Mitigating Risk Factors for Military 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 Military 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 military kids with overseas postings experienced. Military TCKs were the third largest group in our survey and were older on average than the rest of the group (source: Caution and Hope for Military Kids). This blog post will discuss the prevalence of various types of abuse and neglect, but no graphic descriptions. 

According to our research, TCKs who grew up in military families were five times more likely than Americans to experience emotional abuse. Our survey also found that nearly 1 out of every 3 military TCKs experienced sexual abuse and 42% 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. 

Our research revealed that high mobility increases the risk of high ACE scores. Military TCKs in our survey reported the highest rates of mobility, even compared to other TCK groups, meaning we need to take increasing measures to ensure that counteractive preventive care is implemented (Source: Frequent Moves Put Military Kids at Risk).


Abuse is broken down into three categories: physical, emotional and sexual. In each of these three categories, military TCKs had higher rates than TCKs generally. Nearly 1 in 4 military TCKs surveyed reported experiencing physical abuse, and nearly 1 in 3 reported sexual abuse. Military TCKs also reported emotional abuse at nearly 5 times the rate of Americans.
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. The rate of child-to-child sexual abuse reported by military TCKs increased 35% over time, in stark contrast to other sectors. 31% of Millennial and Gen Z military TCKs reported child-to-child sexual abuse, compared to 23% of older military TCKs. This increase is particularly important to note, as child-to-child sexual abuse is linked with higher rates of emotional abuse (65%), adult-to-child sexual abuse (44%), and 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 the case 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. 

5% of military TCKs reported physical neglect, nearly half of the rate of other TCKs (11%) and Americans (10%). Those born before 1980 were 4 times more likely to report physical neglect (6% vs 1.5%) than those born after 1980.
1 out of every 3 military TCKs reported experiencing emotional neglect, 3 times the rate found in Americans. Younger military TCKs reported experiencing emotional abuse at over 1.5 times the rate as older military TCKs (44% vs 29%). Most sectors saw an increase in emotional neglect over time, but military TCKs along with diplomat kids were the only sectors to report such significant increases.
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 in TCK households 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. Military TCKs born before 1980 reported the second highest rate of household adult mental illness (33%), second only to international business kids (41%). The rate among younger military TCKs was higher (42%), but average compared to other younger TCKs.

These high rates of adult mental illness among military families who live abroad demonstrate the need for extra 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 military families, parental violence was reported at 8%, slightly higher than among TCKs overall (6%). This was heavily weighted toward earlier generations, however, with military TCKs born before 1980 reporting parental violence at nearly 7 times the rate as their younger peers (10% vs. 1.5%). While the rate among younger military TCKs is quite low, it is still important to know what to look for, and what services are available for struggling families when they are far from ‘home.’
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 the rate of parental divorce/separation was 23% in the CDC-Kaiser study, it was much lower among TCKs at 7%. 14.5% of military TCKs reported parental divorce/separation, more than twice the rate of TCKs overall. Despite a slight decrease over time (something seen in all sectors), both older and younger military TCKs reported the second highest rates among all sectors (second only to international business kids), at 15% and 14%. While this does not necessarily mean that military families have worse marriages than most other sectors, it does indicate the pressure that many military families are under.
Substance Abuse

Substance abuse as an ACE factor required that an adult living in the home was an alcoholic or used illicit drugs. Military TCKs reported household adult substance abuse at twice the rate other TCKs did (23% vs 10%, similar to other non-missionary sectors). Although the rate of household adult substance abuse reported by military TCKs decreased over time (from 25% to 18%), those born before 1980 reported the highest rates among all sectors. Substance abuse can be another sign of families under stress, in need of care and support.
Risk Mitigation

While this data can seem discouraging, there is hope and specific ways to mitigate the risks we’ve talked about. The children of globally mobile families are able to have their needs met and ultimately thrive through support for the entire family. These challenges are reasons to take intentional action that reflect the urgency of the matter, not unsolvable reasons to despair. 
Because we know that high mobility is a risk factor for high ACE scores, the fact that our military kids have the highest level of mobility of all the demographics in our sample means we need to take increasing measures to ensure that counteractive preventive care is implemented…Despite the risk factors, there are ways to increase the likelihood of military kids growing into healthy adults even if their childhood is filled with high mobility and other risk factors.
In TCKs at Risk we outline a number of ways that organizations can protect children and support families. For example, additional research into Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) gives 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%... Simple intentionality in parenting, policies, and procedures can mitigate the risk and increase the chances of positive, healthy outcomes for Third Culture Kids.
With one quarter of military TCKs reporting 4 or more ACEs, these buffering protections are particularly important. (Source: Caution and Hope for Military Kids)
The ACE scores of military TCKs in general were higher than the ACE scores of TCKs overall, regardless of age...TCKs who experienced high mobility were significantly more likely to have a 4+ ACE score.
Child protection is essential, and organization-level strategies should be put in place to safeguard children. Families need education to understand not only the rewards but also the risks for international life. When the military sends a family abroad, that government 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.

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 military families long term.

As you seek to implement protective factors for your military kids, 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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