[The audio version of this article is available on the Pondering Purple podcast.
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During several reentry retreats at which I recently served, I was astonished at the prevalence of trauma among the MKs in attendance. So many of them were struggling on a profound level—that place in our spirits where truth gets outshouted by uncontrollable, irrational responses, and warped by self-defense mechanisms linked to distant events. There was acute anxiety, depression, disordered eating…
One night, I found an MK curled into a fetal position in an empty utility room, trying to get control over overwhelming emotions related to something she’d experienced more than a decade before. Another fled our classroom when she was triggered by a guest speaker who reminded her of a trauma-inflicting figure in her recent past. Yet another ran out of a fast-food restaurant and sat shaking behind the building, overcome by the noise and crowdedness inside.
As I learned some of the MKs’ stories, the displays of distress and deep-rooted sadness began to make sense.
These young adults still carried within them the acute aches of years gone by.
And though we might think that “time heals all wounds,” as the saying goes, what it more frequently does is seal off the pain, causing it to intensify and acidify beneath the surface until it finds a way into the daylight.
MKs are not immune from trauma.
What happens to other children around the globe might happen to them too, because trauma is unavoidable as we live in broken bodies on a broken planet. It is endemic to our existence, even in ministry contexts where we might think or hope we’ll be protected from life’s brutality. And it can be devastating in a life-shaping way.
But—and this is the good news—with greater understanding, early detection, compassionate support and therapeutic intervention, trauma need not be a chronic destructive force.
If we can recognize it for what it is and understand the power it wields, we as individuals, caregivers and members of a broader community can respond to it in a way that fosters healing, hope and wholeness.
The word “trauma” gets thrown around a lot these days. Far too often, it is seen as a transitory thing, a temporary condition related to fear or sadness. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is actually “an emotional response to a terrible event,” which in turn can cause a multitude of symptoms and related incapacities. It is, as therapist Aundi Kolber puts it, “anything that overwhelms our nervous system and our ability to cope.”
Trauma is not a stubbed toe or unmet wishes. It’s a force capable of changing a person’s brain.
It engages the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight, until it gets “stuck” in on-mode and can’t shut off the constant scanning for (and bracing for) danger.
Trauma impacts cells in the hippocampus, which directly impacts memory—both the ability to store new memories and the inability to suppress the graphic details of excruciating memories. This is why common sights, sounds, smells and events can “trigger” a trauma survivor and thrust someone with PTSD back into their most agonizing moment of suffering without warning.
Trauma also damages the prefrontal cortex, which, when healthy, helps to regulate emotions. This is the part of the brain that would normally signal to the amygdala that one’s current context is safe. When altered by trauma, though, the prefrontal cortex will have difficulty controlling feelings like fear and distrust, and this can lead to chronic anxiety and panic attacks.
Trauma actually injures the brain.
This is why understanding it is so crucial and yields significant benefits:
- We become more aware of potential harm and can prevent or mitigate it
- We recognize trauma for what it is when we or someone we love experiences it
- We name it and drag it into the light where it cannot thrive
- We pursue the help and remedies required to identify its origin, address its symptoms and move toward healing
It’s because of the crucial importance of understanding trauma that I was so excited to learn that TCK Training—an organization devoted to “cultivating thriving families abroad”—was launching a research project on Adverse Childhood Experiences, particularly as they pertain to Third Culture Kids.
Before we get into the study’s findings, though, let me give you a very brief overview of this preventative tool we call ACEs.
In the mid-1990s, the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente began to research the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences—ACEs—on the long-term wellness and health of the 17,000 participants in their study. They identified ten common sources of toxic stress, which they filed under three broad categories: abuse, neglect and household challenges.
The participants took a simple test to determine how many of those ten factors they’d experienced before the age of eighteen.
In cases where there was an accumulation of four or more significant stresses during their formative years, researchers found a significantly increased potential for future struggles in areas like mental illness, relational dysfunction, substance abuse, learning issues, illegal activity, disease, and even premature death.
The ACEs study was groundbreaking and seminal in its capacity to bring prevention, early detection, and aid to those whose childhoods had been smothered under multiple layers of trauma.
It allowed social workers, mental health practitioners and others to address and even eliminate some predictable negative outcomes by supplying at-risk children with the help, guidance and support they needed to grow in health and wholeness.
