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.
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.
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.
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