Third Culture Kids and Adverse Childhood Experiences

by | Jul 22, 2022 | Blog | 8 comments

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.

The Research

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 America23(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.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Dan Elyea

    Dear Dr. Rachel,

    For over 20 years I’ve been Assistant Editor of “Simroots,” a twice-yearly publication for adult SIM MKs and their caregivers. (Stepping down soon from that position.)

    From that perspective, it struck me that some version of your piece would be appropriate for our readership. Final approval would have to come from Karen Keegan, the Editor.

    So, I’m reaching out to see if you’re at all interested in that possibility. In round numbers, we have about a thousand readers, all with some connection to TCKs, either as a TCK, a parent of a TCK, or a former caregiver of a TCK.

    What say you?

    Dan

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I say yes please! Honoured to be considered! Would you send me an email to rachelcason@explorelifestory.com to let me know what you’d need from me in next steps? Thanks so much for reading, and for all the work you do, Dan.

      Reply
      • Dan Elyea

        I’ll send our exchange to Karen Keegan, “Simroots” Editor. My wife has been in hospital for the past week, so I’m just now seeing your response. I hope we can carry some form of your very relevant piece. Perhaps a condensed version with fewer references, and with a link to the unabridged version in our Bulletin Board section.

        Thanks,

        Dan

        Reply
        • Dr. Rachel Cason

          Thank you Dan! I’m sorry my reply here is late! Hope your wife is doing better now.

          Reply
  2. Heather

    I love reading the little vignette’s on your blog. Each one gives me insight to things I see in my own life, even if from afar.

    Since HS graduation from rVA in 1988 I have seen so much good stuff emerging from research and on the field folks in regards to the TCK experience. Awesome.

    I think what I like best is I can read about something that I cannot talk to anyone about. I did not grow up in Africa, rather, my parents moved to the DRC when I was 15. I attended RVA for three years, graduating and then returning to the US two weeks later. I don’t fit the molds. I didn’t, “grow up” on the field. I didn’t have life long friends overseas, I wasn’t able to maintain any MK relationships afterward as their hardcore inner circle never could include outsiders like myself. And the one good friend I had, my senior year, literally dropped off the face of the earth not long after graduating. I have absolutely no connection to those 85 students, and I would venture to say most do not even remember me, because I was not an lifer MK. And I was an introvert. Ok, so that’s still my nature but I have come a LONGGGG way on working my way more towards the center between an introvert and extrovert to assist in life skills/functions.

    So I get to live life, literally, with two worlds colliding inside of me, and yet I do not know anyone life myself who lives in those two worlds. Half in and half out of the TCK experience. I think I was one of only two in my graduating class that did not grow up on the field.

    The result? I think i’m a patchwork quilt of life experiences, and I don’t fit into any category, yet like a Ven diagram, there are many overlaps. Because of that I read things that are written for lifer TCKs, and add my own half american/half TCK picture to the mix and pull out all the learning I can.

    For now, I need to know i’m not the only one with the best of experiences in my teen years overseas, and the worst of emotions/experiences being ripped from the only life I knew at such a prime time of life. And those are the stories I covet. I admit, when I pop onto the RVA website it’s all fun and games, so to speak. Everyone looks so happy, so content, so well adjusted. At least that is what my mind says. I envy those faces and wish I could go back and find a way to have made it a better experience as well. But in my opinion, walking out of teenage hood in america to Bukavu, Zaire and then boarding school was just, apparently, too traumatic for me to digest in a healthy manner. And I hate that. I hate that my experience in those high school years are not happy one’s, not one’s that I would ever re-live, nor send any child of mine into. Nope.

    Blessings to you and allllllll your work for those TCKs who had to live with the kind of trauma that no one ever wants to talk about, and need healing from. We all need healing from something in our childhood, and TCKs are certainly not understood by anyone but another TCK!

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s so so important we hear the variety of TCK experiences that are out there. Like you, I didn’t fit moulds when overseas – and I was a lifer so I had that at least as an ‘in’. But there are so many things that can feel exclude us from even a TCK identity, and when that was such a formative element of how we got to know ourselves and the world, that kind of exclusion is devastating. I’m so sorry for the trauma that you lived through – it makes total sense that your experience was too traumatic to digest – and you feeling so alone in it would have been a big element of how hard that was. I’m so sorry. Thank you again for sharing. Your story matters. You matter.

      Reply
      • Heather

        Thank you. I think the most frustrating aspect of it all is that it co tinues to haunt me from some little place in my mind! Not every day or moment, of course. But sheesh, it’s stupid to still be affected by years so long ago.

        Reply
        • Dr. Rachel Cason

          Not stupid at all. The impact of our stories is long-reaching, and the degree it’s haunting you is an indicator of its significance… not your weakness. It’s heavy because it’s heavy, not because you are deficient.

          Reply

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