Given the importance of this preventative assessment tool, I was thrilled to learn that TCK Training was conducting its own research into the ways high ACEs scores might impact Third Culture Kids as well. The extensive summary of the study’s findings were released just a few weeks ago and can be accessed in their entirety here.
It’s the segment of the study that focuses specifically on Missionaries’ Kids that caught my attention, as this is the TCK sub-group that is central to my work.
Nearly 1,100 MKs responded to the assessment’s questionnaire, and roughly 1 in 5 of them scored 4 or higher on the ACEs test. That puts them squarely in the high-risk group for negative future outcomes. Let me repeat that:
1 in 5 MKs is in the high-risk group for negative future outcomes.
Now, if you’re doing the math, that also means that 4 out of 5 MKs are not in that more worrisome category. (Let’s take a moment to celebrate that!) But—please hear me—even one, two or three of those Adverse Childhood Experiences will impact a child’s spirit and warrant our attention and care. We don’t want to dismiss them because they aren’t “bad enough” to get our attention!
At 17%, the number of MKs with a 4-or-more score is higher than the 12% found in the average mono-cultural population. Interestingly, it’s also a lower percentage than what was found in TCKs raised in the military (25.3%), the diplomatic corps (27.1%) and the business world (28.7%)—a discrepancy perhaps due to the missionary world’s recent efforts to better address the needs of its children, while the other TCK subcategories lag behind in that area.
It’s important to note that the ACES scores of MKs tended to be higher among those who experienced frequent moves and among those who studied at Christian schools and boarding schools or homeschooled, rather than attending local or international schools. (You can read more about all these findings at this link.)
The information gathered through TCK Training’s research is invaluable as it stands.
But I wonder what the scores would look like if we could design a modified test that expands on the ten factors in the original to include MK-specific stresses that deeply impact personal outcomes.
The ACEs list currently includes stressors like physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, addiction of a parent, incarceration of a relative, and divorce. MKs are certainly not immune from any of those, but there are several others I’d want to add to more accurately measure the accumulated trauma MKs experience:
- Never fully belonging anywhere
- Being pressured to live up to unreasonable expectations
- Witnessing violence, famine, disease and other crises
- Navigating the upheaval of repeated transitions
- Feeling that God’s reputation and efficacy rest on MKs’ shoulders
- Saying innumerable goodbyes from a very young age
Some of the above might be labeled “small-T traumas”—painful but more minor forms of trauma that may begin with a less cataclysmic event, but grow in toxic significance and influence as they repeat and accumulate over time. As an example, those heart wrenching, incessant goodbyes in MK circles certainly process like big-T trauma.
If we added these unique MK-stresses to the more general research (adapting the scoring system to include them), I suspect that a much larger segment than 17% would be considered high-risk.
So many of us MKs carry the kind of unexpressed, unprocessed and embedded trauma that over time gnaws away at our wellness.
I’ve witnessed firsthand, in the young, teen and adult MKs I work with, some of the negative outcomes the CDC predicts:
- Unexplained medical issues
- Relational challenges
- Mental illness
- Something best described as “failure to thrive”
Left unchecked, trauma can indeed be an invasive and destructive force.
But it does not have to be.
To defuse or disable trauma, we need to recognize and treat it. Yet too often, those who care for MKs—and even MKs themselves—discount the impact it has had on the minds and spirits of children growing up in the high-pressured, über-mobile and sometimes unsafe world of missions.
There are multiple reasons that explain why we overlook trauma, but the primary four are these:
1. MKs unable to recognize trauma for what it is
MKs might assume that what they’re experiencing is normal, because people around them are going through it too. Here are a few examples—with names changed and identifying details altered:
Laura attended a reentry debrief when she was fifteen. When it was her turn to participate on show-and-tell day, she briefly left the room, then reentered wearing a full Hazmat suit. She wore it casually, more a quirky fashion choice than a symbol of her trauma.
It seemed normal to Laura that she’d lived in a country ravaged by Ebola. That she’d seen her father—a physician caring for the dying—only rarely, for brief visits in which the whole family wore those Hazmat suits. That she’d lost several friends to the merciless disease and had grieved alone, isolated from community. And that she’d recently escaped the country in the dead of night, illegally boarding flights to make it back to the States. It was trauma. But Laura didn’t realize it was.
In my own life, if someone had asked me at a young age whether I’d been subjected to sexual abuse, I might have said “no.”
