Mitigating Risk Factors for International Business 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 International Business 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 the children of international business families experienced. For simplicity, throughout the rest of this post, we will use the term ‘International Business Kids (IBKs)’ to describe this group. This blog post will discuss the prevalence of various types of abuse and neglect, but no graphic descriptions. 

Three quarters of IBKs in our survey reported moving abroad due to a company transfer, where a company sends an employee overseas and their family goes along. The other quarter of IBKs had parents who were entrepreneurs, running their own businesses, or who consciously looked for work abroad rather than being sent by a company. (Source: Caution and Hope for International Business Families.)

According to our research, TCKs who grew up in international business families were five times more likely than Americans to experience emotional abuse. Our survey also found that 1 out of every 2 IBKs reported feeling neglected and 44% of international business kids born after 1980 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. Nearly 1 out of every 4 IBKs in our survey reported experiencing physical abuse, while nearly 1 in 3 reported sexual abuse. International business kids also reported emotional abuse at 5x the rate Americans did.
While child-to-child sexual abuse was not included in the original ACE study, we included it in our research because of the lasting effects it has on survivors. IBKs reported average rates of child-to-child sexual abuse, however, while in other sectors the rate decreased over time, this was not the case for IBKs and Military Kids. Instead, 25% of Millennial and Gen Z IBKs reported child-to-child sexual abuse, compared to 22.5% of older IBKs. Child-to-child sexual abuse is linked with 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 – whether or not 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 rates among IBKs were the same as those of Americans. However, when we break the numbers down by generation, we see a concerning trend. IBKs born after 1980, were twice as likely to experience physical neglect than those born before 1980. This means that 12% of Millennial and Gen Z IBKs felt or feared that their physical needs would not be cared for.
1 out of every 2 IBKs reported emotional neglect – nearly five times the rate seen in Americans.  International Business families were the only sector to show a decrease in the rate of emotional neglect reported over time. That said, IBKs born after 1980 still reported emotional neglect at a rate of 47%, higher than the average of 39% among TCKs overall.
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 reported household adult mental illness, compared to 19% of Americans. IBKs reported the highest rate of household adult mental illness of all sectors, both among the older generation (42%) and the younger generation (44%). The high rates of adult mental illness among TCKs in comparison to Americans demonstrates that many expatriate families are under stress, especially those who move abroad for work, and they need support.
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. Among international business kids, parental violence was reported at 9%, 1.5 times higher than the rate reported by TCKs overall. When broken up between generations, however, older international business kids bore the brunt of this, reporting parental violence at four times the rate their younger peers did (17% vs 5%).
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.
While parental violence in the international business families we surveyed decreased over time, knowing that parental violence occurs in international communities and what to do about it is crucial. 5% still equals one in every 20 families! The support needed can be challenging to find while living abroad, but it is vital to extend services to these families in crisis.


While the rate 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. Overall, international business kids reported experiencing parental divorce/separation at 17%, more than twice the rate of TCKs overall. Although there was a decrease over time, both older and younger IBKs reported the highest rates of parental divorce of their generations, at 19% and 16% respectively. 

This does not necessarily mean that international business families have worse marriages than other sectors, but may rather reflect a lower threshold of shame/career impact compared to other sectors. Whatever the case, there are certainly many families under pressure within the international business world.
Substance Abuse

Substance abuse as an ACE factor required that an adult living in the home was an alcoholic or used illicit drugs. 1 out of every 6 IBKs reported household adult substance abuse, compared to 1 in 4 Americans. (This is similar to other non-missionary TCK sectors.) International business kids reported lower rates of substance abuse over time (20% vs 16%).Substance abuse can be another sign of families under stress, in need of care and support.
Risk Mitigation

This data can seem pretty disheartening but there is hope, with ways to mitigate the risks we’ve talked about. Globally mobile families need support in order to meet their children’s needs and ultimately thrive. 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.
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 companies 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 nearly 1 in 3 international business kids surveyed reporting 4 or more ACEs, PCEs are extremely important to building up a healthy future generation of international business kids. Furthermore, child protection is essential, and company-level strategies should be put in place to safeguard children. Additionally, families need education to understand not only the rewards but also the risks for international life. When a company sends them abroad, that company also bears responsibility for providing adequate information and effective support. Volunteer family organizations can be wonderful, but they also need institutional backing to provide the best care possible.
29% of Business Kids had four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. This statistic should give pause to all international business families, and all companies sending families abroad. This life is correlated with higher risk for children, impacting their long term health and wellness. When asking a family to move abroad, we are asking them to risk their children’s long-term wellness. That said, risk does not equal certainty, and there is a lot we can do to buffer children from these risks.
Families who are self-initiated – whether they are entrepreneurs or simply found a job overseas rather than being sent by a company – do not have someone else to provide resources. And unfortunately, too many of those who do have a ‘home office’ do not receive much by way of support either. Whatever your situation, you are not alone! There are lots of things you can do. 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 the children of business families long term.

Whatever your situation – self-initiated or sent, parent or HR/family caregiver – 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. Parents seeking direct support can benefit from workshops such as Understanding Emotional Abuse and Neglect as a Parent, Risk Prevention for Highly Mobile Families, and Raising Healthy TCKs.
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