Who are Third Culture Kids?
Answering this question fully would require at least a full article in itself (if not an entire book), so instead I’m going to give the extremely simplified version as I understand it: “third culture kids” (TCKs) are people between the ages of 0 and 18 who have spent a significant part of their developmental life outside their parents’ culture, most often in a different country to their parents’ home country. TCKs are often the children of missionaries, international business people or military personnel, or their parents work in some other career that leads the family to live abroad for a period of time. The TCK lifestyle is often one of diverse cultural experience and a high level of mobility.
Unique Challenges TCKs Face
Identity: Figuring out who you are as a young person is challenging enough in itself. Imagine how this challenge would be compounded if you were born in India, lived in Italy from ages 5-12, and then landed in Seattle at age 13. Do you identify as Indian because you were born there and are ethnically Indian, or do you identify as Italian because Italy feels more like home? Growing up in Italy you learned the rules of the culture without much effort, understood what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior, what people expected of you, and so on. However, when you arrive in Seattle you aren’t as culturally savvy. You’re not quite sure what the rules of this new society are, or how you’re going to fit into the system. While you may have been the “class clown” in Italy, these Seattleites don’t seem to get your humor. Not to mention that your parents seem to have different rules to those of American parents … so who’s right? These are just a few examples of the many questions and challenges a TCK might face upon moving to a new culture and trying to find their identity.
Rootlessness: For youth who have grown up moving from country to country the question “where is home?” can be difficult to answer. Especially for highly mobile TCKs, the frequency of their moving may not have afforded them enough time to become truly attached to any one place, or to feel grounded in it. For some TCKs “home” may best be defined as wherever their family currently lives, by the place they return to for a few months each summer, or by an entity such as the military. “Coming home” may mean something very different to returning to a particular house or city. For some, this sense of “rootlessness” is also linked to a strong feeling of “restlessness,” with the result that TCKs may grow up and find that they have a difficult time staying in any one place for long. This may be just fine for TCKs who find jobs where the ability to pick up and move is a necessity and an asset. However, for others this compulsion to move can get in the way of establishing a family and raising children, and in some cases it may turn into an unhealthy way of coping with life’s challenges.
Grief: Everyone experiences loss and everyone goes through one form of grief or another. The difficulty for TCKs is that many of their losses are not highly tangible and are not visible to those around them. For example, here are a few things TCKs stand to lose when they move between worlds: relationships, lifestyle, possessions, placement in a system, the life they would have had if they had stayed, a sense of cultural belonging, connections with their extended family, and more. Although nobody has died, and friends can stay in touch via phone and Skype, and extended family will get together twice a year … there is still so much of these relationships, with both people and places, that will never be the same. Yet because nobody has died there is no funeral, which means that there is no formal time to stop, acknowledge, and mourn one’s losses. The result is that a TCKs grief may not be recognized and processed well, which may in turn lead to struggles with depression, withdrawal and anger.
Aren’t There Any Benefits to Being a TCK?
Absolutely. To name a few … a more global worldview, cultural sensitivity and compassion, adaptability, heightened observational skills, advanced social skills, multilingualism, the ability to relate to people of many backgrounds … the list goes on. Not to mention that, in a world that’s becoming increasingly integrated and global, the skillset and experience that TCKs bring to the table are often highly valuable to employers. Like everyone, TCKs are people, and their life experiences provide them with both benefits and challenges. And, like everyone else, the goal for TCKs is to learn how to capitalize on the benefits and cope well with the challenges.
Christian Counseling for TCKs
The aim of Christian counseling is to help people grow and develop their skills and gifts, while also helping them to face life’s challenges in healthy and productive ways. For TCKs, it may be important to find a counselor who is aware of the influence that a TCKs diverse cultural experiences and high mobility may have, particularly when it comes to their unique gifts and challenges.
Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids: Growing up among worlds. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Children Playing by Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Hand Holding Crystal Globe by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot at FreeDigitalPhotos.net