What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

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

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

How many years abroad is safe for kids?

“How many years abroad is safe for kids?”

This is a question we have been asked many times at TCK Training. I have also heard similar questions from missionary organizations – at what point do families need transition prep and repatriation support? How many years overseas is safe? At what point does it become dangerous?

I only lived outside my passport country for two years as a teenager. Speaking from personal experience, I had a rocky entry to life there and a rocky re-entry to my passport country. But I can’t speak for everyone. So when TCK Training did our survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile TCKs, one of the questions we asked was “How many years did you live outside your passport country?” And now we have some answers.

Our latest white paper was just published: Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods: Providing Individualized Support to Increase Positive Outcomes for Higher Risk Families (released October 26). It contains ten ‘mini-papers’ looking at different factors in the lives of TCKs and how they impacted Adverse Childhood Experiences. The first factor we looked at was length of time lived abroad. 

As we analyzed the data, something quickly became clear. Those who spent the least time outside their passport countries had the highest ACE scores. That is to say, living a shorter period of time abroad was associated with higher levels of abuse and neglect.

  • 19% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years were physically abused at home, compared to 12% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 13% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported physical neglect, compared to only 6% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 45% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported emotional neglect, compared to 30% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 44% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported that an adult in their childhood home experienced mental illness, compared to 28% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years.
  • 21% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years had a high-risk ACE score, compared to only 7.5% of missionary kids who lived abroad 16-18 years. 

What does this mean?

These numbers demonstrate correlation, not causation. We cannot look at this and say that staying overseas a long time causes healthy families. But we can say that a higher percentage of families who lived overseas a long time were healthier. In the rest of this post we will look at three potential factors related to this, as well as what we can do about it.

Transition is hard

Every location move is a big transition and a disruption to both family life and peer relationships. We previously noted a correlation between high mobility and high-risk ACE scores (see our paper Caution and Hope for more on this). Those who spend a short time overseas are likely to have made two international moves in a short period of time – a high level of transition and disruption. These ‘short term’ families are therefore in more need of transition and repatriation support, not less!

Expat life brings out the hard stuff

Good expat preparation tells individuals and couples to prepare for the hardest parts of their personal lives to go into overdrive due to the stress of transition and intercultural living. Some families discover that the stress of this life is not good for them and choose to return to their passport countries. TCKs who lived their entire lives outside their passport countries are more likely to belong to healthy families, as these families are more likely to choose to stay abroad. 

In order to stay healthy, parents need mental health support. The level of mental illness seen in families who spend shorter times abroad show that this is a big problem in need of addressing.

We can’t blame it on external trauma

Another reason that families may not spend their children’s whole childhood abroad is if a traumatic event takes place. Yet TCKs who lived abroad 13-18 years were more likely to report experiencing or being impacted by a violent event than those who spent 0-6 years abroad. 

Our hypothesis here is that when families have strong communities in which they are supported, giving them personal support to parent well and family support through difficult situations, they are healthier overall. This is better for the family long term than going through an additional transition (with accompanying dislocation and disruption) to receive care elsewhere.

What does ‘safe’ look like? 

This data shatters the myth that there is a ‘safe’ number of years for a family to live abroad. A shorter time abroad may mean a child is less likely to have deep identity and belonging struggles, but that is not true for all TCKs. A shorter time abroad definitely does not mean a family will not struggle with culture shock and reverse culture shock. All families making an international move should receive transition training and repatriation support, no matter how long or short their time abroad. 

If ‘safe’ is not about time, what is it about? I contend that ‘safe’ is all about family health. If parents are emotionally healthy, including mental health supports that enable them to keep their stress levels manageable, they can parent well and be emotionally available to their children. Healthy families have strong parent-child connectedness, so that children feel their parents’ love. This is a key factor in providing safety to children as they transition and grow.

