It’s Time for Research-Based MK Care

by Lauren Wells

We have all heard stories of Adult TCKs who struggle. We have also seen the triumphant stories of TCKs who seem to exude the positive qualities third culture kids are known for. But what influences which end of this spectrum a TCK migrates toward? Is it the number of moves? Parenting styles? Schooling choices?

I began asking this question over a decade ago. Working on the pre-field side of MK care, I was constantly repeating the same presentation about the benefits of being a TCK to parents about to embark on a globally mobile journey. As the years went by, I kept sharing positive aspects of the TCK experience. But I began to wonder – What about those who aren’t doing well? What about the Adult TCKs I know who don’t currently seem to be benefiting from any of these supposed innate positive TCK characteristics? 

It was at this point in my life that I began to study the ins and outs of Prevention Science and analyzing what, for all children, is correlated with thriving in adulthood or not. Then I looked at the patterns of things deemed to be helpful childhood experiences and harmful childhood experiences, and I compared them to the lives of TCKs. I wrote for years about the idea of preventive care for TCKs, and I founded TCK Training on this premise: to cultivate thriving TCKs by providing preventive care. Preventive care does not mean taking away all the challenges of the TCK life, but instead, coming alongside those challenges with intentional care. The challenges themselves are not the problem, it is the way in which those challenges are walked through that determine whether they become resilience-building experiences or result in accumulating fragility. 

But what are we preventing? Anecdotally, I had some ideas. In all my books I shared my hypothesis that TCKs have higher Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores, experience more developmental traumas, and are more prone to toxic stress than the majority of monocultural individuals. Those who have extensively researched these in the general population have found that a high amount of exposure in any of these categories is correlated with relational, behavioral, and physical unhealth in adulthood. So we began teaching preventive care methods, such as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCES) to encourage parents to care intentionally for their children and to ultimately combat their increased risk. 

 

The Research
I knew, however, that statistical data on this concept was critical. In early 2021, TCK Training began the process of preparing to research developmental trauma in TCKs. In June 2021, we launched a carefully constructed and peer-reviewed survey for adult TCKs. The survey asked questions about ACE scores and developmental traumas, and by the closing of the survey on December 31, 2022, we had 2,377 responses. After applying exclusion criteria, we accepted 1,904 responses to be used in our data set. You can read the extensive methodology report at https://www.tcktraining.com/research/tckaces-methodology

In our initial analysis, we’ve learned that our hypothesis was correct, particularly in regard to ACE Scores. We designed the survey with questions comparable to other ACE studies, in particular the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 Americans. The graphs below compare ACE scores between our sample of 1,904 Adult TCKs and the CDC-Kaiser study. A particularly important statistic is the percentage who experience 4+ ACE scores. Those with scores of 4 or higher show a significant increase in mental, physical, and behavioral challenges in adulthood. Of the TCK sample, 20.4% experienced 4 or more ACEs, compared to 12.9% of the general American population.

 

How Can Parents Apply This Research to Their Daily Lives?
So what do we do with this information? Our goal for this research is to develop practical advice that parents can follow that makes it more likely that their TCKs will thrive and be able to experience the benefits of the TCK life. We believe that the TCK life is an incredible one! We also know that it does not organically yield a positive childhood experience that results in healthy adulthood. Instead, intentional care of TCKs is needed. 

The research confirmed that we need to support Missionary Kids (a subcategory of TCKs), especially regarding their emotional health. Of the ACE score categories, those pertaining to Emotional Health were the most statistically significant for MKs. 37% of missionary kids in our survey reported feeling emotionally neglected, compared to 15% of people in the CDC-Kaiser study. 40% of missionary kids reported that they were emotionally abused, compared with 11% in the CDC-Kaiser study and one-third of MKs said that they felt “unloved and not special to their parents.” 

For children to feel emotionally supported by their parents, they need to: 

  • Feel that they can express their feelings and feel heard and supported. 
  • Feel their parents “have their back.” 
  • Feel that their parents believe they are important. 
  • Feel loved and special. 
  • Feel that their parents will stand by them in difficult times/situations. 

