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

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

“I am a Professional Christian” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 3)

As an MK, I often dreaded going to Sunday School.

Whether I was going to local church overseas or a supporting church during Home Assignment, the feeling associated with Sunday mornings was often one of pressure.

You see, all of the other kids usually had a least one Christian parent who chose a “normal” profession. A Christian who was a doctor. A Christian who was a dentist. A Christian who was a banker. But in a sense, being a Christian was my parents’ profession, and with it came a host of expectations and assumptions.

I often felt the sting of being different. I was in a different category of Christian. 

Aren’t missionaries supposed to be professional Christians?

With the do’s and don’ts associated with that perception, I often lost sight of God. Along with many MKs, I lost sight of truth.

Here are four lies that MKs commonly believe.

 

Lie #1: “I should be at another level of spiritual perfection.”

I should already know.

That was the subtle belief that often pervaded my thinking, especially on Sunday mornings. I should already know that passage. I should have already memorized that verse. I should already have made that connection. Timothy Sanford describes a common pattern in his book I Have To Be Perfect (And Other Parsonage Heresies). Looking back, I see how frequently it unfolded in my own life:

 – People knew that I was an MK and assumed that I knew more than the other children.
 – I picked up on these assumptions and concluded that maybe I was supposed to know.
 – Instead of looking stupid, I pretended like I did know.
 – They saw me pretending, concluded that I really did know, and continued to assume.
– I continued to pretend.

 

Lie #2: “Other people’s needs are more important than my own.”

When reflecting on her overseas experience, one adult MK recently told me, “I was convinced everyone mattered above me and that I was at the bottom of the totem pole.” 

I often watched my parents’ serve long hours. I saw their exhaustion, stress, and sacrifice. According to my nine-year-old thinking, I didn’t want to get in their way. In a skewed sense, I believed that my contribution to their ministry was to take my needs out of the equation. 

“I felt like if I demanded their time, that I would be hindering my parents’ ministry,” an adult MK said. “I felt resentment building up and internalized it. It was toxic to me and our relationship…also to my spiritual growth. I felt shelved and not considered.”

 

Lie #3: “God is only for others.”

The essence of missions is taking the gospel to the unreached. Much of my childhood consisted of serving alongside my parents in their ministry. We shared the gospel with others. We taught the Bible to others. We organized outreaches for others. It was a truly beautiful experience that I would never trade.  

However, I recently asked one MK if she felt like her parents valued time with her more than building relationships with nationals. This was her response: “I did not feel it was. I’m sure they cared very much, but no… I did not believe that at all.” 

Although I never personally felt that way about my parents, my experiences often painted a version of God that was only for others. I knew God as more institutional than personal. He was for the Great Commission. He was in pursuit of the unreached people groups, the tribal villages in Africa, and bustling cities of Asia and Europe.

But was I as important to God as those He had called us to serve? Was He in pursuit of me? 

 

Lie #4: “I have to protect God’s reputation.”

This skewed belief fueled my internal pressure to be happy all of the time and often caused me to envision God as disappointed with me when I wasn’t.

As one adult MK described, “My perception of God was based on rule-following and tightly-held levels of unrealistic faith devotion. I can still hear my mom say, ‘If you exceed the speed limit, God will not bless your journey.’ Fortunately, I have since come to reshape that view and see Him much differently.”

My fake happiness for God often prevented me from experiencing fullness of life with Him. This mindset of protecting God’s reputation acted like a spiritual defense for me, shielding me from feeling the brunt of my emotions, doubts, and questions.

******

While these lies often swing between unhealthy extremes, I’m learning that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The truth isn’t an either/or situation, but a healthy understanding of the word “and.”

The truth is that MKs are missionary kids AND they have spiritual journeys. They need reminding that there is space for them to grow in their journeys, apart from their parents. 

The truth is that others’ needs are important AND their needs are important too. MKs need reminding that it’s okay to have needs and to express them.

The truth is that God is passionately for others AND He’s passionately for MKs. He is the God of the institution and also the God of the individual. 

The truth is that God doesn’t need MKs to protect His reputation. They aren’t the poster children for modern missions. They are His sons and daughters AND they are allowed to be completely honest with Him. God can protect His own reputation. 