Instead of asking “How many years abroad is safe for kids?” let us start asking “How do we make our homes, families, and communities safe for kids?” We can protect missionary kids by providing emotional safety for them. We can protect missionary kids by caring well for their parents, including mental health support and parenting education. We can protect missionary kids by creating supportive communities that include them and their families. There’s no ‘safe’ number of years abroad for every family, but together we can work to provide every family with the level of care they need to thrive on the field.

 

For more information:

TCK Training’s research. This includes free access to all three white papers, along with blog posts about specific groups, such as missionary kids. 

Free PCEs miniseries. PCEs are Positive Childhood Experiences. This miniseries offers information on providing emotional safety and protection to children as they grow up abroad.

Self-Guided Transitions Course, with videos, exercises, and more. This course is designed to support families (and inform caregivers) through all stages and types of transitions.

Photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

What Does It Mean To Be A Missionary Kid? 

by Iona McHaney Marcellino

I grew up in Angola, where my parents served as missionaries from 1999 to 2011. People often ask me what it was like to be a missionary kid. I never have a succinct answer.

It would be easier to share a memory, a well-rounded vignette of life in Angola, life on the mission field, that would allow the listener to see how nuanced their question is. It would be easier to sit the questioner down, hand them a cup of tea, and say:

‘I have a memory from Angola…..’

We were standing off the road in a remote area, at the Cascades de Kalandula (Calandula Falls). The absolute beauty of the sight was magnified by its seclusion. I had already been to Victoria Falls, and it was fine, but it wasn’t a memory I’d want to write about. 

As for why I had the opportunity to see these beautiful waterfalls? That’s a more complicated story.

My dad had fallen ill on a mission trip to the interior of the country. I don’t remember what he had. Malaria? Cholera? Marburg? Something obscure and foreign to Western ears, something easily preventable or easily treatable when you’re surrounded by modern facilities and deadly when you’re not. 

I think I was nine. Or ten. I may have been twelve. I don’t remember a lot of the wider details, but I do remember the drive there. 

We drove over 10 hours on dirt roads, bumping along, first in the coastal heat, then in the interior mugginess, and then finding a little relief as we hit the freshness of elevation. We crossed a river on a bridge made of tree logs wedged in between the banks. If I had ever doubted my mum had faith, I didn’t after she drove over that bridge. 

Then we heard that my dad had died. He was so ill that the people he was visiting didn’t believe he could recover. It just didn’t happen in their experience. When he was moved to a bigger city, the rural church announced on their radio that the American Missionary had died. There was a prayer vigil for his family and gratitude for his life. Meanwhile my dad was paying $100 a night to sleep on a foam mattress in a dismal hotel.

I don’t know if I heard about it before we left Luanda, while we were on the road, or after we had my dad back in the car. My memory is not really about my dad being ill and announced possibly dead on Angolan radio.

My memory is of the waterfall. 

The water roared and tumbled over the cliff, rainbows flitting off the spray. The sound was purely ecstatic as millions and millions of water molecules clambered over and around each other, then landed on rocks and plunged deep into a pool obscured by the rising mist. 

We stared and stared at this magnificent, jubilant display of Creation. What a treasure. 

No tourists were flocking with their cameras to get a better view of water they didn’t know and a land they didn’t care about. No one was posing in front of the rainbows for a thousand clicks and then off to their next excursion. No one was traipsing through rained out roads and minefields to see this tremendous display of glory. 

No one, except for us. 

And we were only there because we had to collect an American missionary who had almost died in a rural village. 

I remember staring at the shrouds of mist as they rose back up over the cliffside, the water giving an encore, another wave before wafting off to its next journey. I pulled a woven wrap from Chad around me and shivered, no doubt pretending I was some distant relative of Lucy Pevensie and that this was my Cair Paravel. And in a way, it was. 

I remember turning to eat lunch with my mum. I remember watching my dad, who’d lost about 15 pounds in two weeks, eat his lunch and speak to the team leader (who had travelled with us) in English, then turn to speak to his friend in Portuguese. 

