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8 Minutes Read

What Does It Mean To Be a Third-culture Kid?

A third culture kid is someone who has been raised in a different culture than their own. They may have been raised in two or more cultures at the same time, or they may have moved around a lot and experienced many different cultures as they grow up. The third culture kid experience is unique, and can be hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it first-hand. Parents and caregivers of third culture kids should take the time to understand what it means to be a third culture kid, and what they can do to help their child navigate their unique upbringing.

What is a Third-Culture Kid (TCK)?

People who spend a substantial portion of their childhood living in a country other than the one on their passport are sometimes referred to as “third culture kids” (or "TCKs"). It was the American social scientists, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, who originally used the phrase “Third Culture” back in the 1950s. During two separate visits to India with their kids, they interviewed and gathered data on American diplomats, missionaries, charity workers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and media representatives. 

In India, they encountered people from many various nations, and they learned that expatriates there had developed a culture of their own — one that was distinct from both their native land and their new host country. As a way of explaining their extraordinary way of life, the Useems used the term “Third Culture,” to differentiate it from “First Culture” which describes the adults' native culture and “Second Culture” as their host culture. The collective expat culture was then referred to as a “third culture,” as it existed somewhere in between.

TCKs are mostly children of diplomats, government workers, members of the armed forces, or anyone whose line of work involves a great deal of instability or movement. The word “home” is only a phrase for them because of their frequent moves. As a result of constant shifts and changes, third culture children lose three things —belonging, recognition, and connection — which are essential for their healthy psychological and emotional development.

TCKs are the result of complicated experiences, which may be both overpowering, empowering, and enlightening at the same time. Before they even form their own sense of self, third-culture kids encounter several difficulties assimilating the realities of many cultures. They may have grown accustomed to the traditions and cultures of other nations, while finding their own place of origin to be uncomfortable. They could feel out of place in their parents' native country, and more at ease with the many terminologies and traditions of their nation of residency.

What are the benefits of living as a third-culture kid?

Being raised in a different culture than your parents (and perhaps the rest of your family) can have its benefits for TCKs. Their first unique characteristic is their extraordinary capability for adjusting to new conditions. If both parents are working overseas on two-year rotations, the kids will swap schools every other year, making new friends and starting over with a whole new group. Children are less likely to suffer from anxiety about beginning again if they are taught, from a young age, to experience a healthy closure after relocating. With that knowledge, they can use the proper skills for adjusting to their new environment. This follows them into adulthood and can benefit them greatly in their professional and personal lives.

What's more, TCKs have no trouble connecting with people from all walks of life, regardless of their race, nationality, religion, or worldview. Most adults who grew up as TCKs have an interest in and a capacity for adjusting to life in different countries and cultures. They can be anywhere and not feel out of place.  When they first arrive in a foreign country, they are able to make friends quickly and easily thanks to their many interests and pastimes.

TCKs can also have a wider perspective. Most children raised in a third culture are more culturally-savvy than their peers, who are not exposed to other countries and ways of life. Their identity is shaped by their increased familiarity with other cultures. They place a premium on maintaining foreign contacts as a vital part of their identity and sense of belonging in the world. They maintain their international involvements, such as language study, travel, and expatriate work.

Third-culture kids are also exceptional team members and problem-solvers. If they've been through something similar, they often use that knowledge to reach out to those who seem lost. When conflicts erupt, TCKs can step in as mediators. As a result, they are capable of finding solutions to problems and overcoming obstacles.

What are the challenges of living as a third-culture kid?

The tremendous advantages of raising children abroad include allowing them to become fully immersed in the local culture, pick up new languages, and acquire life skills. However, children can have the same difficulties when relocating abroad that adults do. It is important to remember that relocating abroad is difficult and that not all children will adjust well.

When you relocate abroad, you must say goodbye to your loved ones. People who remain in their hometowns enjoy the constant presence of their loved ones. Some of their closest friends are those they’ve known since they were young and who have helped them through the challenges of adolescence. They feel a strong sense of family and community with their cousins and are showered with love by their grandparents.