The truth is that MKs aren’t that different from all of the other kids in Sunday School. While missionaries may be professional Christians, MKs are aren’t and shouldn’t be. 

They are just missionary kids beginning their Christian walks, and that is exactly where they are supposed to be.

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

“I am a Professional Adapter” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 2)

“Where are you from?” is the most difficult question for MKs to answer. However, I’m convinced that the second most difficult question doesn’t fall far behind.

“Who am I supposed to be?”

The MK life is filled with expectations that can cause many of us to feel the weight of responsibility for our parents’ ministries. During my childhood overseas, I felt these pressures from decades-old missionary theology and from my own internal expectations to please others and make God “happy.”

In many ways, these expectations shaped my perception of God and others. They became deeply embedded in my sense of worth, causing me to develop certain ways of coping. What did I do?

I learned how to adapt to whatever expectation I was feeling most strongly in the moment. 

When I became an MK, I learned the art of reading a room, picking up social cues, and subtly morphing into whomever I needed to be in order to fit in. I learned how to laugh at jokes when I didn’t understand them, adjust my body language to the group’s norm, and imitate the vocabulary used around me. I learned which pieces of my life were acceptable to share in certain social settings and which pieces of my life were not.

The question that silently began to surface in these spaces often filled me with anxiety: Who am I supposed to be with financial supporters? With locals? With God? 

With financial supporters? I learned to share the glowing, spiritual stories that highlighted my parents’ ministry. 

(And with my U.S. friends, I learned not to joke about my travels or getting lost in Prague or the time monkeys raided our hotel in Hong Kong. I quickly discovered that these stories were often perceived as prideful.)

With locals? I learned to talk selectively about my American childhood, especially the large cups at restaurants, juicy hamburgers, and spacious houses of my birth country.

(And I learned to leave out the stories that made me ache for my childhood home.)

With God? I learned how to smile, thank him for His blessings, and use Christian lingo like a professional.

(And I learned to avoid talking with Him about my hurt, anger, or pain.)

MKs are adept at becoming the person they believe will keep them most safe.

The dictionary defines “putting on a brave face” as “behaving as if a problem is not important or does not worry you; to try to appear brave or calm.”

If MK life could be summed up in a definition, “putting on a brave face” could be an accurate reflection. Wearing my brave face became the means by which I coped with all of the outer and inner expectations of my world.

Wearing my brave face became the means by which I learned to hide inside myself.

Only with other MKs would I let my brave face crack. Here, the pressures and expectations of cross-cultural living didn’t isolate us but rather identified us with one other. As one MK told me, “We could tell our secrets [or ‘struggles,’ as she defined them]. We didn’t have to stay silent anymore.”

As I’ve reflected on my own MK story and listened to the stories of others, I’ve seen our brave faces manifest in different ways. Here are the two predominant faces that MKs wear in order to adapt to the pressures of cross-cultural life. I’ve worn both. Although they may appear opposite from each other, they are really just two sides of the same coin. 

 

Brave Face #1: “I Care Too Much”

The MK who wears the “I Care Too Much” brave face will die trying to meet all of the expectations. This MK will strive and prove and earn and push, with a white-knuckled drive for perfection fueling their motives. Fear and anxiety often dominate their thinking. They try to appear brave by conquering the expectations.

As one adult MK recently told me, “My response as a rule-follower and people-pleaser was to make everyone happy. I felt like others were more important than me. There was a strong pressure to perform to legalism so that I wouldn’t be the one responsible for my parents’ loss of service.”

Looking back on her MK story, she saw how this brave face compelled her to “replace hurt and abandonment with drive for hard work, independence, and perfection.” 

My personal “I Care Too Much” Brave Face caused me to fall deeply into a place of anxiety where I feared failing. Messing up. Making mistakes. Locked inside the perceptions of what others thought of me.

 

Brave Face #2: “I Don’t Care At All” 

The MK who wears the “I Don’t Care at All” Brave Face feels the pressures of cross-cultural life intensely. But rather than die trying to meet them, they just give up and walk away.

Instead of fear or anxiety, their thinking aligns more with bitterness and resentment. “Well, if I don’t try, I can’t fail” is typically the thought sitting behind this brave face. Their attempts at bravery manifest in rebelling against or running from the expectations.

