The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense e of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.


What is a TCK?

Coined by sociologist/anthropologist Doctor Ruth Useem in the early 1950s, a Third Culture Kid (TCK) is an individual raised outside of their parent’s culture for significant portion of their formative years. Born and raised outside of their parents’ homeland, TCKS often confess ambivalence towards some or all of their countries of origin. Third Culture Kids have developed a culture that is neither their parents’ home culture nor the second culture, but a unique third culture that is different from the sum of both parts.

Why does it matter to know if someone is a TCK?

It is not unusual for Adult TCK’S (ATCK) to develop restlessness, anxiety, identity problems, relationship struggles, grief & loss issues, depression and other challenges that might have roots in the TCK experience. To prevent this from happening, parents should understand what their child is going through and know how to provide support.

What are the challenges?

Moving abroad turns children’s lives upside down. Two challenges that Third Culture Kids (TCK’s) encounter include difficulty with cultural identity integration and unresolved grief. Children often find repatriation more challenging than their parents do, because core parts of their identity have been formed during their developmental years overseas. Frequent cultural transitions create multiple experiences of loss for most expatriate families.

Expat children have many losses

The British psychiatrist John Bowlby concludes that kids mourn in similar ways to adults from 4 years old and onwards. Expat children go through lots of losses that they will have to mourn. The myth of resilient children is painfully wrong. Resilient children are made, not born. Their grief might not be as pronounced and consistent as in adults, it does not mean it’s non-existent or more superficial. Actually, they are much more vulnerable to trauma than adults. If their grief is not recognized and acknowledged, children might suffer later from unresolved grief. This can result in behavioral problems ranging from anxiety, guilt, excessive anger to self-destructive patterns, substance abuse and school difficulties. Children may actually give up connecting with others. When they become adults and still haven’t solved their grief, they may face severe depression and/or relationships problems.

Most kids will be fine but…

It is important to remember that the attachement and identity challenges TCK’s face, while emotionally intense, do not always become problematic. In fact, many TCK’s emerge from their childhood of crosscultural living with a healthy identity, a rich history of secure attachments, and a resilience that is more robust than their monocultural peers. They experience what has come to be known in the positive psychology literature as stress-induced growth.

Why do some TCK’s experience growth after multiple losses, emerging with a healthy cultural identity and secure attachments, while others struggle?

Parents play a crucial role

It’s all about learning to experience healthy emotions during stressful periods. Parents and other caregivers play a crucial rol in helping their kids to learn these skills. By tuning in to the child’s needs, expressing empathy, and intentionally engaging in the child’s world, parents can help children be aware of and tolerate their emotions, put their feelings into words, and recognize their needs. This then facilitates healthy, adaptive behaviors.

What can you do as a parent or caregiver?

Considering the multiple transitions experienced by TCK’s the primary challenge is coping with losses of relationships and familiar environments. The primary emotion in such situations would be sadness, with a need for soothing and encouragement. Adaptive behaviors would include saying goodbye in a healthy way, crating memorials for their significant attachments, and grieving losses. TCK’s may also feel angry at having to go through painful, stressful experiences that they have little or no control over. Some TCK’s may bury these angry feelings, while other may choose to act out inappropriately. The challenge for parents and caregivers in these situations is to provide validation and empathic understandig of the anger while managing the child’s verbal and behavioral expressions.

Identity problems

Identity problems are more difficult for caregivers to help TCK’s manage, because they are not as noticeable as transition challenges. Often the emotional strain of TCK identity confusion does not become apparent until the person is in severe emotional or behavioral distress. It is important to help them to process their emotional experiences, validate their needs, and resolve unfinished business. Help your kids to create new personal meaning about their experiences and to construct a new narrative about their self identity.