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

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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.