These MKs withdraw. Give up. Numb out. Recede emotionally to protect themselves from hurt. Their hardened exteriors stand in defiance to the nebulous group of “they” from whom all the expectations come. I was eighteen when I was admitted into a residential treatment facility for an eating disorder. I’d given up. Numbed out. Withdrawn from my life.

I still remember a comment from a staff member that day. “Oh, you’re an MK too? It’s surprisingly sad how many MKs come through here.”

******

A deep-rooted, distorted belief is interwoven through both of these responses: the belief that safety and authenticity cannot co-exist.

MKs who are wearing the “I Care Too Much” brave face need to be seen beyond what they do. They need permission to fail and learn and get back up again. They need an invitation to be messy and raw and still in-process.

MKs who are wearing the “I Don’t Care at All” brave face need space to be angry. They need space to name their hurts and yell and scream and be completely not-okay. 

All MKs, whether they care too much or care too little, need to be reminded that they are worth more than who they think they’re supposed to be.

 

Read Part 1 here.

~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

“I am a Professional Pretender” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 1)

I was nine when my family moved overseas.

I still remember my last ice-skating lesson. I remember the moment my bedspread was sold at our garage sale to a lady with spiky hair. I still remember hugging my grandmother goodbye at the airport.

I also remember comments from friends and church members during that time. Everyone kept telling me how excited I must be, and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. A tension began to build in me, coupled with a growing sense of shame.

Was it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?

Over the next ten years, the missionary call on my family’s life was often spiritually idolized by others. I felt responsible to be the uber-spiritual, always-perfect, super-mature version of myself that seemed to align with the perceptions of others. Like many MKs, I often wrestled with feeling responsible for the success of my parents’ ministry. Unbeknownst to me then, I was also grappling with another loss.

The loss of being nine.

You see, I was an MK, but I was still sad and scared and angry. I complained and cried and argued with my sister. I secretly dreaded going to local church and never really wanted to babysit our teammates’ kids. Why did it often feel like these two realities were directly opposed to each other? Slowly, as many MKs do, I began to master the art of pretending.

According to the dictionary, pretend is defined as “to speak and act so as to make it appear that something is the case when in fact it is not.”

MKs are professional pretenders.

I often felt like I was living in a glass house. I smiled to everyone looking at my life from the outside. I tried to live up to the expectations and personal assumptions of how MKs are supposed to act. I assured everyone that I was completely, totally, one hundred percent fine. I was not fine.

Ironically? Within my glass house, I rarely felt seen.

A variety of expectations can cause MKs to hide inside their own glass houses. Here are six outer and inner expectations that can contribute heavily to the pressure we feel to pretend.

 

Outer Expectation #1: Decades-Old Mission Theology

Heroes of the faith. Spiritual superheroes. Simply extraordinary people. Aren’t those the kind of people that God calls to the mission field? No. Missionaries are normal, everyday people.

Although mission theology around these perceptions has slowly changed over recent years, echoes of this thinking can still seep into the community of Christ. Aren’t missionary families supposed to be the super-spiritual, cream of the crop Christians? This theology can seem sensible, but we can forget that the nine-year-olds in the family are also the ones living it out.

 

Outer Expectation #2: Parents or Other Authority Figures

An adult MK recently told me that she still can hear the parental comment in her head, “If you hang out with those kids and get into trouble, we could lose our positions on the field and have to move back to the States.”

While this comment may have been true, its underlying meaning can cause MKs to feel terrified of messing up or making mistakes. Because isn’t my parents’ job at stake? The following beliefs can often be vocally or silently communicated to MKs:

“I am responsible to keep my parents on the field.”

“I can ruin my parents’ ministry.”

That’s a crushing amount of pressure.

 

Outer Expectation #3: The Complexity of Fundraising

Fundraising is a complex topic. First, missionaries need financial support. Second, the most logical means to accomplish this goal is for missionaries to visit churches on home assignment. And third, who would feel especially stirred to donate money to a family of rude, misbehaved children?

No one.

But the pressure of church visits and fundraising can often feel awkward and uncomfortable for MKs. The appropriate expectation to behave can often be skewed into acting a certain way or making a good impression because financial consequences are at stake. “People are watching what you do—behave accordingly” is what one MK I talked to was often told.

