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

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. 

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

Christian life is like a house. Mine needed a remodel.

I like to envision my life in Christ as a house. For the first 25 years of my life that house was designed, built, and furnished almost exclusively by a very specific brand of evangelical Christianity. I attended a Christian college with a slightly broader brand, and some redecorating started early in my twenties, but for the most part, that house remained pretty much the same. 

I struggled with deep introspection and constant condemnation in my performance-oriented walk with Christ. But I never considered whether something was missing in the house of my theology. Up to that point my spiritual community held to our theology and way of life in very arrogant ways. We believed we were the cream of the crop. We lived thinking we had the most coherent belief system with very little to no contradiction in our understanding of God, salvation, and church government and practice. 

Then in my mid-twenties the Lord used a different flavor of evangelicalism to open my eyes to a fundamental truth about the gospel that I hadn’t tasted up to that point. I started to savor the life-giving reality that the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was for me too as a Christian, not just unbelievers. This realization rocked my world. The constant introspection and condemnation I had lived with started to ease up as I learned to take hold of the gospel as the only reality that defined my life. 

This began a remodeling project in the house of my spiritual formation and practice. A few walls were knocked down, and the living room became larger. More people could come and sit. I realized I had much to learn from groups that were outside of what I had previously considered acceptable. The more I honed in on the importance of a gospel culture in the church (not just an evangelistic culture but one actually gospel-shaped and motivated by grace), I realized how the culture of my church (and denomination) had been sorely lacking. 

Over the course of the next 10 years (with two huge cross-cultural moves in the mix), God kept slowly remodeling my house but all still within a specific theological framework. He redecorated – adding rugs here and there, switching out paintings and wall art or completely replacing them – but most of my influences were still within a strong word-centered tradition. 

When we arrived at the country where we live now (yes, a third cross-cultural move), the remodeling project became significantly more intense. I went from thinking my house was pretty complete and without much need of significant change, to realizing I needed major overhaul. Through deep suffering the Lord started to expose how the actual foundation of my home needed to be completely replaced. He started to show how my Christian walk was not only shaped by the theological system I had lived in all my life, but also by trauma and dysfunction. 

I needed significant healing and rescue, and my Father was eager to gently, tenderly deliver me. He used the strength of other spiritual communities to help me taste a bit more the fullness of who He is and the riches of his presence. In the contemplative traditions I’ve delighted in being with God, in slowing down and focusing on his actual presence with me. Through my charismatic friends, he has fixed my gaze on the Spirit and on his ministry that pours the love of the Father.

He is growing my dependence on the Spirit’s ability to lead me and guide me in righteousness, not because a spiritual community or leaders tell me how to live but because He himself is able and willing to do it and because he has given me Christ’s ability to discern it. Community matters deeply, and leaders can be a gift, but I am discovering what great confidence there is in listening to the Spirit.

Over time I have found myself jealous for more of the triune God, and that desire is the main filter through which I evaluate different traditions and systems. While I still strongly care about theology and the surety of the word, I want the house of my walk with Christ to have a strong awareness of the nourishing presence of the actual person of God – not just truth about him. 

As I consider this major remodeling that God has done in my life, I have been struck by two things that matter immensely in our Christian formation and practice. Doctrine matters, theology matters, but what matters more than a specific set of beliefs is that we know how much the Father loves us in Christ and that, trusting in that love, we live by the Spirit and not in the flesh. 

Interacting with people from many traditions and backgrounds, I have been struck by how we are all tempted in similar ways to doubt the love of the Triune God and to live with confidence in the flesh. It shouldn’t surprise me since that has been the attack of the devil as early as Genesis 3, when there were no denominations or traditions – only humans. 

The brokenness of the world, of relationships, of our own hearts gets in the way of us knowing deep in our souls the delight of the Father to us through Christ. We forget (or don’t know or don’t grasp) how our in-Christness defines every aspect of our reality. We focus so much on what we do or don’t do, that we think that the love of God depends on that. 

And this leads us to find our security, significance, and confidence in many good things that are not Christ. We boast in our accurate understanding of the word, in our precise theology, in our visions and experiences in the Spirit, in the power and effectiveness of our prayers, in our liturgies and rhythms of fasting and silence and solitude.

But when our confidence is on anything outside of the finished work of Christ and of his life, death, and resurrection (and their power in us), we end up reeking of pride and can become oppressive in our interactions with our brothers and sisters. The flesh is the enemy, not those outside of our circles.