When people ask me, ‘What was it like being a missionary kid? What was it like living in Angola?’ I wish I could somehow transport them into this scene and share with them everything I was seeing and feeling all at once: the juxtaposition of a recovering man, loyal friends, near tragedy, and the absolute, unashamed wonder of Creation at our feet.

I wish I could share that memory and hear people say, ‘Ah, yes, I understand, what a difficult balance to live in.’ 

It’s really difficult to explain that challenging balance, of recognising the good and the terrible all at once, unless you’ve experienced it first hand. 

Being a missionary kid in Angola was living in the constant state of seeing the worst and seeing the best. Watching war ravage a nation and a people, then watching that war end and witnessing peace weave back into a land. Standing by as epidemics hit all around, and also seeing the flood of help that comes from churches when others are in need. Feeling fear at night and being grateful in the morning. Being different and still loved. Being a foreign misfit and still welcomed. Driving all day on roads that would fail any British inspection dismally to reach a father who may or may not be alive, find him recovering, then standing in front of the most beautiful natural wonder I have ever seen and probably ever will see, and giving thanks to God for undeserved provision. 

There are many different responses when I explain my life on the mission field. Many people exclaim how adventurous it must have been – and it was. But the majority of people have more negative, and maybe more naive, things to say about my lived experiences. 

Those are the people I most wish I could somehow share this story with – a strand of my memory demonstrating the reality of living between the good and the bad, between the eternal world and this broken one, between the plagues and the cascades of mercy.

Missionary kids, on any field, live in that space. Some missionary kids spend their childhoods in the back of a four-wheel drive watching the Jesus film over and over. They watch as the Holy Spirit captivates and moves, they watch on Sunday mornings as people grieve, weep, and share about their lost family members, their dying children, their lost homes, their broken land.

Other missionary kids live in a completely different context, some in thriving metropolitan neighborhoods, others in stable, quiet towns, but they continue to watch their parents serve a community, take on its burdens, and give their time and resources to a cause beyond this world. MKs often have a front row seat at the visceral fight for life; there on the mission field we see that precious glimpse of eternity over and over again. 

Some people say I must be relieved to be in the US or the UK and grateful to have left Angola, my home. Others tell me how unbelievable my parents’ sacrifice was. Some press to learn more, asking endless questions. Was I scared? Angry? What terrible things did I see? How is this life justified? Others, I know, are not really interested in hearing anything about a life so far beyond their own context or understanding.

No matter what you think of my experiences, however, my prayer is always that someday you get to see those same waterfalls. I hope that someday you are able to see an immense display of cascading mercy and joy amongst a seemingly impossible trial. I hope you too will be able to get a glimpse into Eternity as you stand on the edges of this world. 

***

The missionary life comes with a lot of sacrifice. It comes with losing time with family, losing time at home, in growing up too fast and in not knowing enough about your own passport country. It comes with extreme loneliness and even greater joy.

Missionary families need support tailored to their experiences, and those experiences are not always easy to understand. I will link to several resources for churches, families, and sending organisations who want to support and care for their mission families at the end of this article.

As an adult who grew up on the mission field, it has taken time to learn how to interact with my past with grace, compassion, and honesty. Living in a country that was not mine and living on the edge of a community as it grieved and grew was not always easy. It has taken years for me to be able to take hold of my story, with its misplaced grief, its perpetual homesickness, and its ill-fitting stories. There is a lot to unpack as an Adult MK.

Thankfully, you do not have to unpack it alone. There are some really valuable resources for adults who are looking back on their missionary kid experiences and trying to make sense of it all. I’ll list them at the end of this article, and I really encourage you to pursue them.

Your memories, your stories, your experiences are worthwhile. They are invaluable pieces of who you are, and navigating your story with grace, honesty, and understanding can be challenging but also restorative. There are unexpected travel plans, unknown illnesses, family stresses, hidden losses, and some grief sidelining most of our stories. But there are also beautiful surprises, like hidden waterfalls, that make remembering the journey a little sweeter. 

