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. 

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Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman is the Director of Research and Education Services for TCK Training and author of Misunderstood. Having lived most of her adult life in China, pandemic border closures left Tanya stranded in her native Australia, separated from her American husband. She's now living with her parents, applying for a US green card, and working on her second comprehensive book for/about TCKs, while spending as much time as she can with her young niece and nephews.