It was normal in my foreign culture for men to pat my rear end when I walked down the street or to roll down their car windows and proposition me. It was normal for boys to be inappropriate with me and for older men to expose themselves to me. Yet it was trauma. And I didn’t realize it.
Ryan was about ten years old when a car bomb exploded outside the compound where he lived. He’d been playing with his young sister at the time and for a few moments didn’t know if she’d been killed by the blast that had blown through security walls and rained shards of glass down around them. He’d crawled on his hands and knees to get to his sister, blood seeping from the cuts in his palms and legs. It was trauma. Yet when I met Ryan at age seventeen, he still didn’t realize it was.
Because MKs often live in unusual contexts that don’t fit squarely into any of their multiple cultures, they may not develop a baseline understanding of what might be labeled “common stress” and what actually qualifies as Traumatic Stress.
And because they live in the world of ministry, soul-bruising trauma might get cloaked in words like “trial” or “test” or “attacks of the enemy.” With that spiritual reframing and its propensity to discount or overlook the human toll of trauma, MKs may never acknowledge the impact of their Adverse Childhood Experiences—nor the desperation of their need for help. (To be honest, this is often the same reason “grown-ups” in missionary circles miss their own traumas too.)
2. Caregivers unaware of the differences between adult and juvenile processing
Jessie was only nine when her little sister died after an accident in the South American country where her parents served. The family lived in a fairly isolated location and her sister was Jessie’s only friend, her only source of companionship, the only person who understood her life from an MK’s point of view.
Shortly after the funeral, Jessie’s parents began looking for silver linings—something that would lend meaning to the loss of their child.
Their newsletters and public presentations became testimonies to seeing God bring salvation to others because of the family’s enduring faith in the midst of unimaginable loss.
For years, every time Jessie would hear her parents sincerely praising God for what he’d done through their child’s death, her hands would go cold and her lungs would constrict to the point where she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She tried to hide the symptoms of her panic attacks and was mostly successful—until she attended a reentry retreat where we talked about accumulated grief, and she realized that her trauma had not faded with time, but was still as present and painful as it had ever been.
You see, Jessie’s parents had found a way to make sense of their daughter’s death and they assumed that their surviving nine-year old would be able to reason her way through it too.
They’d considered their trauma only from an adult perspective—without doing the hard work of imagining what it felt like to a defenseless child with rudimentary processing powers and no control over the circumstances bruising her spirit.
So the acute damage of Jessie’s trauma went unacknowledged and unaided.
It’s easy to see how adults with decades of life experience and a mature faith might be able to find a way forward in the aftermath of world-shifting events. I’ve done it myself.
Yet sometimes it’s that very resilience—that very “brush yourself off and focus on Jesus” attitude—that makes it so difficult for us to imagine the debilitating shock, horror, grief or agony of children who live through the same events, but without the capacity to reframe them and forge ahead.
III. MKs unwilling to report their trauma
There are two major reasons MKs don’t report trauma. The first is a lack of permission or vocabulary to express what hurts.
Too many MKs grow up feeling that they shouldn’t complain or talk about the hard stuff. That they should be stronger than that. That they should be able to wish or pray away the wounds that hobble them. They’ve been taught early in life that resilience is bucking up and getting over it, so they’ll tell themselves that what happened is no big deal and they shouldn’t be affected.
Until they’re clearly granted permission to speak of what hurts and given safe opportunities to do so, MKs will continue to feel that an admission of suffering is weakness, and that the inability to rise above it is lack of faith.
The second factor that impacts reporting is most clearly expressed in this quote from an adult MK named RT: “It was well known that if you talked to someone about your feelings, it could blow back on your parents. So, when I was sexually assaulted, I spoke to no one, because it might affect ‘the work.’”
As self-defeating as it may seem, MKs will often prefer to suffer in silence rather than burden their parents with what they’re going through or risk impacting the family’s ministry.
They’ll put on a good face and even obfuscate when asked direct questions, because they feel that their parents’ happiness and wellness, as well as their work’s legitimacy, depends on children feeling “fine” or at least being able to say they’re feeling “better.”
This inability or unwillingness to report only exacerbates the missionary world’s incapacity to recognize and respond well to trauma.
IV. MKs and MK Caregivers uninformed about the process of healing
The problem with trauma is that it isn’t a fade-over-time kind of discomfort. Ask the combatants returning from war, haunted by PTSD, if their symptoms ease as years go by. Trauma is a ruthless force. It anchors like a cancer to one’s body, mind and soul and will not move until it is patiently, knowledgeably and tenderly untangled from subconscious perspectives and unhealthy impulses.