 

Inner Expectation #1: The Stress of Cross-Cultural Living

I remember perceiving a stark shift in my parents when my family first moved overseas. Stress levels remained sky-high as we attempted to transition to our new home and culture.

Kids are intuitive. I noticed the intense expectation that my parents felt to learn a new language and begin ministry right away. I resolved internally not to add to their stress. One adult MK similarly described, “I was just trying so hard to be brave and not be a problem for my parents. I didn’t want to stand in their way. I felt pressure to go with it and accept it as the way it had to be.”

 

Inner Expectation #2: A Skewed Understanding of What “Makes God Happy”

Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.

If I’m happy, then God’s happy.

Cognitively, I know those phrases are not true. But for a significant part of my MK life, that was the theology I lived out. I believed that honoring God meant following all the rules, always doing right, and making sure I never failed Him. I mistakenly perceived my ability to “play my MK part” as my contribution to my parents’ call to ministry. I believed that showing up to play my role was my part in their service.

 

Inner Expectation #3: The Fear of Being “Found Out”

I recently talked with a group of college-aged MKs who told me that they had often been afraid of being “found out” during their childhoods. Do you know what they were afraid of being “found out” for?

Struggling.

“I often thought that MKs were expected to be spiritual enough not to struggle. When I was struggling with something, I often felt pressure to hide it,” one MK said. This deep-seated fear of being discovered is common among MKs, undergirded by an inner pressure of perfection that manifests in a variety of ways.

******

If I could go back and talk to little-girl Taylor, I’d encourage her to voice her hurts and concerns. I’d assure her that honesty was needed, that struggling was normal, and that it was okay to feel all of her emotions.

But more than anything, do you know what little-girl Taylor and many other MKs today need to hear?

More than praise, they need permission.

They need someone to lean in and gently tell them that it’s okay to be nine.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

Don’t Call Your Kids “World Changers”

It’s tempting. I get it. It sounds motivating and inspirational. I get that too. But I’ve come to believe that the good-intentioned, hopefully inspiring practice of talking about children as “world-changers” is, in most cases, damaging.

You can cover it with a spiritual veneer, you can call it “speaking truth over them,” you can call it a “parental blessing,” you can even call it “stirring them up to greatness.” But from where I sit, and after what I’ve seen, I’ll just call it probably harmful.

Let me explain.

I grew up among world-changers.

My family was part of an exciting, global ministry which had as its motto, Giving the world a New approach to life! Wow! What a vision! What a large, God-sized dream!

What hubris.

I sang in a choir of 5,000 teenagers, “It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus!” We were going to do it. Our parents had found the hidden truths, the secret. And with derision for rock music, an affinity for character qualities, and a navy and white uniform, we were in fact going to give the WHOLE WORLD a BRAND NEW approach to life.

And then we didn’t.

In fact, one of the most painful parts of my adult life has been watching peers wilt under the pressure of a world-changing paradigm. Families just aren’t designed to raise world-changers. They’re designed to raise children.

I watched friend after friend crumble under the pressure. Who were they? What were they worth when life just felt…normal? When the mission trips stopped and the typical bills came, a sense of dread and failure often settled in.

