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

How many years abroad is safe for kids?

“How many years abroad is safe for kids?”

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

Transition is hard

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

Expat life brings out the hard stuff

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

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

We can’t blame it on external trauma

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

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

What does ‘safe’ look like? 

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

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

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

 

For more information:

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

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

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

Photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

What does the research say about TCKs attending boarding school?

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

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

1) Boarding school is linked to higher mobility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Boarding school is linked with ongoing relationships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Sun Lingyan on Unsplash

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

Risk Factors and Risk Prevention for Homeschooled MKs

Please note: This article addresses various types of abuse and neglect and includes discussions around child sexual abuse.

As TCK Training’s Director of Research I have spent a great deal of the past year analysing data from our 2021 survey of 1,904 Adult TCKs. One of our findings was that homeschooled missionary kids tended to have more exposure to childhood trauma than did missionary kids who were primarily educated in other ways. This data can seem both shocking and surprising, so Elizabeth Trotter, a homeschool parent herself, requested that I unpack it further in today’s article.

Background

It is common for TCKs to experience more than one type of education during their childhood. In our survey we asked respondents to list ALL their educational experiences and also to select what they considered to be their primary educational experience.

294 of our 1,904 respondents (15%) selected “homeschool” as their primary educational experience. Most of these (216) were born after 1980. 22% of younger TCKs were homeschooled, compared to only 5% of TCKs born before 1980. 88% of the homeschooled TCKs who took our survey were missionary kids. 

 

The data I will be sharing today compares missionary kids born between 1980-2003 with other adult TCKs during the same time period. I will also be comparing missionary kids who were homeschooled to missionary kids with any other educational background. 

TCK Training just released a white paper entitled TCKs at Risk: Risk Factors and Risk Mitigation for Globally Mobile Families. In it we look at 12 risk factors and their prevalence among the TCKs we surveyed. I am about to discuss the numbers for homeschooled missionary kids for eight of these factors. These numbers may be painful for you to read; however, they are not the end of the story. Risk mitigation is a big part of the white paper, risk prevention is a big part of this article, and our belief in hope is a huge part of our heart at TCK Training. 

Risk Factors in Homeschooled TCKs

We start with physical abuse. This is one of only two risk factors in which the rates for homeschooled MKs were lower than that for other MKs, but the difference was minimal. 12% of homeschooled MKs reported experiencing physical abuse at the hands of an adult living in their home, compared to 14% of other MKs, and 16% of TCKs in general.

Next comes emotional abuse. 43% of TCKs overall reported experiencing emotional abuse from an adult living in their home, and for homeschooled MKs the rate was 47%. Among other MKs it was 35% – significantly lower, but still more than a third. And this is not historical MKs – we are talking about Millennial and Gen Z TCKs here. Nearly half of homeschooled MKs under the age of 40 reported experiencing emotional abuse in their home growing up. 

The question of physical neglect asked respondents how they felt as a child – asking about their sense of security over whether their physical needs for food, clothing, and medical care would be met (by their parents). 12% of TCKs overall and 13% of non-homeschooled MKs reported experiencing physical neglect as children. 19%, or nearly 1 in 5 homeschooled MKS, reported childhood physical neglect. Again, this is not saying 19% of homeschooled MKs are physically neglected, but rather that 1 in 5 did not have security that their needs would be met.

Similarly, emotional neglect addresses whether an individual’s needs for emotional security were met – whether they felt loved, important, special, and supported by their parent/s and family. 42% of TCKs overall reported emotional neglect during childhood, similar to homeschooled MKs at 41%. The rate among other MKs was only a little lower, at 37%. This is a significant percentage of MKs under the age of 40 who often felt unloved by or unimportant to their parents as children. 

 

The next three risk factors concern child sexual abuse (CSA). This is a topic many in the mission world prefer not to discuss, believing they can raise their children in a safe bubble where they will not be exposed to “sexual sin” and will therefore be safe from abuse and assault. The results of our survey show that many MKs raised in these bubbles were in fact not safe from CSA. 

24% of TCKs born after 1980 reported experiencing child sexual abuse as defined by the ACE questionnaire (perpetrated by an adult or a child at least five years older). That’s 1 in 4 TCKs. Even more homeschooled MKs – 28% – reported experiencing sexual abuse. The rate of sexual abuse in MKs who were not homeschooled was a little lower – 21%, or 1 in 5.  