 

Resources

For Adult MKs: 
Misunderstood by Tanya Crossman 
Unstacking Your Grief Tower by Lauren Wells 
Unstacking Sessions with TCK Training  

For parents of MKs: 
Our Children, Our First Ministry: Discipling Missionary Kids
How Parents Can Help 

For sending churches, grandparents, and others at home: 
Churches supporting missionary families
Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help
10 Questions Missionary Kids would love to be asked
10 Questions MKs Dread 
Caring for TCKs when you’re not the parents 

For sending organisations:
TCK Training for Overseeing Agencies

 

Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~~~

Born in Scotland to American parents and raised in Angola, Iona McHaney Marcellino is a second generation Adult TCK, a nurse, and a writer. She currently lives in Cambridge, UK, with her husband and daughter. She enjoys working alongside others who are committed to supporting TCKs with research-focused TCK Care, and she interned with TCK Training from January to July 2023. Iona writes about her own experience as a TCK in her blog, authentic unrest. She enjoys connecting with other Adult TCKs, virtually or in-person, and discussing the nuances of the multicultural life.

What does the research say about TCKs attending boarding school?

When your family lives abroad, there are a range of educational options available to choose from. For some families and some students, boarding school is a really great option worthy of consideration. And yet there are also horror stories many of us have heard, which can make this decision particularly fraught for parents who are trying to make the best choices for their families. 

In this article I present four findings from TCK Training’s research on the experiences of TCKs who primarily attended boarding schools. These TCKs formed 12% of the total group of 1,904 surveyed and were almost entirely missionary kids. 20% of the missionary kids we surveyed identified boarding school as their primary educational experience, compared to only 2% of those from other sectors. 

1) Boarding school is linked to higher mobility.

High mobility turned out to be a very important factor in our research. TCKs who experienced extreme mobility (10+ location moves or 15+ house moves) were much more likely to report four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – a risk factor associated with negative outcomes in adulthood. 1 in 3 highly mobile TCKs had a high risk ACE score, compared to 1 in 5 TCKs overall.

TCKs who primarily attended boarding school had higher levels of mobility in every metric we measured. They lived in more countries, moved location more often, and moved house more frequently. Statistically speaking, a boarding school TCK could expect to move locations at least once every two years throughout childhood. In addition, nearly half of boarding school students moved house more than 10 times before age 18, compared to one third of all TCKs. 31% of boarding school students reported extreme location mobility, and 26% reported extreme house mobility. Only 5% of boarding school TCKs moved house fewer than five times during childhood. (Source: Caution and Hope for Boarding School Students)

These high rates of extreme mobility among boarding school students are not surprising, but the correlation of high mobility with high ACE scores means we need to take these transitions very seriously. 

An additional impact of boarding school mobility is attachment between parent and child. When boarding school is keeping parent and child apart for too long, it risks damaging important family bonds.

The Limits of Parental Separation chart from the book High Risk: Children Without A Conscience by Magid and McKelvey (1989) is a great reference for how to manage separation of parents and children without damaging attachment; this work is regularly referred to in devising custody arrangements. It can also be helpful in safely managing a boarding situation without damaging attachment. For example, the preferable limit for 6-9 year olds is two weeks’ separation from a parent, and the harmful limit is four weeks’ separation from a parent. For a 10-13 year old, it is four and six weeks, and for a 14-18 year old, it is six and nine weeks. 

2) Boarding school is linked to abuse – sort of.

The survey results linked to abuse among TCKs can be difficult to read. This section includes statistics of various types of abuse, but no descriptions of or stories about that abuse.

The rates of abuse among boarding school TCKs are high, but only slightly higher than what is seen in the overall missionary kid population. 20% of boarding school TCKs vs 16% of missionary kids overall experienced physical abuse at home; 43% vs 40% experienced emotional abuse at home, and 27% vs 23% experienced sexual abuse of any kind before age 18. 