When the call of God, legitimately and accurately interpreted, looks nothing like the world-domination and global impact you were primed to experience, what then?

~~~~~~~~~~

Now, most missionaries don’t dress their kids in navy and white, and rock music isn’t seen as much of a threat. But I sometimes wonder if young parents have exchanged a “solution” from the ’80s and early ’90s for a new “new approach”?

– If we can give our kids enough vision.
– If they can get enough gifting of the Spirit.
– If they can catch a fire for social justice.
– If they can quote John Piper or Bill Johnson (depending on your stream),
– If they can get energetic like Young and Free or Rend Collective….

THEN OUR CHILDREN WILL CHANGE THE WORLD!!!

And the world better watch out, because we’re releasing an army – no, we’re waking up an army and then releasing them, and they will rule the world. For Christ.

This is hyperbole, of course. Sort of.

I feel like I’m watching a replay, where passionate young parents think they’ve found “the solution,” which, when applied correctly, will help their toddlers “tear down this wall!”

I hear parents from both ends of the fundamentalist-charismatic spectrum talk like this. I see parents Instagram like this. And it’s not from a bad heart, I know that. It’s from a gut-level desire to see our children succeed. We want them to have God-sized dreams and we want them to chase those dreams until they actualize their potential and save the world. I get it.

But can I sound like an old guy here? OK, well, here goes. THEY ARE JUST KIDS. Remember, they’re three years old. Or seven. Or even thirteen. They don’t need to save the world. They need to learn how much they’re loved. They need to learn about mercy and grace and hard work. They need to learn how to read, and sometimes, they just need to learn how to use the toilet.

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Have we forgotten the simple things? Have we forgotten the power of quiet love and small faithfulness?

Have we forgotten Paul’s advice to work with all your heart, whatever you do?

Have we forgotten John the Baptist’s counsel to the soldiers? “Be content with your pay.” To the tax collectors? “Don’t collect more than you’re supposed to.” To the crowds, “Share your food, share your wealth.” Have we forgotten that small lives lived in small places matter too?

Have we forgotten the instruction to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life”?

You know, maybe those instructions aren’t for everybody at all times, but they at least apply to some people some of the time.

It may be that God will call my child to do simple things well, with faithfulness and honesty. He may want them to grow into men and women of integrity who do banal things, boring things. That does sound to me like something God could do.

Not all are called to be apostles.

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As cross-cultural workers, we may be more naturally inclined to love big, global, world-changing talk. Perhaps that’s how we got here. Our children, however, with their individual callings and giftings, may not resonate with the ideas the same way. Remember, what motivates and inspires you might crush your child.

Be careful you don’t project your desires onto them. Do YOU want to save the world? Fine then. Go forth and do it. Maybe God’s called and gifted you to do it. Awesome! But you’re not them and they’re not you.

 

An Alternative
You know where normal people go to worship? You know where normal people go to learn and grow, slowly, steadily?

The local church.

You want to bless your kids? Be part of a local church. Church should be a place where slow faithfulness and deep relationships are encouraged.

Cultivate in your children a deep love for the local church, wherever that is, and see what happens. Be careful that your family isn’t so holy and set apart that you cut yourself off from local fellowship. I’ve seen fundamentalist-conservative families and hyper-charismatic families do this, flitting from church to church, never finding the perfect fit. Consider honestly assessing your family’s pattern of church involvement.

Hopping around might not be detrimental to you, but your kids may end up lacking the attachments that will really make a difference in the long run.

Again, the old man speaks: settle down! Get used to church being not perfect. Find a local, inadequate, warty Church, and love her. Love your brothers and sisters and let your kids develop some long, slow relationships with real humans. Read Eugene Peterson and Tim Keller. [I hope this goes without saying, but it’s important to clarify: I’m NOT saying you should stay in an abusive, legalistic, graceless church just for the sake of staying. That type of environment could suck the life right out of you, and your kids.]

Now, of course I realize that our overseas communities are largely transient. And I realize that there may not be an identifiable church where you’re at. But for most of us, most of the time, that’s not the case; if we lack a good church fellowship, if our kids are Homescapes MOD flipped and flopped from here to there and back again, that might be more on us than on our circumstances. Don’t blame the environment or the cross-cultural lifestyle unless that’s actually what’s caused the disconnect.

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May our children play. May they explore and experience life, without needing some grand purpose or some world-altering goal.

May our children know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our love for them is immense, never-ending, flowing straight from the heart of the Father. And when they feel our love, may they feel Him.

And when they doubt our love or His, may they remember. May they turn.

And in their search for Home, may they find the One who’s been standing there all along, at the other end of baggage claim, with a beautiful hand-written sign, that says “Welcome Home.”

 