While I have struggled to know where I fully belong in the context of so much theological and practical diversity, I have also come to be supremely grateful for an outsider perspective. I have been learning from many but not fully belonging anywhere.

Yet I am supremely grateful for what God has given me through such distinct theological backgrounds and cultures because in all of it, he is giving me more of himself in ways that offset the profound loneliness of this long season of painful but needed transformation. I have been grasping and savoring the surety of his presence with me because of what he has revealed about himself in the beautiful prism of his diverse body. 

I am thankful for the things I get to keep of the tradition and theological system that first shaped me. And I am also grateful for the freedom to identify which things I don’t want to keep from them – which allows me to recognize the needed gifts and beauty in other traditions.

We all need our houses to be remodeled eclectically. No single theological system or set of doctrines or practices holds the vastness and mystery of God. When Christ alone is the sure foundation, our homes are strong enough to withstand expansive remodeling so that the beauty, glory, and paradox of the triune God is what defines and establishes every aspect of our life in Christ. 

Because at the end of the day traditions and systems and doctrines are just that: traditions, systems, and doctrines. None of them can save. None of them is a sufficient source of confidence. Only God himself is worthy of all our trust, rest, and joy.

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

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

When God Surprises You With Abundance

When I first heard Christ say, “Follow me,” I was sixteen years old. I often wondered what kind of cross I would carry for choosing to follow him. I pictured myself living in a hut in a mountain village or maybe in a “barrio” similar to the slums I would drive by on my way to school. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that there would be loss, pain, maybe even persecution. And it’s true – it has been, at times, grueling and crushing. What I didn’t foresee then was that following Christ could also mean, at times, abundance. 

But here I am years later, living overseas and recently moved into a house that is better than anything we had hoped. Not only is the house built on two plots of land, perfect for our kids to play and explore, inside the house is spacious as well. We have a dedicated guest room with its own bathroom and a lower level that is airy and perfect to host large gatherings. We have a separate dining room to host multiple guests, and my husband is able to have an office to more effectively work from home. 

And the view, oh, the view is breathtaking. Because our house sits at the top of a hill, it overlooks a precipitous narrow valley, ringed by mountains. We can see a small town that sits on the mountain across from us, and at night, the cheery lights from the houses greet us in the distance. Secluded by a row of tall cypress trees, the house has a farmhouse feel. When you sit in the veranda that overlooks the valley, the twittering of Palestinian sunbirds with their turquoise plumage and playful flight simply delight the senses. 

For years I’d been saying I wanted to have a house that was guest-house material, a place that would be lovely and restful, a place where others could come to get away, “preferably with a gorgeous view,” I’d say. This house is all that and more (for the same rent we were paying before!). A few days after we moved, I told my husband, “I feel like my soul grew two sizes.”

But not long after, I found a nagging restlessness in my heart. I couldn’t relax into enjoying our home. We don’t know any other expats in this country with a space like ours. A voice kept whispering, “God wouldn’t be this kind to you, you don’t deserve it. Did you somehow manipulate him into giving it to you?”

When our functional theology is about what we deserve, we quickly turn to self-atonement strategies to cope with undeserved gifts. “We will steward this house well. We want it to be a blessing to others,” we say. And while this desire to be a blessing is absolutely real and good, what if that is not the primary reason why we have this house? What if our Father is this kind? What if, before we think about how we can use this home for the good of others and the kingdom, we receive this gift with both hands and simply savor the rich love of our Dad who sees us intimately? 

We are not just servants living on mission for the purposes of the King. We are his actual kids – deeply beloved, thoroughly delighted in. What if, as we are giving out to others, he wants us to taste all that He is and all that we are to him? 

As overseas workers, do we have a theology of abundance? I have been pondering this question for months. When generous friends gift us time away on what feels like an extravagant vacation, when God provides the perfect car for the needs of our family, or when God blows us away with increased monthly support that we didn’t sweat hard to raise, do we have a functional theology that allows us to relish all that grace? Without guilt, shame, or fear? 

Our theology of abundance not only allows us to receive grace, it also helps us when we are living very different lives than Adoniram and Ann Judson lived in Burma or Jim and Elisabeth Elliott among the Quechua people in Ecuador. 

“We have left it all to follow you.” Peter’s words ring in our ears. Have we? We have cars, A/C units, and grocery stores with western-like goods. We can text with our families across the oceans and within seconds, get a reply. In some ways, at times, our sacrifice seems less significant because the lack we experience is not the same. And so the abundance we enjoy in comparison to theirs makes us feel a bit like a fraud, like we are in some way second-class workers, not as “hard core” as those of old.

