How diplo life can affect our kids
For all the wonders and joys, this diplomatic life
can really harm our kids.
Let's talk about that.
You’re about to read some very important words.
The last thing we wish to do as parents, aunts, uncles, friends and humans is damage the children in our lives.
But as a mentor of mine says: no one escapes childhood unscathed.
As parents, we're frequently exposed to information about how we must do x to prevent y and how we need to stop doing one thing immediately lest our children grow up to be serial killers. The internet thumps with parenting advice, but not much is given over to parenting when living the diplomatic life.
When it comes to living the diplomatic life, it appears as though our children can experience amazing highs and some awful lows.
We're so lucky that there are people like Tanya Crossman and the team at TCK Training (TCK is Third Culture Kid) who are doing some fantastic research and sharing their findings with us.
It’s clear that with more research and information we each have, the better we can help guide the young humans – and ourselves – through this diplomatic life.
It's one thing to have the information. It’s what employing agencies, families AND the whole global diplomatic community does with this information that will make the difference.
Over to Tanya…
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Dressed for Press: the unseen struggle of diplomat families
Tanya Crossman, Director of Research and Education Services, TCK Training
Individuals working in the diplomatic corps and foreign service sector, for any country, are by definition impacted by the vocational expectation of being a representative of an entire country at all times. This expectation is also placed upon their partners and children, especially during the experience of living outside their passport country.
Embassy children are often required to attend official events of some kind, at least occasionally. They are taught early to act appropriately, that appearances matter. These TCKs are often the best chameleons – they learn from a young age to control their outward behaviour, regardless of how they feel.
I have spent 17 years working with children who have grown up between countries, including many children impacted by foreign service, along with their parents, educators, and other support providers. I have heard stories of pre-teen children given a briefing at the embassy (outside their parents’ presence) listing all the ways their behaviour reflects on their country – and could impact their parents’ jobs. The pervading stress of knowing oneself to be seen and judged anywhere, anytime, puts a heavy burden on diplomat families. One diplomat kid I interviewed described it this way:
I remember my parents always being ‘on’, or as my mom says, “dressed for press.” For kids with parents in jobs that are very political, like embassies, and living with and going to school with people whose parents know yours, there is a strong feeling that your actions, successes and failures will be reflected on your parents.
Arielle, age 24 (American diplomat kid quoted in Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, p286)
This comment shows the stress of representative living both on children and on parents. The more stress parents are under, the less they have left to give to their children – despite the fact that their children, living under this stress, are in great need of their parents’ support.
Moving was a huge stress for my mother. As an ambassador’s wife the professional expectations on both my parents were huge and they struggled with meeting their own high expectations of parenting us. I have consciously raised my own children with more open communication and emotional honesty.
Diplomat kid born in 1966, responding to TCK Training’s 2021 survey of developmental trauma in TCKs.
Often these stresses and struggles are unseen, invisible, hidden behind good jobs, good lifestyles, tropical holidays and other perks others don’t look past. I recently co-authored two white papers about Adverse Childhood Experiences (also known as ACEs) in globally mobile kids, and how to manage risks associated with a globally mobile lifestyle. One of the key reasons we did this research was that these young people are often considered so fortunate for their international experiences (true) that they must be immune to the problems facing less fortunate kids (false). As we wrote:
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.
ACE Scores Among Diplomat Kids
The ACE score is a way to quantify the impact of childhood trauma, and has been researched worldwide beginning in the 1990s. Hundreds of studies have connected ACE scores of 4 or more (out of 10) with high risk of negative health outcomes in adulthood. In the largest study of ACE scores ever conducted, the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 American adults, 12.5% had a score of 4+. In TCK Training’s 2021 survey of 1,904 globally mobile Third Culture Kids, 21% had a score of 4+, including 27% of diplomat kids. High mobility was a big contributor to higher scores
among TCKs. While diplomat kids were less likely to experience extreme location mobility, they were more likely than any other sector to live in multiple countries..
