I knew it’d be hard to read Tanya Crossman and Lauren Wells‘ recent research. I was right. As much as I eagerly read the methodologies and results of their work, “Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids“, I could feel a heart clench of pain for the many TCKs I work with who know the pain of adverse childhood experiences all too well.
This is good research. And it’s research that matters.
This is good research because Crossman and Wells have skilfully and diligently distilled responses from 1904 adult TCKs to illuminate our understanding of what kind of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) TCKs have lived through. The original study in 1998 found a strong link between exposure to “abuse or dysfunction” in childhood and adult health complications that could actually shorten people’s lives.
Crossman and Wells have thoughtfully adapted the ACEs questionnaire in recognition of the fact that, “Adverse Childhood Experiences may look different or be contextualized differently when experienced by globally mobile Third Culture Kids” (Crossman and Wells, 2002: 10). They’ve even collected extra data on TCK ACE experiences, in recognition of how the original list of questions is not a comprehensive list that tells the whole story of possible traumas – and I’m excited for the future writings and results that will emerge from this data.
High ACE Scores for TCKs
A score of 4 or more on the ACE score (possible high of 10) is “linked to high risk for various negative behavioral, psychological, and physical health outcomes” (Crossman and Wells, 2022: 2). And the big news is that 21% of the total TCKs taking part in the study scored 4 or more points. Increased mobility increases that score higher, if the TCK lived in more than 10 locations before the age of 18, they scored 32%; 33% if they lived in 15 or more houses (Crossman and Wells, 2002:2). To give this context, a 2014 study in the UK showed 9% of the population having 4+ ACES (Bellis et al, 2014). Our TCKs are suffering. And we need to be listening.
I have a few questions arising from the results so far – one being that apparently being a mission kid TCK indicated lower ACE scores than non-mission TCKs – 17% at 4 or more points, versus 26%. This isn’t entirely reflected in my work with TCKs, so I’m interested in talking more to Tanya Crossman (watch this space) as we explore what could be going on there in the data.
I’d also love to explore the ACEs questions themselves more – just reading them (Crossman and Wells, 2022:32) hurt my heart and I found myself wondering how hard they were to engage with. These are very direct factual questions, necessary in research for the measuring of experiences but highly confronting on the page. I also am painfully aware of how my own mind engaged with these – arguing with them and finding “loopholes of subjectivity”.
If asked, as question 7 does, if a member of my household humiliated me or used emotions to shame me, I immediately can get caught by the need to acknowledge I was being humiliated. What if I wasn’t? What if I was wrong about that? Maybe I was just being “corrected”. But if I’m asked if I felt humiliated or ashamed of my feelings as a child, that almost feels like a different question. Unsurprisingly as a therapist, I’m especially interested in how research relies on shared understanding of what hurt us as children, and what was not “okay” in terms of behaviour towards us.
Why TCK ACE scores matter
But for the moment I just want to encourage you to read and inform yourselves of these research. We need researchers like these two – people who see the need to give scientific validity to the pain that we see TCKs living through, and who see a way to acknowledge that the whole story has not yet been told. We need creative minds to shore up the TCK voices who may still find themselves trembling, unsure if they are allowed yet to acknowledge the challenges of their childhood experiences.
This is research that matters because, while not the most cheerful piece of research out there, from my point of view as a life story therapist it does much to help people make sense of the “why” of their present day challenges. There is little that is more effective in blocking healing and change than a persistent sense that “I shouldn’t be struggling with this”.
I believe there is nothing more destructive than self-directed frustration because we “should” be doing “better”. Everyone’s childhoods leave traces that are carried on – some that empower, and some that hinder us. High mobility is simply not a neutral element of these lives. And we do TCKs a disservice if we imply that any challenges it brings can be mitigated by a “positive outlook”.
Your Story Matters
High mobility carries particular traces – impacting attachment styles, educational success, conflict management styles, cultural identification, and how we orient ourselves to the world around us. Understanding our own origin stories is critical to understanding the cause and effects that we are managing, and thereby unlocks the necessary compassion to move into a new chapter.
De Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–vii. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002
Crossman, T., & Wells, L. (2022, June 7). Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids. Retrieved from https://www.tcktraining.com/research/caution-and-hope-white-paper, 22 July 2022
Felitti, V. J.; Anda, R. F.; Nordenberg, D.; Williamson, D. F.; Spitz, A. M.; Edwards, V.; Koss, M. P.; & Marks, J. S. (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, 14(4), 245–258.