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Further Reading:
I realize this has been heavy. I realize it’s potentially been a downer. So I’d love to dialogue with you about it, if you want. We can visit in the comments below or on Facebook. Do you disagree? I’d love to hear from you too. This issue is worth some conversation, for the children’s sake.

In the meantime, here are some articles that explore similar ideas:

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

It’s Not All About War

The Idolatry of Missions

Why Be a World Changer [I don’t know this author, but I’m indebted to him for his well-formulated thoughts on this issue]

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

By Aneurin Howorth

Moving abroad is a wonderful privilege filled with blessings. Those of us who grew up internationally are able to experience the richness of the world in a way which we couldn’t have otherwise. In short, it is great. Yet there is a price to pay. Life is often filled with death, loss, and grief to an unprecedented level. This pain takes its toll on the human body, often in the form of mental illnesses.

It is difficult to pin down what causes mental illnesses. Both genetic and environmental factors are at play. However, there are some situations where mental illnesses become easier to spot. Think high-stress situations such as dealing with pressure to get visas sorted whilst trying to find a school for kids. Or potentially dealing with cycles of loss as you say goodbye to good friends, not knowing when you will see them again. Or wrestling with questions of identity as re-entry into your passport country becomes painful. Any of these sound familiar?

This is particularly challenging for TCK’s. Whilst these challenges can wipe anyone off their feet, dealing with these difficult circumstances during your developmental years can be devastating to your mental health. In the years where humans’ brains are primed to learn about identity, culture, and belonging, we are pulled from one place to the next in painful upheavals. Whilst it does vary from TCK to TCK, the general trend is one of dealing with far greater stress and grief than your average child.

It then comes as no surprise that mental health is a bigger problem among TCKs than the global trend. Whilst data is notoriously difficult to obtain (turns out being all over the world makes it hard to collect data!), there is a connection between cross-cultural living and struggling with a mental health disorder. When this happens during one’s developmental years the issue is magnified.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as they should on the mission field. For example, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and seems to go hand in hand with missions work. Despite this, most missionaries don’t have an extensive knowledge of the issue. I have many MK friends who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or other mental health problems (I, myself, am ill with a suspected somatization disorder). Missions is messy and painful work, contributing to mental illnesses in MKs.

The severity of these illnesses varies, but they cannot be ignored. I would not be surprised if many of you reading this know of someone who has tried to, or has, committed suicide. I went to an MK school in Kenya (RVA), which I loved. Yet, every year multiple people struggled with mental illnesses. I am not writing this to reflect badly on my school. Whilst the school is far from perfect, mental illnesses are part and parcel of missions work. Suicide is a terrible consequence of mental illnesses, but not the only one. The destruction they cause is pervasive and casts a menacing shadow over every area of our lives. It is a topic nobody seems to consider until the situation is already devastating.

One of the curiosities of mental illnesses is that they tend to show up later in life for us. 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. [1] 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.

This is not a TCK-specific problem. Many cross-cultural adults report bouts of depression after transitioning culturally. This is often the case when people return to their passports culture.

The reality is that anyone who lives a stressful lifestyle, moves a lot, has had to say lots of goodbyes to friends, places and languages, struggles with questions of identity or belonging during their formative years will be more prone to mental illnesses. Obviously, missionaries (including MKs) fit right into these categories. It is something that we will have to deal with, whether we want to or not. I can guarantee that every missionary knows someone who has a mental health problem. They might not be aware of it because of the painful and secretive nature of these illnesses, but they affect almost all missionary families.

To their credit, mission organizations are ahead of the game in member care. They are the best international groups in this regard. However, with mental illnesses we still have a long way to go.

Here are some thoughts on how we can fight mental illnesses: they can only be fought as a team. Given that we are all one family under God, it is something we should all care about.

1. Have a well-rounded theology of suffering. We should not expect a comfortable life as Christians, but rather the opposite. We live a broken world in desperate need of God’s grace. There should be a constant dialogue around suffering, both its inevitability and how to rejoice in it (think Colossians 1:24 or James 1:2). Without this understanding we will grow inconsolably despondent in tough times. For a brilliant book on this check out The Call to Joy and Pain by Ajith Fernando.

2. We need to be proactive in conversations about mental illnesses. This is not a topic we should only learn about when we encounter its consequences. It needs to be part of all healthy discussions about being a cross-cultural missionary. If you have kids, it is crucial to bring them up discussing them. Not only do they have a decent chance of being ill in the future, but they will also play a key role in supporting other TCK friends who are likely to struggle with mental illnesses.