Another form of CSA is child-to-child sexual abuse, which occurs before age 16, when the perpetrator is another child. The rate among TCKs generally and MKs who were not homeschooled was 26% – 1 in 4; among homeschooled MKs it was slightly higher, at 29%.

We also asked about grooming. This is when an adult prepares a child for future abuse – testing their boundaries and getting them accustomed to inappropriate words/touch. 1 in 3 homeschooled MKs (33%) reported experiencing grooming, compared to 24% (1 in 4) of other MKs, and 27% of TCKs generally.

Finally, a very important risk factor is that of household adult mental illness. To calculate this we asked respondents if any adult living in their home while they were a child had depression, mental illness, or attempted suicide. Usually this indicates a parent, but it could also be an extended family member, residential domestic worker, or other adult. Studies in the US put this rate at 19%; in our study, 39% of TCKs (all ages) reported household adult mental illness. This is more than double – but to be expected, given a previous study by the Truman group demonstrating that expatriate workers were at 2.5 times the risk of depression/anxiety than their domestic counterparts. 

Among TCKs born after 1980, the rate of household adult mental illness rose slightly to 43%. This is the other factor where homeschooled MKs had a slightly lower rate – 40% reported household adult mental illness. But 50%, fully HALF, of all other MKs reported household adult mental illness. 

 

Risk Prevention

While these numbers are disturbing, they are not the end of the story. It is not inevitable that missionary kids, and especially homeschooled missionary kids, will experience abuse and neglect during their childhood years. There are preventive care measures we can put in place to limit the likelihood that these traumas will occur, and there are protective factors to buffer them from negative long-term consequences of the difficulties they do face. Here are four simple ways to engage in risk prevention for missionary kids; more detailed information is available in our white paper.

1) Parental Mental Health

The prevalence of household adult mental illness is a significant risk factor for MKs, whether or not they are homeschooled. In our white paper we demonstrated that the presence of household adult mental illness dramatically impacted rates of all forms of abuse and neglect for TCKs. 

One of the best things parents can do to improve their TCKs’ childhood experience is to care for their own mental health. Put your own oxygen mask on first! You cannot give your children the emotional support they need when you are yourself suffocating. See a therapist, engage in a hobby that brings you life, get some time away, take a nap – or all of the above! Do whatever you need to do to bring balance to your life and replenish your emotional resources. 

2) Child Protection

Child protection policy is something that can easily be neglected in missionary circles. We want to trust everyone! Even if we are taught child protection principles, we may fear that by implementing them we will give the impression of mistrust or disrespect to team members, community leaders, or new/potential friends. But if 1 in 4 MKs are experiencing sexual abuse as children, we have a responsibility to protect them in every way we can. Child safety officers in missionary agencies share recommendations based on the latest information and best practices available to protect our children; heeding their calls for child protection is vital. 

3) Teaching Children

An important part of child safety is teaching children from early ages how to protect and advocate for themselves when we are not there to watch out for them – whether at school, with friends, or with people we have wrongfully believed are trustworthy. This does not mean you have to expose your children to things that are beyond their years. But you can teach them the difference between a secret and a surprise. You can teach them that they’re allowed to say “no” (and how to do so). You can teach them that they have a right to privacy, to feel safe and comfortable, to have control over their own body, and to have confidence in sticking up for themselves and their own safety. These things can make a huge difference in your children’s lives. In fact, children who have these skills are less attractive to predators. These skills provide a safety net for all kinds of abuse, as a child who is thus equipped is more likely to recognise the wrong-ness of physical or emotional abuse. 

4) Investing in Connection

Regularly tuning in with your children, listening to what matters to them, creating space for their emotions, and ensuring that they know you love them and will take care of them, can help prevent the experiences of physical and emotional neglect. This may mean sacrificing certain ministry commitments so that you can be present for events that are important to your children, along with making time for regular family routines. 

Now what?

While this is a long blog post, it only scratches the surface of the risk factors and risk mitigation we have been researching. If you would like to know more, I invite you to look into our free research resources at tcktraining.com/research.

