year of college was still a tough transition.

While many third-culture kids have unique advantages from growing up overseas, it’s helpful to think of the things they haven’t yet learned or had to do in the country where they’re becoming adults. TCKs can be very resilient, adaptive, and creative, but it’s still helpful to give them as many tools as possible for this transition into adulthood.

 

Coming tomorrow:
8 Ways Churches Can Help TCKs Adjust to Life in Their Passport Country

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Melynda Schauer is an adult TCK who grew up in Alabama, Macau, and Taiwan. She now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and three children. She keeps her international side alive by meeting international students in her city and finding the best bubble tea wherever she goes! You can read more of her writing here.