The rate at which boarding school TCKs reported experiencing childhood abuse dropped dramatically over time. For those born after 1980 (Millennials and Gen Zs), boarding school TCKs actually had lower rates of physical abuse and emotional abuse in the home than missionary kids overall (11% vs 13% for physical abuse; 33% vs 39% for emotional abuse). 

Over time, reported rates of all types of abuse decreased. Boarding school TCKs born after 1980 were less than half as likely to be physically abused (11% vs 27%), and only one third reported emotional abuse, compared to nearly half of older boarding school TCKs (33% vs 49%). Sexual abuse also decreased, though only from 29% to 24%. (Source: Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs)

The survey also asked about experiences of child-to-child sexual abuse and grooming, although these are not included in the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire. In both areas, the older generation of boarding school TCKs reported the highest rate of the five educational groups. Younger boarding school TCKs, however, reported the third-highest rate of child-to-child sexual abuse (behind local school, and less than 1% behind homeschool), and the second-highest rate of grooming (behind homeschool). (Source: Mitigating Risk Factors for Boarding School TCKs)

The message here for parents considering boarding school is twofold. First, schools are learning from problems in the past; our survey results show that younger generations of boarding school students are at lower risk than their older counterparts. Second, no school experience is entirely safe – even homeschooling. We live in a broken world and cannot prevent all harm from coming to our children. Yet we do our best to protect children through education (for ourselves and also for them) and by carefully scrutinising the child safety policies and education that prospective schools have in place.

3) Boarding school is linked with fewer mental health issues in parents.

Living with an adult who is depressed, mentally ill, or attempts suicide is an Adverse Childhood Experience, one reported by 39% of the TCKs we surveyed (including missionary kids) but only 32% of boarding school TCKs. Not only that, while every other educational sector showed a sharp increase in the percentage of TCKs reporting household adult mental illness, the rate among boarding school TCKs actually decreased. 

We hypothesised that boarding students may be less aware of their parents’ mental health concerns as they are not home all the time. That said, it is also worth recognising that some families are choosing between homeschool and boarding school due to their remote location – and homeschool can be really stressful for some families. In these cases, boarding school may be the healthiest option available. 

4) Boarding school is linked with ongoing relationships.

One of the most important ways to proactively care for your kids is through Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). Many of these are connected to relationships, and this is an area where boarding school can be a gift. Having supportive friends, feeling a sense of belonging in high school, taking part in regular traditions, and having two non-parent adult mentor figures are four of the eight PCEs – and they are ways that boarding schools can give stability to TCKs.

Here’s one TCK’s perspective on boarding school life: “I made close friends that I kept close for many years. My dorm had the same people; we didn’t get anyone new until 10th Grade. We had a full house; it was the largest dorm, with about 17 kids, plus the dorm parents’ three kids. All the way up until 11th Grade we had the same brothers and sisters in my dorm.” (Source: Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, p 85)

When a TCK is deeply impacted by transition – whether they are constantly moving or whether they are seeing people move in and out constantly – boarding school can be an option to offer some relational stability. For TCKs living in remote areas, boarding school can offer the opportunity to make friends in ‘real life’ rather than over a screen. This is equally true for mentor-figures, which is another essential part of a well-rounded childhood.

As I explained in my book, Misunderstood, “Adults who teach and supervise at boarding schools and boarding houses have a huge impact on TCK students. TCKs I interviewed who made close pseudo-family connections with boarding school staff coped much better than those who were less connected.” (Source: Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, p 87)

TCK Training is about to publish some research showing that TCKs do better when they have peers their own age and that their closest friends almost always speak their native language. Boarding schools are sometimes the best option to provide these friendship opportunities.

In conclusion: there is no right (or wrong) answer for TCK education.