What I really hope you take away from this is that while no one parents perfectly, little things can make a big difference. Demonstrating your love in words and actions matters. Caring for your own mental health so that you have the capacity to be more kind and patient with your family matters. Teaching your children how to confidently say ‘no’ matters. Teaching your children that they have the right to feel safe and comfortable matters. Risking embarrassment or cultural insensitivity to ensure a safe environment for your kids matters. Investing in time with your family matters. All these little things add up, and together they build a safe and secure environment for your child.

 

 

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

New data shows how missionary kids can suffer. Here’s what parents can do about it.

TCK Training’s research into the experiences of globally mobile Third Culture Kids included some hard truths, especially when it comes to the experiences of missionary kids. Missionary Kids are experiencing abuse and neglect at higher rates than American children. Dramatically higher, in some cases.

Now that we know this, what do we do? The bottom line is: we need to talk to our kids. We need to understand their perspective and how our lives can appear to them. We need to provide clear assurance to them that they are and will continue to be loved, listened to, protected, and cared for.

Abuse
Let’s start with the ‘good’ news. While 28% of Americans experienced physical abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18, only 16% of missionary kids in the TCK Training survey reported the same. 16% is more missionary kids being hurt in their homes than we want to see, of course, but it’s still a positive sign. 

Now for the bad news. 11% of Americans experienced emotional abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18. Among missionary kids, that number was 40%. That’s 2 out of every 5 missionary kids. Nearly four times the rate seen in the American public. 

The rate of sexual abuse (from an adult or child at least five years older, experienced before the age of 18) was a little higher among missionary kids than among Americans – 24% vs 21%. In addition, 26% of missionary kids experienced child-to-child sexual abuse, and 28% experienced grooming behaviour. 

Neglect
When we move on to talking about neglect, the news gets worse. 10% of the American public reported experiencing physical neglect as children. In the TCK sector, Missionary Kids were the most likely to report physical neglect, at 14%. This means that as children, 14% of missionary kids worried they would not have enough to eat, or would not have clean clothes to wear, or would not have a parent able to take them to the doctor if they needed to go.

This doesn’t mean 14% of missionary kids went without food, clothing, or medical attention. It means that for 14% of missionary kids, this was a significant worry during their childhood. 

11% of Americans reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. More than three times this number of missionary kids, 37%, reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. That’s more than 1 in 3 missionary kids who as children felt they were not loved, special or important, or that their family was not close and supportive.

Again, this does not mean a third of missionary kids are unloved, but that a third of missionary kids are not sure of this – they do not feel loved, do not feel special, do not feel important, do not feel that their family is close and supportive. 

Now what?
The goal of this research is not to scare people away from mission work, or life overseas in general. It does, however, bust the myth that the mission world is a safe bubble in which children are protected from all kinds of potential harm.

Even when your own children are untouched by abuse and neglect themselves, it’s highly likely their friends are affected. These things are happening in our communities, all around the world. This much is clear as I speak with child protection officers and TCK caregivers in various mission organisations in (and from) various countries. Many have even suggested to me that TCK Training’s research likely paints a better picture than reality, given their own experiences on the field. 

Now that we know, what do we do? 

1. Talk to our kids. These things are happening, and we can no longer pretend they aren’t. We need to talk to our kids about what abuse is, what neglect is, and how to recognise this in their interactions with others. This will enable them to recognise unsafe behaviour directed toward them and also help them identify friends in trouble.

Discussions about safe/unsafe touch, private parts, bodily autonomy, the difference between secrets and surprises, and listening to our internal sense of safety and discomfort is essential — even with very young children. This is especially true when we are living in a culture with different ideas of what is acceptable than we ourselves might have. 

We need to teach children that they are allowed to say no, they are allowed to feel safe, and they do not have to obey every adult at all times. Then we need to back them up. We need to let them say no to hugs/kisses when they are uncomfortable. We need to allow them privacy in the home. We need to give them permission to set boundaries — even if this creates some tension or embarrassment in our community. To do otherwise sets them up to potentially accept abuse down the line. 

2. Understand their perspective. We also need to listen to our kids. Once we’ve taught them that they have a right to feel safe, we need them to tell us when they feel uncomfortable about a person or situation — especially if this happens when we are not present.