94% of diplomat kids lived in three or more countries, compared to only half of all TCKs. Half of diplomat kids, on the other hand, lived in five or more countries, while only 10% of TCKs generally did so... 36% of diplomat kids who lived in 5+ countries before age 18 had an ACE score of 4+.
In our second white paper (TCKs at Risk) we explored twelve different risk factors and their prevalence in the TCK community. When we looked at TCKs born after 1980 who grew up in diplomatic families, we found some heartbreaking numbers. 28% experienced physical abuse, 27% experienced sexual abuse, 60% experienced emotional abuse, and 51% experienced emotional neglect. That means more than half of Millennial and Gen Z diplomat kids felt as children that they were unloved or unimportant, or that their family was unsupportive.
In addition, 19% reported substance abuse (alcoholism or illicit drug use) by an adult in their home, 8% reported violence toward a parent, and 42% reported that an adult in their home experienced mental illness. Previous research has indicated that working internationally doubles the risk for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, so the high rate of mental illness seen in our study is therefore not unanticipated. The impact of this stress on families is demonstrated in the high levels of emotional abuse and neglect being passed on to children by parents who do not have the resources to keep their whole family healthy through the stressful situations in which they find themselves.
Our survey had an optional comment section, where respondents could add anything additional they wanted to share. A lot of the responses from diplomat kids described a common TCK reality Lauren Wells described as the “ampersand” life in her book Raising Up A Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids. This is the both-and experience of both enjoying privileges and joys, but also experiencing trauma and grief. Here are three such examples from the survey comments:
Even the negative experiences have helped me be a better person, but I do have issues with being close to people and a negative relationship with my family.
Diplomat kid born in 1979
Living abroad has been an intense experience filled with lots of love and sorrow at the same time.
Diplomat kid born in 1999
Despite having seen trauma while overseas, I also saw a lot of good in the world.
Diplomat kid in born 2001
Both realities are true. Both sets of experiences happen, and are happening, for diplomat kids around the world today. If we shout about all the good things without also addressing the difficult things, we do a disservice to diplomat kids in need of support.
Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to prevent the risks of a globally mobile lifestyle leading to negative health outcomes. Research into Positive Childhood Experiences gives us a series of preventive care measures which reduce risk for diplomat kids and other globally mobile children.
Risk Prevention for Diplomat Kids
Positive Childhood Experiences (also known as PCEs) are protective factors that help ameliorate the risks of high ACE scores. In short, PCEs are about children feeling safe, heard, and that they belong at home, at school, and in the wider inter-generational community.
Having higher counts of PCEs was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult.
Governments are beginning to take note of the impact of ACEs on overall public health. The importance of prevention science in improving outcomes is becoming more apparent. As we shared in our white paper:
Efforts that focus on building healthy families early in the life of a child are an effective means of preventing ACEs and reducing their damaging effects. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University offers three principles for helping families with young children thrive: enhancing responsive relationships, strengthening core life skills, and reducing sources of stress. While this advice was given to governmental policymakers, we suggest that it is also applicable to all agencies responsible for sending families abroad, and overseeing their care while they live outside their passport countries. This includes, though is not limited to, governments (especially their foreign service and military branches).
Sending a family abroad creates risk for children’s long-term health but there are simple and practical ways to mitigate those risks. Meaningful family support might look like genuine time away from work and representative stress, quality resources for intercultural parenting and emotional health/resilience (something TCK Training provides remotely and in-person all year round), and access to therapists with international experience. Government employees working abroad, whether as diplomats or in any area of foreign service, deserve effective personal and family support to promote the long-term well-being of their children.
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Tanya - thank you for sharing these words, statistics and wisdom with us.
No matter how many times I read them, I'm always left in a reflective mood and find different ways of how I can show up in support of our children.
Be sure to join Tanya and me for our conversation in Ep. 56 of The Lonely Diplomat podcast from Saturday 18 February 2023.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the author's and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.