A comfort for parents considering boarding school is that younger TCKs who attended boarding schools had fewer Adverse Childhood Experiences than those in the past did. 

Another thing our research shows is that every schooling type comes with some level of risk. There is no perfect choice. Instead, make the best decision for your family — knowing that the best choice for your family may be different to the best choice for another family.

If you can make a choice that limits mobility, that might be a good way to limit risk. If there is a choice that lowers stress for any/all family members, that’s probably a good sign. If you can make a choice that ensures your child has access to friends and belonging, that could be a good way to improve the odds of a positive outcome. 

Whatever schooling choice(s) you make, it is important to learn about preventive care, such as how to care for kids in a way that protects them from unintended emotional abuse and neglect. It’s all too easy to unintentionally ignore our children’s needs when we ourselves are under stress from transition, moving locations, and dealing with the weight of everything involved in an international life. In addition, we need to know who is caring for our kids – at home and at school – and make sure they are educated about being emotionally healthy and safe.

In addition to avoiding causes of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), we can promote Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). When a child has 6+ PCEs, this buffers them from the negative effects of even a high ACE score. Responding to your child’s feelings, making them feel safe, and ensuring they are connected to peers, mentors, and communities, really does make a lifelong difference!

 

Photo by Sun Lingyan on Unsplash

Empty Nesting When You Have No Nest

Help me out. We need a new term, and we missionary folks love discovering or creating words.

You knew exactly what I meant when I used the phrase “empty nest.” The chicks have launched and are on their own. “Empty nesters” are their parents.

Before I had nieces, I used to roll my eyes at aunts and uncles who went on and on about their nieces and nephews. Quietly I judged them as being pathetic and wanna-be parents. (I’m shooting straight with you, I’m not proud of the recesses of my heart and mind.)

And then my oldest niece was born. It took less than one day to turn me into the largest hypocrite on the planet. If Paul was the greatest sinner? I was the greatest eater-of-my-words. AND I DID NOT CARE. (Have I told you her latest antic? Would you like to see a photo? Can you even . . . can you?! She’s amazing.)

The time zones between us didn’t matter. The long plane rides when I could leave the field didn’t matter. Here’s what I learned—when love enters the picture, you don’t care what others think.

TCKs are the same. When you love them, really love them, they enter a category all their own in your heart.

This post and question isn’t just for singles. It’s for any adult. What I’m trying to put words to is about loving a kiddo who is not your child and who will one day grow up and move on to the next chapter in their lives.

The term “empty nester” rightly refers to the parents.

What word or phrase could we use for those of us who have a young person who’s been a part of our daily life and now they will not be? We will love them fiercely, cheer them on loudly, pray for them faithfully, and miss them dearly.

Whatever it is, that’s what I am. And I know I’m not alone.

When Expectations Aren’t Reality: Supporting Your TCKs in the First Years of University

by Lauren Wells

I stood on a grassy hill hugging my parents tight as they prepared to drive away and head back to Africa, leaving me at university in Indiana. I had prepared for this transition. I had visited the school, had already made some friends, had earned my driver’s license on a previous home assignment, and felt ready and excited for this new chapter. It was going to be great.

A few days into the semester, I was required to go to an international student workshop. I was excited, thinking this was the part where I’d meet other TCKs. I was surprised to find that all of the other international students came from other passport countries for the purpose of university and that this was their first time living outside their home country.

I was equally surprised when our workshop consisted of teaching American currency (“This is a dollar. This is a penny, it’s worth one cent.”) and explaining how to dial 911. Having lived in the US until I was 13, I quickly realized I was the outsider in the international student group, so after I’d met the requirements, I never went back. 

As the semester went on, I tried to make friends. But it felt like every time I opened my mouth, the words I spoke didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. My attempts to be funny were met with awkward smiles. My attempts to deepen relationships by sharing about something a bit more vulnerable were met with comments that communicated a lack of ability to relate to my experiences and no invitation to continue the conversation.