The entire missionary/ministry community needs to educate itself about the methods available for us to address the damage of trauma.
We need to act quickly and proactively when a need comes to our attention. We need to destigmatize mental health intervention and help the suffering find the courage to seek it—because, along with spiritual practices, trauma will require a targeted therapeutic response to defeat it. As a people entrusted with caring well for each other, we need to be faithful companions as the sometimes lengthy healing process unfolds and, as much as we can, we must support the suffering with presence, prayer and financial provision.
For the 17% of MKs who score high in Adverse Childhood Experiences—and would likely score even higher if ministry-specific trauma were factored in—uninformed responses and minor measures will merely kick the grenade down the road.
Until the world of missions does what it can to recognize and treat trauma as a brain-altering and soul-squelching force, the suffering of children will continue to morph into the languishing of adults.
We owe those who are in chronic pain and turmoil so much better than that.
And I’m here to tell you from my personal experience that trauma need not be a lifelong sentence of anguish. Survivors can find wellness again.
How do we help mitigate the impact of trauma?
We begin with these six essential “gifts” we can offer those who experience PTSD. Each one of these suggestions deserves an article of its own—which may still be coming—but this brief summary is a good place to start:
Revelation – creating opportunities and safe environments in which the suffering can reveal the traumas of the recent and distant past
Confirmation – letting the hurting know that what they’re describing is awful and warrants the pain, anger, sadness, and despair they’re expressing
Affirmation – strongly stating that reporting what happened to them is neither weakness nor lack of faith, but an essential and brave first step on their path toward healing
Facilitation – helping them to access the professional, qualified assistance they need in order to find equilibrium and wholeness again
Devotion – sticking close to the traumatized during the long and unpredictable process of healing, because it might get messy and will certainly have ups and downs, but the challenges will be more bearable if they aren’t faced alone
Intercession – at all stages of relationship and in trauma recovery, blanketing those who suffer in prayers for courage and honesty, harnessing God’s power to reveal to them what they need to explore and process, and pouring out supplications for full and lasting healing
Prayer is a constant reminder of God’s presence, purpose and activity on this planet—and of his universe-wide desire to rescue us to himself.
If you are an adult of influence in a missionary family or in the ministry world, I beg of you: educate yourself so you can recognize trauma, declare it to be trauma, imagine what it is to be a child facing that trauma, learn what can heal or mitigate trauma, and then do something to aid those being pummeled by trauma. We actually ought to be doing this for all the members of our community, but particularly the youngest ones. See it, acknowledge it, speak it, prioritize it, treat it—whatever the cost—even if it doesn’t feel like trauma to your adult self. Children are too vulnerable and too valuable to be left to figure it out unsupported and alone.
And if you’re recognizing even just now that something you experienced ten, twenty, or fifty years ago has imprinted as trauma on your brain, I want you to know that it is not too late to seek help. Reach out to a professional with experience treating PTSD. The road to healing may take a while and it may not be easy, but give yourself the chance to discover what a life unshackled from trauma can be.
There is so much more to say on the topic of MKs and Trauma, but I hope this primer will help steer you toward more learning. If you’re one of the survivors among us, I’d like to invite you to use the comment fields below to let readers know what you’ve learned firsthand about trauma and what has helped you toward healing.
My own recommendations, as a place to begin further study, are these four resources:
- Suffering and the Heart of God by Dr. Diane Langberg is a fulsome exploration of the powerful impact of trauma on all aspects of our lives and the role of faith in healing from it.
- Try Softer by Aundi Kolber offers a beautiful look at how to heal from trauma while being kind and gentle with ourselves.
- For my right-brained friends, if you prefer to gather information in a more creative way, this blog post by Morgan Harper Nichols turns a conversation with Aundi Kolber into a beautiful collection of art and quotes. You can listen to the full conversation from her post as well.
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk offers a thorough look at trauma and is “essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and treating traumatic stress and the scope of its impact on society.” (Alexander McFarlane, Director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies)
My prayer as I release this article today is that all of us in the missionary community and beyond will deepen our understanding of the unavoidable human experience of trauma, in order to bring to those we love—and even to ourselves—the knowledge, compassion, support and hope true healing will require.
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