3. We need to have a proper understanding of mental illnesses as medical issues. Missionaries cannot go onto the field thinking that mental illnesses are spiritual failings or defects. This attitude will crush them, their children, or their friends when they encounter mental illnesses (regrettably this is still common). Whilst suffering from a mental illness is tough spiritually, medically speaking it is as physical as breaking a leg (although it’s more complicated because our brains are inspiringly complex). If you trust a doctor to fix a broken bone, please trust doctors as they tell you that mental health is physical too. (I can provide a plethora of evidence for anyone interested.) Like any problem, proper education on the topic will allow us to be supported and get the help we need quicker.

4. Pray for all those suffering from mental illnesses. It is a terrible burden and cannot be carried alone. Feel free to get in touch with any questions. Please keep this conversation going.

 

[1] Bushong, Lois. Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. (Indianapolis: Mango Tree Intercultural Studies, 2013), page 47.

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Aneurin Howorth grew up up in East Africa as an MK. Both his parents are British, but he has an American accent from time spent at Rift Valley Academy. Aneurin is passionate about mental health and the relationship it has to living internationally. He believes we need more discussion around these topics and blogs about both at https://noggybloggy.com/.  He is currently studying for a Master of Science in the psychology of mental health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. You can contact him here or on his personal blog.

When a Third Culture Kid Goes “Home”

by Nicole Baldonado

Out of place.

Emotionally unstable.

Awkward.

Overwhelmed.

These are all common experiences of third culture kids who “go back home.” In other words, they return, or move for the first time, to live in the country listed on their passport. Regardless of citizenship, a third culture kid’s identity and sense of home become far more complicated than a single country on a passport.

I grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) in Ukraine, attended a two-year college in Hungary, and then moved back to the States for university. This post is written from the perspective of an American TCK returning to the States. Some differences would occur for those going “home” to another nation, but I believe we’d share many common experiences and reactions.

 

Out of place

When I moved back to the States, I assumed I would feel at home. After all, this was my native language and culture, right?

Instead, I realized I couldn’t even talk “normally” with friends. I often stopped mid-sentence because I couldn’t think of an English word. I muttered under my breath in Russian, feeling stupid.

Simple tasks like grocery shopping raised my stress level to the point of mental breakdown. How in the world do they sell THIS MANY types of bread?!

Never mind the more complicated tasks like finding a job or a place to live. No work history? No credit history? Have you been living under a rock?

No, but if you can point me to one, I think I’ll crawl under it and die.

 

Expensive

Some TCKs have lived in high-cost nations and find relief in American prices.

But coming from Ukraine, I was sure that my first American shopping trip would drain my entire savings. Every financial encounter left me with a feeling of despair: how will I ever survive here?

It took me years to learn how to live financially in the States. Most of that time, Americans probably thought I was a miser. But I was constantly wrestling with guilt over how much more I was spending than any Ukrainian I knew.

Even though I survived for a while on Ramen noodles and the Taco Bell dollar menu.

 

You need a car

You can’t navigate most American cities without a car. Often, TCKs got along in their host country with public transportation and have probably never owned a car. Many don’t even have a driver’s license.

When I first returned Stateside, I was at the mercy of anyone willing to drive me and isolated if no one was available. A stark contrast for someone who was free to roam a major city at the age of twelve, thanks to buses and the metro and a safer environment for kids.

 

What’s a deductible?

American life comes with the cost of monthly premiums.

Ukrainian health care is inexpensive, so my family never needed health insurance when I was growing up. I’d never owned a car or had car insurance. I felt like an idiot when someone tried to walk me through my insurance options in the States. Deductible. Premium. HSA. Liability. Coinsurance.

When did we stop speaking English? I briefly debated lapsing into Russian, just so my friend would have an idea how lost I felt in that moment. I was certain the conversation could be no less productive.

And then there was the cost. Once again: how am I ever going to survive here?

 

A different mentality

Third culture kids don’t think exactly like people in any one country.

I was born in Indiana, and Midwestern Americans value politeness and making a good first impression. Ukrainians value directness and believe you should speak your mind (though I’ll admit the level of directness varies from one part of Ukraine to another).

I took offense often during my early months in Ukraine. People told me I was too skinny or that my Russian was really bad. When I returned to the U.S., I was constantly confused, never sure what people really meant by their words.

Today my mentality comes from a strange combination of cultures: American, Ukrainian, and a number of others I’ve encountered over the years. Many TCKs struggle to find themselves thinking like those around them, no matter where they go.

 