For this communication to happen, they need to know that we will listen and believe them when they tell us, and that we will take action. That means we will not put them in that position again but will discuss what will make the situation safe/comfortable for them — or find an alternative.

Often this will mean discussing self-advocacy, how to ask for what they want/need, or to say no/set boundaries. Sometimes it will mean being present — not leaving them alone at a certain friend’s house or extracurricular activity, whether in the short term or long term. It might extend to finding a different form of transport to school, or even changing schools. 

The other important part of listening is understanding how they view their life and world. Things that seem safe to you may not seem safe to them. Anything that frightens them or creates anxiety in them is worth taking time to explain and create plans for. No question or fear is wrong or stupid or a waste of time. Listening to what is on your child’s heart, validating their emotions, and assuring them you have a plan to take care of the things that worry them is vital. And it brings us to our third and final point of advice.

3. Provide clear assurance. Neglect is, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire, more about the child’s perception of physical and emotional security than about the actual provision of food and love. The child’s worry and anxiety about physical provision can be as big a burden as actual lack of physical provision. That is, carrying the mental/emotional burden of not knowing whether there will be enough food each day/week has a deep impact on a child — even if dinner is on the table each night. 

Missionary Kids reported experiencing Physical Neglect at a higher rate than American children. Anecdotally, we believe that in most cases this is due more to carrying the burden of worry than to not having enough.

Many missionary kids are part of the support raising process, ensuring the family will have enough money to return to their host country and stay there. They take on a sense of burden to provide for the family, often without knowing whether or not there is actually enough (especially when younger).

In some cases, missionary kids know exactly how little money there is – or believe the family is in more financial trouble than they are. This can happen when children are included in requests for prayer/support, or the family prays together for their financial needs to be met. Parents often believe that when God provides, this will strengthen their children’s faith. Instead, many children remain in a state of long-term anxiety, unsure their daily needs can/will be met. 

It is vital that missionary parents clearly communicate that they will provide for the family’s needs and that the children do not need to worry. Children need to know there will be food on the table, and they never need to worry about that. 

37% of missionary kids lacked assurance they were loved, special, and important. It is crucial for all missionary parents to clearly communicate this, in words and deeds. Give each child one-on-one time, for conversation and for play. Listen to what is important to them.

If God entrusts you with the irreplaceable ministry of raising up a precious child, do not let that child believe the ministry of child-rearing, of modeling the protecting and faithful love of God, is less important to you than any job — even the work of spreading the gospel. 


A Life Overseas is committed to supporting global families in every way we can. Understanding abuse, its prevention, and caring well for the abused is part of that. If you would like to read more, the following articles are a good place to start:


Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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

Moving to a new location can be exciting! New places to explore, new people to meet, new food to taste. It can also be exhausting and lonely and downright depressing. We’ve all been there. Just because one is true doesn’t mean the other isn’t!

One of the many reasons I love the movie Inside Out is the way it demonstrates that part of growing in emotional maturity is accepting that our experiences do not have to be just black OR white, yellow OR blue, happy OR sad. They can be both at the same time.

Moving as a child (an experience beautifully captured in Inside Out, and another reason I love this movie!) comes with additional layers of emotion. There can be confusion and misunderstanding — not knowing exactly when or where or why the family (or part of the family) is going. There can be lack of control, knowing these decisions are “above their paygrade” and that they will have to deal with whatever is decided on their behalf. 

I experienced several moves as a child, and I am now journeying alongside my young niece and nephew as they continue to process feelings about a big move. They miss their old house (“someone else is living in our house!”) and the landscape where they used to live (“I miss the colour red”) and the way things were done in another school, another town, another church. They miss the community they were part of: their playmates, and also the adults that were part of their stability and emotional support structure.

 

The Impact of Mobility on Children
In the survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids produced by TCK Training, we saw a strong correlation between high mobility in TCKs and high ACE scores. An ACE score of 4 or higher is associated with negative outcomes in behavioural, emotional, and physical health during adulthood. 12.5% of Americans surveyed have an ACE score of 4+, much lower than the 21% of the TCKs in our sample with an ACE score of 4+. When we looked only at TCKs who experienced high mobility, however, that rate jumped much higher. 32% of those who moved location 10 or more times had a 4+ ACE score. 33% of those who moved house 15 or more times had a 4+ ACE score. 

