Mitigating Risk Factors for Missionary Kids

LauREN mCCall and Tanya crossman
When TCK Training released our white paper, Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids, we were only beginning to scratch the surface of the data we collected from 1,904 individuals who completed our 2021 survey on childhood trauma in globally mobile Third Culture Kids. In our second white paper, TCKs at Risk: Risk Factors and Risk Mitigation for Globally Mobile Families, we looked at 12 risk factors and ways to mitigate these risks. This article is part of a series of blog posts that looks a little deeper at certain sub-groups represented in the data.

Mitigating Risk Factors for Missionary Kids

In the course of our research into Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile young people, we learned a lot of difficult truths about what Missionary Kids experienced. According to our survey, TCKs who grew up in missionary families were four times more likely than American peers to experience emotional abuse. Our research also found that 2 out of every 5 missionary kids reported feeling neglected and 39% of missionary kids reported household adult mental illness.
Internationally mobile families and children are often viewed as privileged, and therefore not at risk of ACEs, PTSD, or other mental health struggles. This data suggests the opposite.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) 

Research into ACEs has taken place worldwide across 25 years. The ten ACE factors are divided into Child Maltreatment (abuse and neglect directly suffered as a child) and Household Dysfunction (factors affecting the childhood living environment). The ACE questionnaire asks about childhood experiences without using the words "abuse" or "neglect" - helpful for catching abusive or neglectful experiences a person would not label that way themselves. We often compare our results to the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 Americans, as this is the largest ACE study done worldwide to date. Comparisons with other global populations can be found in our white paper.

We saw consistently different results across categories among TCKs born before/after 1980 – with the Boomer/Gen X generations on one side, and the Millennial/Gen Z generations on the other. This also delineates the groups who were/were not impacted by the internet during childhood.


Abuse is broken down into three categories: physical, emotional and sexual. Missionary kids in our survey were half as likely to experience physical abuse as their American peers, however they were four times as likely to experience emotional abuse. Our survey also revealed that 1 out of every 5 missionary kids experienced sexual abuse.

While child-to-child sexual abuse was not included in the original ACE study, it is worth noting due to the lasting effects. Over 1 in 4 missionary kids reported experiencing child-to-child sexual abuse – the highest rates among all sectors – with no significant difference between generations. For those who had experienced child-to-child sexual abuse, there were higher rates of emotional abuse (65%) and adult-to-child sexual abuse (44%), as well as emotional neglect (54%). 

Neglect is defined through the lens of perception, where a child feels/worries their emotional/physical needs will not be met. While physical neglect is often seen as an extension of poverty, in the ACE context it is not just about what the child has access to but also about their security that provision will continue in the future. In cases of emotional neglect, a child feels unloved or unimportant – even if their parents actually do love them. In cases of physical neglect, a child feels their physical needs may not be met – even if they are always fed and cared for. This can look like worry that they will not have enough food, shelter, clean clothing, protection, or medical care. 

Physical neglect among missionary kids was nearly 1.5x higher than among Americans, and nearly 2x higher than among non-mission TCKs. Of those born after 1980, 15% of missionary kids reported feeling physically neglected, compared to 11% of the older generation.
Household Dysfunction 

Household dysfunction encompasses household adult mental illness, parental violence, parental divorce or separation, household adult incarceration, and household adult substance abuse. Incarceration was so low among TCKs that we have not included it in this summary.  

Household Adult Mental Illness

Household adult mental illness is an ACE assigned to anyone who had an adult living in their home during childhood who was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide. 39% of TCKs overall and 42%-44% of TCKs born after 1980 (depending on their sector) reported household adult mental illness. 39% of missionary kids reported Household Adult Mental Illness, 2x the rate of Americans. 30% of Boomer/Gen X missionary kids (born before 1980) reported household adult mental illness.  However, the rate increased by a third in younger generations (those born after 1980) with nearly 2 out of every 5 reporting household adult mental illness.
Parental Violence

Parental violence is defined as a child being impacted by, even if not actually witnessing, violence toward a mother/step-mother or father/step-father. Missionary kids were 3x less likely to experience parental violence than Americans. However, the mission sector was the only sector to not see a decrease over time. While there is not a significant increase, the fact that there is any increase at all indicates care is needed.
It is vital that everyone who cares for TCKs be educated on what domestic abuse is, how to recognize it, and how to support families and children when domestic abuse is present.  
The support needed can be challenging to find while living abroad, but it is vital to extend services to these families in crisis.

While rates of parental divorce/separation was 23% in the CDC-Kaiser study, it was much lower among TCKs. All sectors saw a decrease in the divorce rate over time. Among missionary kids, divorce was very low at not even 2% of those who were surveyed. That said, correlation is not causation, and the low rate of divorce does not necessarily indicate healthy marriages.
Substance Abuse

Substance abuse as an ACE factor means that an adult living in the home was an alcoholic or used illicit drugs. While household adult substance abuse was nearly non-existent at 3% among missionary kids, the trends among older and younger generations were distinctive. While most other sectors showed a downward trend from older to younger generations in household adult substance abuse, missionary kids showed an increase between older and younger generations. While small, the younger generation of missionary kids reported a rate 1.5x higher than older missionary kids. This seems to be another sign of families under stress, needing care and support.
Risk Mitigation

This data can seem pretty disheartening but there is hope found in strategies to mitigate the risks we’ve talked about.  These challenges and risks are not unsolvable or reasons to despair, but rather reasons to take action in intentional ways that reflect the urgency of the matter. Globally mobile families are better able to meet their children’s needs when they are well supported by their sending agency and community.
Simple intentionality in parenting, policies, and procedures can mitigate the risk and increase the chances of positive, healthy outcomes for Third Culture Kids.
In TCKs at Risk we outline a number of ways that organizations can protect children and support families. For example, Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) give a roadmap for effectively buffering children from difficulties they face.
When a person had four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, also having at least six of these Positive Childhood Experiences lowered the risk for depression in adulthood by 72%.
With 17% of missionary kids surveyed reporting 4 or more ACES, PCEs are extremely important to building up a healthy future generation of missionary kids. (Source: Caution and Hope for Missionary Kids.)

Furthermore, child protection is essential, and organization-level strategies should be put in place to safeguard children. Additionally, families also need education to understand not only the rewards but also the risks for international life. When a mission organization sends them abroad, that mission organization also bears responsibility for providing adequate information and effective support. Mission organizations can be wonderful, but they also need institutional backing to provide the best care possible.

Protective factors such as Positive Childhood Experiences, healthy parent-child relationships, and healthy parental mental health are all tangible aspects of intentionality. Each protective factor will assist in mitigating the risk of Adverse Childhood Experiences taking their toll on mission children long term.

As you’re working to implement organizational-level strategies to care for families your organization is sending abroad, TCK Training is here to help! We offer a range of training and support, both organization-wide and for individual families. For example, you can learn about Preventing TCK Neglect as an Organization, Sexual Abuse Awareness Training, or applying our research in context. We also have resources designed specifically for the mission community, such as Biblical Foundations for MK Care, and our Open & Go TCK Retreat Curriculums, which are perfect for supporting mission kids at your organization conference or area retreat.

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