But third-culture kids often struggle to form meaningful friendships. Having few or no friends is by far the most typical issue for a third-culture kid. When you know you'll be moving in two, three, or four years, it can seem pointless to invest time and energy into making new friendships. TCKs may feel out of place in their own countries after living abroad for so long. As people who are simultaneously citizens of many different countries and communities, TCKs often struggle to feel like they belong anywhere. 

Additionally, TCKs have to make more of an effort to be close to their families because of the distance and the frequent relocation. And the holidays are rarely the same for TCKs. They often miss out on family gatherings for important life events like birthdays, anniversaries, and holiday celebrations. 

It can be difficult for third-culture kids to overcome culture shock. The impact on both parents and kids is long-lasting. TCKs may experience culture shock when they immigrate to a foreign nation with a different way of life. After spending so much time and energy adjusting to one culture, it can be challenging to quickly adjust to a new one. It's easy to see how this would lead to feelings of despair. Some people may feel lifeless and lack the motivation to socialize with others.

Third culture kids often also have a hard time re-adjusting to their native nation. TCKs may feel isolated from their local peers because they have seen and done so much around the world. Due to their tolerant view of people of all backgrounds, TCKs can find it easier to criticize others who aren't as tolerant as they are.

How can parents raise their TCK?

TCKs can develop into children with outstanding abilities and capabilities if their parents are perceptive, sympathetic, and alert. Being a TCK is sometimes a result of necessity rather than choice, but compassionate parenting and a brave and upbeat attitude can transform it into a significant advantage in life.

Parents have a responsibility to support their kids when they are dealing with mental health issues, whether they are TCKs or not. Here are some suggestions for interacting with Third Culture Kids in a caring and helpful way:

Keep including them in your discussions

Let them know that you are working together as a team — participate in the planning process with them, and ensure that they understand how important their contribution is to you. Together, you should go discover the new location. Make efforts to introduce your child to any places or activities at your new home that your child was particularly interested in back home and that he or she was a regular part of.

Pay close attention to their actions

Make sure you pay attention to what they do and compare how they used to behave when they were at home with how they behave now. Be attentive to how your child behaves and if they act in a completely inconsistent manner, as this could indicate that they are having difficulty adapting to the new environment. There's a good chance they won't come right out and tell you if there's a problem, but subtle shifts in behavior can frequently reveal a lot more than words ever could.

Be patient 

Everyone has their own unique rhythm in life. By the time we are adults, we have already developed our coping methods and tactics, but kids are still in the process of discovering what works best for them. Be conscious of the fact that they may require more time to adjust to new circumstances. Your patience will be absolutely necessary for their healthy development.

Maintain strong ties to family, culture, and  native tongue

The primary issue that comes up for TCKs is a feeling of disconnection and a lack of a sense of belonging. Even though you should encourage your child to form new ties at the new place, it is also vital to maintain good friendships and family relationships from back home. This will help them feel a sense of belonging, and it will also make it less likely that your child will feel as though they threw away previous relationships.

Embrace their sorrow and honor it

Experiencing a sense of loss is natural and shouldn't be ignored. You should place the same importance on this as your child does. Bear in mind, they will behave in the same manner as you do. The more your child sees that you are also having to adapt and adjust, the more likely they will believe that what they are going through is normal and that there is nothing wrong with them. If they see that you, too, miss some things from back home, but that you are still doing well and that these things do not contradict one another, they will most likely respond in the same manner: by accepting the situation and going on with their lives.

Seek help from a professional

It can be beneficial for parents of TCKs to seek counseling from professionals who have the skills to assess each of their children individually and take into account their particular experiences in order to spot transitional points that could become stress-inducing situations.

Our counseling services are meaningful and purposeful as we specialize in working with those whose experiences are not mainstream. Click the button below to schedule a free initial consultation and together, we will work to successfully identify stressors that you and your TCKs may face while living abroad in a new country.


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