Expat Life

Risk Prevention for Globally Mobile Children

As the children around us grow into adults, we see some who thrive and some who seem to struggle intensely. In our globally mobile community the contrast is often stark, and it causes us to wonder: how do some children seem to be more resilient than others despite experiencing similar hardships? 

At TCK Training, we began looking at what the field of prevention science deems as helpful childhood experiences versus those that can be harmful to children and began comparing them with the lives of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) we worked with. Third Culture Kids are children who live outside of their parent’s passport culture during their developmental years (such as military kids, global business kids, missionary kids, foreign service kids, and others). Our focus as a company became preventive care for TCKs. Preventive care does not mean taking away the challenges that often accompany the TCK life but instead, coming alongside those challenges with intentional care. What we’ve found is that it isn’t the challenges themselves that are the problem, it is the way they are walked through that determine whether they become resilience-building experiences or result in accumulating fragility.

So how do you as a parent learn how to walk your children through the globally mobile life well?

It can be particularly difficult for globally mobile families to find accurate research to lean on when looking for effective parenting techniques, as most research is based in geographically stable communities. This is slowly changing, however, with an increase in research on Third Culture Kids and expat communities. 

In 2021, TCK Training undertook a survey of adult Third Culture Kids that looked at experiences of developmental trauma and the prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The data was used to calculate ACE scores for each respondent, which was published in a white paper in June 2022. This research points the way toward effective preventive care strategies for globally mobile Third Culture Kids and looks at the role their parents, schools, and communities each have to play in that care. Our goal is to see TCKs thrive in childhood and adulthood and this research offers tangible structures that we can use to guide how we support TCKs effectively.

ACE scores and global mobility

An ACE score is a number between 0-10, indicating the number of types of trauma an individual was exposed to before age 18. An ACE score of 4+ has been connected, through hundreds of studies over decades of research, to a higher risk of various types of negative behavioral, psychological, and physical health outcomes – including risk of cancer, autoimmune conditions, addiction, and depression. 

Previous studies have shown a rate of 4+ ACEs of 12.5% in the US, and 9% in the UK and the Philippines. In the TCK Training survey, 21% of globally mobile TCKs had 4+ ACEs. The survey also showed that TCKs who experienced high mobility were significantly more likely to have a 4+ ACE score.

“Nearly a third of TCKs in our sample who moved more than 10 times during childhood had a high-risk ACE score of 4 or more, compared to less than a fifth of those who moved less frequently… One third of [those who lived in more than 15 houses during childhood] had an ACE score of 4 or higher… High mobility is very clearly correlated with higher ACE scores among TCKs in this sample.”

Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids

Because high mobility is a common experience for TCKs it’s important that we pay attention to the fact that high mobility does put TCKs at higher risk for long term challenges. Deliberate implementation of researched protective and preventive strategies can buffer them from those risks. Much can be done to equip parents and extended family members as well as to educate community leaders in how to provide effective preventive care for TCKs. 

Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs)

The hope-filled framework of Positive Childhood Experiences gives several factors that children need to buffer them from challenges. When PCEs are maintained, their resilience increases as they go through hardship. One of the most incredible findings in PCEs research is how they counteract ACEs. 

[PCEs] act as protective factors and explain how someone with a high ACE score can still thrive in adulthood. Bethell and her coworkers found that having higher counts of PCEs was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult; that those with higher levels of positive experiences were over 3.5 times more likely to have healthy social and emotional support as an adult; and that accumulation of PCEs shifted the outcome positively in adulthood.”

Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids

The PCEs are: 

  • Feeling that when they express difficult emotions, they are heard and validated by their parents
  • Feeling physically safe in the home
  • Feeling their parents stand by them during difficult times and that they are a priority
  • Feeling supported by a peer group 
  • Feeling a sense of belonging within a larger, multigenerational group 
  • Having routines and traditions to look forward to 
  • Feeling a sense of belonging in high school/secondary school  
  • Having two non-parent adult relationships who take a genuine interest in them

It can be easy to let some of these PCEs be deprioritized in the wake of the globally mobile life but knowing that these are the protective factors that combat the hardships children experience means that they need to be intentionally implemented.

One way to begin implementing PCEs is to ask each of your children if and how they feel they have each of the PCEs. We recommend sitting down and asking each child privately, so they feel free to share and aren’t reiterating a sibling’s answer. If there are any, they express they don’t feel they have, ask more questions and brainstorm together how you might meet that PCE. Take care to not be defensive or downplay their response, but instead be curious and consider how you can increase the number of PCEs that they have. 

While we cannot prevent TCKs from experiencing all ACEs and childhood traumas, we can offer the protective buffer that PCEs provide. If you need external support as you process through these as a family, please reach out to us at to schedule a parent consultation. 

Learn more about the cited research and preventive care at TCK Training

Resources:

Bethell, Christina et al (2019). “Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels.” The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.

Crossman, Tanya & Wells, Lauren (2022). “Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids.” TCK Training. Accessed at https://www.tcktraining.com/research/caution-and-hope-white-paper 

Crossman, Tanya (2016).Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century (Summertime Publishing).

Sege, Robert et al (2017). “Balancing adverse childhood experiences with HOPE: New insights into the role of positive experience on child and family development.” Boston: The Medical Foundation. Accessed at www.cssp.org

Smith, Elizabeth Vahey (2022). The Practice of Processing: Exploring our Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course (independently published).

Felitti, Vincent J. et al (1998). “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Wells, Lauren (2020). Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care (independently published).

Wells, Lauren (2021). The Grief Tower: A Practical Guide to Processing Grief with Third Culture Kids (independently published).

Additional sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). “About Adverse Childhood Experiences.” Atlanta, Ga.: CDC.

Chapman, D.P. et al (2004). “Adverse childhood experiences and the risk of depressive disorders in adulthood.” Journal of Affective Disorders. 

Dube, S.R. et al. (2001). “Childhood abuse, household dysfunction, and the risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span: Findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Felitti, V. J. (2009). “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Health.” Academic Pediatrics.

Ramiro, L. S. et al. (2010). “Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and health-risk behaviors among adults in a developing country setting.” Child Abuse & Neglect.

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