Americans have more

Once again, this is a general statement and not true related to every TCK’s experience. Even in Ukraine, the economy has changed over the years, and more people live comfortable lives today.

But I remember first settling back in the States and being shocked at how much more stuff Americans had than people in other countries. I knew plenty of Ukrainian families who squeezed three generations into tiny apartments and never ate out because there wasn’t enough money.

I remember breaking down into tears one night after dinner at an American family’s house. They were wonderful, generous people who had worked hard and made a wealthy living. I did not fault them for their wealth. But I was struggling to make sense of a world where some people have so much and others have so little.

Third culture kids returning “home” often find themselves wrestling over their ideals and worldview.

 

What about you?

I’ve given just a few examples of why TCKs struggle when they return to their passport country. There are many more, and the experiences vary depending on both the host and passport country of each person.

If you’ve lived outside your native land and returned, what was it like for you? Do you have any particularly funny or noteworthy memories?

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Nicole Baldonado and her husband are missionaries raising two kids in L’viv, Ukraine. Nicole grew up as a third-culture-kid and loves watching her children experience life in other countries. She writes weekly at jnbmission.com and can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/jnbaldonado or Twitter at NBaldonado.

10 Questions to Routinely Ask Your TCKs

by Lauren Wells

It is important for parents raising children anywhere to be continually engaging and checking in with their kids. When you are raising TCKs, this is even more important. TCKs are privy to struggles that mono-cultural children don’t often have to face, so being aware of that and taking time to routinely ask questions such as these can strengthen your relationship and show your kids how much you love and value them.

Set aside time routinely to talk with your TCK. Ensure that this time is not tainted by distractions and that you are not attempting to multitask, but instead be fully engaged and interested in their answers. If these types of conversations are not something you have had with your TCKs in the past, it may take a few times before they truly trust that you care about their answers and that they are safe to answer honestly. For this reason, it is critical to create a safe space for them to speak openly.

Listen and encourage them to explain their answers or elaborate, but be careful to not be too pushy or to respond in a way that invalidates their answer. Remember that the purpose of asking these questions is not to provide a solution, but to open up the communication between you and your child. You might ask your TCK all of these questions, or just have them on hand to ask one or two when you’re spending time with your child.

 

1. How are you doing?

It seems simple, but asking this question is one of the best ways to show your kids that you care. Make is clear that there isn’t a right answer and that it is ok if they really aren’t doing “just fine.”

 

2. What are some things that you enjoy about living here?

Their “favorites” may be different than you expect!

 

3. Do you ever wish that we lived a different life?

It’s important to help your TCKs process the life that they are living. It is unique and it wasn’t of their choosing. It’s healthy for them to think through this question and for you to hear their answer as it may reveal some deeper struggles that need to be worked through.

 

4. What is something that you’re looking forward to?

This gives your TCK the opportunity to share their excitement about an upcoming event. Perhaps you didn’t know about this event or didn’t realize how important it is to your child. Now that you know, you can share in their excitement!

 

5. What is something that you’re not looking forward to?

This question often provides the opportunity to dig deeper and discover why a certain event, place, task, etc. is unenjoyable or uncomfortable for your child. Avoid a positive comeback such as, “But that will be so fun!” and instead explore the question further by saying something like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that place made you nervous. What is it about it that is uncomfortable to you?”

 

6. Do you feel like we spend enough time together?

TCKs can often feel like they are second to their parent’s work or ministry. This question allows them the opportunity to say so if that is the case. If their answer is “no,” be vigilant about finding ways to spend more time with this child.

 

7. Where do you feel most at home?

The question “Where is home?” is a common, confusing question for TCKs. Working through this idea at a young age prevents it from becoming a surprising realization when they are older and feel that no places feels completely like “home.”

 

8. Is there anyone or anything that you miss right now?

It is important to give TCKs the permission to reminisce and grieve their losses. Bringing these up for them can help them to do this in a healthy way.

 

9. Do you feel like people understand you?

Being a TCK has many challenges and one of them is a constant feeling of being misunderstood. While you may not have a solution to their perceived uniqueness, it can be insightful for you to hear your child’s answer.

 

10. What’s your favorite thing about yourself?

Again, identity issues are common for TCKs so asking them to think through things that they like about themselves is a good way to promote self confidence. This is also a good time to tell them a few of your favorite things about them!

 

Do you have any questions to add to the list? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.