 

10% of Missionary Kids (MKs) moved location 10+ times; 19% of MKs moved house 15+ times. Mobility is something that affects a large number of MKs. If we know that mobility can have negative impacts on long term health and that mobility impacts many MKs, does that mean we should not send families overseas? That MKs should not move, or move only a limited number of times? Not at all. These figures should give us pause, yes, but the result should be to make us invest in preventive care and in proven protective factors to ensure all MKs thrive both as children and as adults.

Alongside research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), we also cite research into Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). Research demonstrates that when these PCEs are present, children are far less likely to suffer negative outcomes from ACEs in their childhood. In fact, an individual with higher PCEs present during childhood is 72% less likely to develop depression or poor mental health as an adult, and are 3.5 times more likely to have healthy social and emotional support as an adult; when all seven PCEs are present, these factors shift even more toward the positive. 

 

Positive Childhood Experiences
There are lots of ways to provide protective positive experiences in the lives of missionary kids — your own, and those in your community!

The protective factors known as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) include categories of feeling heard and supported by parents, having supportive peers and a sense of belonging in a multigenerational group, feeling safe in the home, having two non-parent supportive adult relationships, and participating in community traditions. When the majority of the seven PCEs are present regularly throughout a child’s developmental years, the adversity they experience is more likely to develop into resiliency.

Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids

If you are a parent, how can you create space to ensure your child feels “heard and supported” by you? (Lauren Wells wrote about this in her recent post.)

If you are not a parent, how can you invest in the lives of children in your community, to help provide them with “a sense of belonging in a multigenerational group” or be a “non-parent supportive adult” in their life? How can children be included in group activities you run? Can you be an extra aunt, uncle, or grandparent to children who live near you — visiting, spending time, playing games, going on outings, giving treats? (I can assure you their parents will be delighted as well!) Can you maintain contact with children who have left, or children in a place you have left? What training can you invest in to make sure you understand the globally mobile children in your community, so you can be the best support and caregiver possible?

How can your community intentionally include children in “participating in community traditions?” What festivals do you celebrate, and how are children made part of the festivities? What annual traditions do you have as a community? What local traditions have become part of your family’s life, perhaps even after you leave the location where you began the tradition? The rituals we create as a family and as a community, and which we engage children in, matter a lot for their long-term thriving, especially those who move frequently, or live in communities where people transition often.

If you support mission work through your local church, what can you do to ensure that children on the mission field receive lots of preventive care? Can you support missionaries providing care to mission kids? These workers often have more difficulty raising support, despite the vital work they do to protect and invest in precious young lives. Can you send letters and care packages to children specifically, learning their names and stories and interests so they receive tailored care and support that blesses them as unique individuals? If you don’t know, ask their parents! They’ll know how to get you started. Depending on how difficult it is to receive mail in their area, parents may even have suggestions for easier/more affordable ways to send birthday presents or other thoughtful care to their kids.

These may seem simple things, perhaps even too simple in the face of statistics that feel big and scary. But research tells us these simple things MATTER. We need to be proactive, purposeful, and persistent in providing these protective positive experiences for children in our families and communities. They are the foundation of relationships and memories that will give them a sense of emotional safety and stability to cushion them from the impacts of international life. 

Long Distance Funerals

My uncle passed away in January. I was able to day-trip (a 3.5 hour drive each way) for the small family funeral and wake. Some of his favourite music was played, one of his favourite poems was recited, we poured over old photos of him through his life, and we scoured the books lining the walls of his library looking for those we’d read before. I was very glad to be there to support my aunt and to remember my uncle well, in all his aspects, and to share him with others who knew him well.

Soon after I realised it was the first family funeral I had attended in 15 years. This speaks largely to good fortune: in the 15 years I lived outside Australia, only three of my relatives passed away. But being far from family when death occurs is a common experience among the globally mobile.

Back in 2013 I was invited to speak to a group of high school students at an international boarding school on the subject of death. For one week, their health teacher had allowed all her classes to choose between several optional units, including first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. This class, with students from China, South Korea, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, chose a unit on death and grief, and I was invited in as a guest speaker.

I am in no way an expert on death, but I have a lot of experience walking with Third Culture Kids through grief experiences. Loss is a constant and ongoing part of international life.

We went over the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.

I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents and the big differences in those grief experiences. When my Grandma died, I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her home with my family for the funeral. When my Grandpa died, I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral.

My grandparents were wonderful people who lived very full lives and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, and to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case. This was something that resonated strongly with the students, most of whom were living far away from their families.

The students also shared their own stories. Some talked about the deaths of dearly loved grandparents they hadn’t been able to properly grieve — and perhaps didn’t know how to properly grieve — due to the distance separating them. Others talked about deaths that hit closer to home: friends, nearer relatives, even people who shadowed their lives after memories had faded. Many talked about the difficulty of having no one to share these experiences with, having no outlet for their emotions and memories. It was a poignant conversation and a powerful experience.

More than anything, it instilled in me the difference that presence makes during times of grief, and especially when losing loved ones through death.

*****

During the pandemic over the past two years, lack of presence surrounding death has sadly become a much more common experience. Due to hospital regulations, many people have been unable to be with loved ones in person as they pass. Others have been unable to travel to see their loved ones during illness or for funeral gatherings, due to border closures and travel restrictions. What has always been difficult for the globally mobile suddenly became impossible for many, even those in the same country or city!

I lost my Nana at the start of the pandemic after a long illness (not related to Covid-19). I knew it was coming, and that I probably would not be able to afford the time and money to return to Australia for her funeral. But when the time came, I did not even have the option. New border regulations meant that if I did go, I’d be isolated until after the funeral anyway.

When we think about funerals, how can we be sensitive to the needs of the globally mobile (and anyone who has difficulty attending), especially during pandemic conditions when this is so common? I have five suggestions for planning funerals that help support those who are grieving, whether in person, from a distance, or both.

1) Remember who the funeral is for

While we strive to honour the departed loved one during their funeral, the function of funeral services, memorial services, and wakes is largely to provide comfort and an outlet for the grief of those they left behind.

After my uncle’s funeral, my aunt told me about a conversation they’d had years earlier in which he passionately declared that he never wanted a funeral held for him. She planned one anyway, because it wasn’t for him. It was for her, and for everyone else who cared about him, to gather and say their goodbyes. Creating space for those goodbyes and for the sharing of memories is incredibly important for the grieving process each person is going through.

2) Give as much warning as possible

Give people time to make arrangements, whether to get time off work or to arrange childcare and/or travel. The further away people are, the more important this is. Sometimes a funeral can be delayed several weeks to make this more manageable for people far away. If the actual funeral must be held quickly (there are many reasons for this), consider having a memorial service later, to provide an opportunity for shared grieving.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations in international communities where it was important to hold a memorial service quite quickly. For example, when schools begin their summer breaks, these communities tend to scatter around the world. The bottom line for any funeral or memorial should therefore be knowledge of what is best for the communities grieving the person who died. This might mean holding more than one memorial, spanning different times and places.

3) Include children

Small children are often kept away from funeral and memorials. A two- or three-year-old child, however, can of course be very attached to a person and in need of participating in shared grief. While this may look different for children, it is good and right to include them in the community as we grieve together for the person we have lost. This is no less true for children who live far away from their relatives.

When I was about three, my great-grandmother (whose engagement ring I later wore as my own) passed away. I was not included at her funeral, and I was extremely upset when told I could not go! I said to my parents (quite indignantly, I’m told) that I knew and loved her too. They thought this was a good point, and from then on children were always invited to our family funerals. When my Nana died last year, her three great-grandchildren (ages 2, 3, and 5) all travelled with their parents to be at her funeral. There are now pictures of them dancing and playing in the grassy field outside the wake, which are precious to everyone. Attending the funeral helped the five-year-old in particular understand that her great-grandmother had died, even though she rarely visited, because she was there as part of the community event marking her Nana’s life.

4) Make sure the real person is represented

Every funeral should look different, because every individual is different. My sister and I agreed that the eulogy given by my uncle’s eldest son was powerful to us because we recognised our uncle in every line. The man he described was the man we remembered. The music and poetry he loved (things we all knew about him) had a prominent place in the service.

Those who are physically distant already feel far away from the event of a funeral, and the space it holds for shared grief. If eulogies and other elements of a funeral or memorial are generic and/or do not represent the real person their friends and family know, this can be alienating. This makes those who are physically far away feel alone in their grief.

5) Create space to share memories of the departed loved one

This can be formal or informal. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to stop and remember who this person has been to them, and how this person has impacted their life. I really appreciated that my uncle’s service included a time of silent remembering after the eulogies, where we were given space to remember him individually while listening to music he loved. This time allowed memories triggered by what I’d heard to bloom into full consciousness, giving me stories I wanted to share. Later at the wake, it was a delight to share those stories with those who knew him, and to hear their stories in return. Spending time looking through photo albums my aunt had prepared (complete with dates and captions) was also very powerful. So was going through his beloved library of books, remembering him that way.

These moments are often what is missing for those who are far away when funerals happen. A livestream of an event, when available, is rarely interactive; it doesn’t allow those who are far away to engage in sharing memories and actively reflecting. But there are other virtual options to help provide this space for those who can’t be physically present. Group video calls, shared online documents, word clouds, virtual post in note boards, virtual memorial tools, and so much more can be creatively utilised to allow those who are geographically separated to collaborate in honouring and sharing memories of a loved one who has died.

One other thing to keep in mind: if only one person is missing and unable to be at a funeral, keep them in the loop. Most people in this situation feel the distance keenly, feeling isolated and left out. Most want to hear about what’s happening, want to share in the process, and especially to share in the storytelling and group remembering that accompany funerals, memorials, and wakes. So call them, talk to them, share stories with them. Being the only one away can be very lonely, as I and the international students I mentioned earlier can attest to.

*****

This is an edited version of blog posts that first appeared on tanyacrossman.com here and here.

When Hoping Hurts

My favourite thing about Christmas has always been the name Immanuel, and what it really means. To have an omnipotent creator God who saw that the most important thing for him to be and do is to be present: to be God-with-us. Even as a child, without understanding the theological beauty of this, I loved Immanuel.

In the tumult of ongoing personal and professional storms, with no spiritual community to uphold me, I find myself ruminating on the connection between Immanuel and hope. Both feel far away from me in my current circumstances. When someone talks about hope, I want to walk away. There’s no place for hope in this pit. Things will happen as they happen, and there is no point in hoping for them to fall a certain way.

People wishing for the best for me, saying they hope and pray things will work out even better than expected – this makes me feel alone, not hopeful or supported. More comforting are those who simply acknowledge that my situation is awful and then include me in life, maintaining presence without expecting me to perform either grief or joy for them.

Right now, hoping hurts. It hurts to remember how I previously built a business from nothing to a liveable income. I look at empty bank accounts, and the life I lived two years ago feels like another lifetime. It hurts to imagine living with my husband in our own home, because they are on the other side of the world, out of reach.

Which brings me to Immanuel: God with us.

The Almighty God of love looked at a dark and broken world, and he knew that what we needed wasn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What we needed was presence.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that things are wonderful now that Christ is here.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that Jesus will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas isn’t even that Easter is on the horizon and THAT will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas is Immanuel.

The hope of Christmas is that we are not alone.

The hope of Christmas is that we have a God who has lived in the darkness with us.

The hope of Christmas is that Immanuel is in it for the long haul.

Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.

Sometimes, remembering the good that was – hurts.

Sometimes, believing in the good that will be – hurts.

But it is here in the darkness, the brokenness, the mess and destruction, that we find Immanuel. God with us. This is the real hope of Christmas.

I don’t have to change, I don’t have to fix anything, I don’t have to paste on a smile or make myself peppy. These things aren’t hope. I don’t have to believe that immigration paperwork will happen quickly or smoothly. I don’t have to believe my business will recover. I don’t have to believe my health will ever be okay.

Hope is knowing that what I see now is not all there is.

Hope is knowing that no matter what befalls me – Immanuel.

Hope is knowing that journeying through darkness is part of the journey of faith, and not a diversion from it. It is an opportunity to experience Immanuel.

Jesus looks at my dark and broken life and knows that what I need isn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What I need is presence with me on the journey. What I need is Immanuel.