While we believe that most parents of missionary kids are wonderful, loving parents who want to be emotionally supportive of their children, the data shows that this intention is not coming across well enough to a significant number of MKs. 

Some ways that we’ve heard it expressed are: 

“My parent’s answer to my difficult emotions is always a Bible verse when I really just need a hug and to be told that this is allowed to feel hard.”

“If my parents had to choose between me and the people they’re serving, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t choose me.”

“My parent’s work is more important than me, because their work is reaching the lost and I already know Jesus.”

We often hear comments like these from the MKs we’re debriefing and from the Adult MKs we work with. Again, we believe that most of their parents had/have great intentions, but they simply didn’t know how to communicate this emotional support in a way that their MKs could feel. 

One simple way that we teach parents to be an emotionally safe space for their children is by avoiding “Shut Down Responses” and using “Safe Space Responses.”

All of us use “Shut Down Responses” sometimes. What we want to do is know what they are, know which we tend to use most, and try to catch ourselves when we hear that type of response coming out. Sometimes, it means catching it after the fact and then turning around, apologizing, and trying again. No one is capable of always using “Safe Space Responses” and never using a “Shut Down Response,” but awareness of these responses can help us to aim for using mostly “Safe Space Responses” most of the time. 

 

Shut Down Responses
What we say in our “Shut Down Responses” may be true; however, our response shuts the child down from continuing to feel or share their difficult emotions. Instead, we want to give responses that put out a welcome mat for them to continue to come to you when they experience difficult things. After giving “Safe Space Responses,” there may be time to narrate the truth, ask questions, give your perspective, etc., but we often jump ahead to this step, as in the examples below, instead of first being a safe space. 

Downplaying – Communicating that the event or circumstance about which they are feeling difficult emotions is really not that big of a deal. 

“We just evacuated and what you’re worried about is forgetting the single Lego piece!?”

Defending – Defending the decision that caused the grief and thus communicating, “If there’s a good reason or if I had good intentions, then you shouldn’t feel any difficult emotions.” 

“We chose this school and are spending a lot of money for you to go there because we thought it would be best for you, so you need to be more grateful.” 

Comparing – Comparing one person’s experiences to another person’s or comparing different experiences the same person went through. Both things can be worthy of difficult emotions; both people can be allowed to experience difficult emotions. There is enough compassion to go around!

“It’s not as bad for you as it is for your sister. Think about how hard this has been for her!”

“Look at the people around you without enough food to eat. What they’re going through doesn’t even compare to what you’re complaining about.” 

Correcting Correcting the facts when they’re telling you their feelings instead of compassionately ministering to the important heartfelt perception. This way of thinking assumes that “If they just had the facts right, this emotion would go away!” 

“We didn’t actually move 10 times that year, it was only 5 times.” 

“What actually happened was…” 

Again, most of these responses are not inherently bad or untrue, they are just unhelpful when trying to create an emotionally safe space for children. Instead, use “Safe Space Responses” first. 

 

Safe Space Responses
The following “Safe Space Reponses” will invite your children into emotional connection and give them the space to feel heard and supported.

Acknowledge – Acknowledge that they were brave for sharing this with you and that you are glad they came to you.

Affirm – Give affirmation that their emotions are real, valid, justifiable, etc., and that they make sense. 

Comfort/Connect – Offer a hug, time together, a conversation, kind words, their favorite meal, etc. 

Here’s an example of a safe space response: 

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I’m so glad you did. It makes sense that you would feel sad that you forgot your Lego piece when we left. That Lego set was really special to you, and realizing you are missing a piece must have been really upsetting. We lost a lot of things when we left, didn’t we? Would you like a hug or to play together for a few minutes?”

This concept of “Safe Spaces Responses” may seem like a simple practical application of the vast research we are doing, and yet, looking at the responses we received on our survey, it is clear that many Missionary Kids feel they didn’t have consistent emotional support. It is likely they could have benefited from some more Safe Space Responses. 

As we continue to analyze our data, we will continue to look at more practical ways that TCKs can be supported in such a way that their experience creates deeper family connection, yields many of the benefits that TCKs are praised for, and encourages thriving in adulthood.

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

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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