I quickly felt like I didn’t belong with the monocultural crowd, but I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll only be here long enough to get my degree anyway, and it will be easier to leave if I never make close friends.” I knew what it felt like to leave close friends, so when my initial attempts to build relationship hadn’t worked, that seemed like a good excuse to stop trying.

I became the quiet one who walked through campus trying not to be noticed. I succeeded academically but have no memories of good social experiences. That first Christmas break, I remember feeling like a shell of myself, never having felt that level of emptiness and despair before, and I simultaneously decided that I just needed to toughen up and keep moving forward. 

School resumed, and I took on more classes than recommended, thinking that if I just poured myself into the academics, I could ignore the rest. But then, the grief started to creep in. Not just the grief of that year, but the grief that I had so skillfully pushed down for a long time before that. My Grief Tower was collapsing.

At TCK Training we work with TCKs on both sides of this story – educating families who are raising TCKs on how they can be intentional in caring for the unique needs of TCKs so that they can prevent adverse outcomes in adulthood and serving adult TCKs who reach out to us for support. 

In between the two parts of that story, we have found the need for preventive care and support. Sometimes universities have a wonderful TCK program, like MuKappa, that provides community and support for TCKs in their university years. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources available to university-age TCKs to guide them through that season. 

But there is good news! We can be intentional about supporting our university-age TCKs well, especially in those first couple of years. 

  • Set them up for emotional success by making sure they’ve had the opportunity to debrief and unstack their Grief Tower before university. The books The Grief Tower and Unstacking Your Grief Tower can guide you in doing that process in your own family. We recommend doing this at least 3 months before the transition to university so that the grief these conversations bring to the surface has time to begin to heal before they experience the major transition of starting university. 
  • Make sure they have avenues for connection and continued processing with safe people – family, friends, counselors. There will inevitably be difficulty in the transition, but they will not always want to share their hardships with you. Often this is because they won’t want to burden you on top of your international work or because they won’t want to disappoint you at their “failure” to thrive. Take away that shame by regularly asking them what has been hard. Ask them questions, and even when they don’t answer, let them know you don’t expect everything to be easy for them. For more on this, check out KC360’s workshop, “Indicators that University Transition is Going Well (or Not) with Dr. Rachel Cason” included in their free website membership
  • Help them develop a support network. There is potential for heavy, hard, or just unexpected circumstances to arise that require the help of a supportive adult. Asking for help can feel shameful, but that fear and shame can be reduced when the TCK has a list of people who have agreed to be a support to them. It is even more helpful when those people regularly check in with the TCK to see how they’re doing and what they need. Have your TCK help create a “supportive adult” list, and then ask the people on the list to regularly reach out to the TCK – both asking what they need and offering tangible ways they can help. For example, “Can I take you shopping for a winter coat? Can I come help pack up your dorm room for summer break?”
  • Teach them to celebrate wins. Adult TCKs often struggle to acknowledge their victories due to consistently feeling the need to adapt to fit the communities around them. The internal need to continue performing at ever higher levels leads to burnout. Celebrating victories, however, allows for rest, builds confidence and a sense of value, and strengthens their emotional bank to handle the difficult waves that come. 
  • Provide them transition support in their first year or two of university. An example of this is TCK Training’s Launch Pad program, which provides repatriating TCKs with a 10-month virtual cohort community, education, and support directly related to adult TCK experiences. There is space to process and grieve, along with regular checks-ins to celebrate victories and continue developing as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with Adult TCK resources so that you can support your Adult TCK by sending them relevant resources along the way. There is so much available now that simply wasn’t around only a few years ago! You can view all of TCK Training’s ATCK services, workshops, and resources at www.tcktraining.com/for-atcks 

The first couple years of university are notoriously the most difficult transition for TCKs. We believe, however, that with intentionality we can make these years not only healthy, but years that set them up for long-term emotional and relational health. 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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

Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

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