But their devotion to Christ is not measured by their sacrifice but by their faith in him and their day-to-day dependence on the Spirit. God is not measuring the strength of our sacrifice either. Rather, he asks whether Jesus is our only source of confidence for the life he has given — with its gifts, sorrows, and responsibilities. 

What if the abundance in our life is rich soil for growth when it is enjoyed by faith? What if this bounty in resources and capacity is a gift that enables longevity, allowing us to be stable and grounded enough to care for the overwhelming needs of those around us? What if the God who cares for us according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus delights to tend to the souls and bodies and minds of those he sends out to serve him? What if he knows how much we need to hear, “I see you?”

I hope you know I am not saying we can only feel seen in abundance. Neither am I advocating the pursuit of abundance. I know the destructive power of prosperity gospel theology and the trap it can be in ministry. I am a firm believer in the importance of a robust theology of suffering. I am, after all, a lay counselor, passionate about holistic soul care. But a robust theology of suffering is not complete without a theology of abundance. 

Our Father’s generosity is to be received gratefully, joyfully. His kindness is to be stewarded and leveraged. When we do that with Christ-confidence we are, like Mary Oliver wrote, “half crazy with the wonder of it.” We delight in the foolishness of grace that lavishes us with everything our Father is for us. Not because we have done so much in following Jesus, but because He won it all when he led ahead of us.

The Beauty of Full Circle Moments

I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in March 2020 when the country first began to experience pandemic-related closures. Instead of spending two weeks speaking in international schools and counselling centres and then celebrating my best friend’s 40th birthday with her, I spent a week alone in my hotel room, carefully checking the latest news in China — especially Beijing, where I had left my husband. Then the Australian government told citizens abroad to come home NOW if they didn’t have a secure place to stay. Thus began three years of limbo living.

This week brought the three-year anniversary since I left for that ill-fated business trip that wasn’t. The end of in-person speaking engagements and workshops. The end of travelling abroad for work and play. The end of living in the same country as my husband.

When that anniversary came, I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand – that’s where I sit writing this to you now.

I spent over two weeks in Phnom Penh before arriving here. I have been conducting my first in-person workshops in three years, and it is good to be back! In the past three weeks I have spoken to large groups of educators, staff, parents, and students in two international schools in two countries. I have run numerous coaching sessions with parents and family sessions with parents and children together. I have spoken to counsellors (in an international school and at an independent centre), missionaries, missionaries-in-training, and more. I have made many connections with people excited to know I’ll be back in October of this year.

And in a few days, I’ll fly down to Bangkok to attend a conference there – echoing my first stop on that trip three years ago, travelling on non-refundable tickets initially purchased for a conference cancelled due to the pandemic. I am doing now all the things I was not able to do then.

What a full-circle moment this whole month has been!

Those three years in between were not wasted years. The woman who stood in front of hundreds of people over the past three weeks did so with greater empathy, compassion, and emotional depth than the woman three years ago possessed. I have aged in many ways – and I don’t just mean the widening streaks of white above my ears!

When I talk about Unpacking Pandemic Experiences or work with a family processing their experience of being locked out of China, I do so as one who has been there in the trenches alongside them – and who is, in many ways, still there.

This has been a month of full-circle moments, of returning to do the things I couldn’t then. It has also been a time of seeing myself step into things I could not have done then. I have grown through this difficult season – and the people I serve see it.

Sometimes in life we look for opportunities to go back – to return to what was, to redeem lost time, to get opportunities back. As I reflect on the past few weeks, I have the joy of lost opportunities met at last – and with it, the realisation that moving forward is the greater joy.

I went out for Chinese noodles with two families I went to church with in Beijing. All 12 of us around the table were locked out of China due to the pandemic, unable to return to the country we called home – and our apartments full of belongings – due to circumstances out of our control. There was joy in reminiscing, but there was more joy in catching up and seeing where we’ve all landed and the new lives we’re building.

I delighted in meeting up with old friends in Phnom Penh, people I have known for many years. But I also delighted in meeting and making new friends both there and in Chiang Mai — some of whom I hope I will continue to meet with in the years to come, creating new old friends.

There can be power in nostalgia, in remembering the ways we have been loved and supported in the past. It can fuel us, reminding us that good friends can be had and that they are worth investing in now

Full-circle moments are beautiful – not because of what was, but because they show us what is.

Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash