My friend Alice came back to Madrid for a visit the other day. She was telling me about how hard it had been for her to adjust to living and working in the UK (where her parents are from, where she was born, but where she hasn’t lived since she was 2 years old). After a nice walk through Retiro Park, she realized her wallet was missing. We went to the nearest police station to report it and I stood there listening to her describe the contents of the wallet: bank card from the UK, bus-pass from Madrid, metro card from Paris (where her parents now live), Illinois driver’s license, San Diego library card… The police officer taking down her statement finally blurted out “Wow!, You are a real globe-trotter!”, and Alice answered, “Nah… I’m just a third culture kid”.
SO, WHAT IS A THIRD CULTURE KID?
Nowadays, because of globalization, the term is becoming more and more familiar. Still, there are some people unaware of this whole “cultural group” that is living undetected (for the most part) in practically every country around the World.
Third culture kid (also known as TCK, third culture individual, invisible immigrant...) is a term that tries to group together people who grew up, or spent an important part of their formative years, in a country other than where their parents are from (1). Some include in this group the people that grew up with parents from different cultures; kids that grew up moving from country to country, never quite settling anywhere; or those that studied abroad while growing up. So, among others, we are talking about expats, missionary kids, children of diplomats or traveling professionals, etc.
Their first culture is the parents’ culture or the one they have made the base of the family house-hold life. The second culture is the one they grew up in (or that of the host country), and the third culture is the one resulting from living and managing the other two, a cultural identity stemming from being both and neither of the others. It’s not just having been exposed to multiple cultures, it’s creating a mixture of the two (and adding a little extra).
Of course, no two TCKs are the same, because they will not have lived the same life-events or shared the same background, but they can definitely identify with other TCKs (2) and develop a feeling of comradery, a shared identity and understanding. An American teenager that grew up in China may have more in common and feel more connected to a French diplomat´s teenager that grew up in Cameroon, than to other teenage Americans or Chinese.
WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT THIRD CULTURE KIDS?
Here are just a few of the amazing strengths most TCKs share:
Cultural intelligence: By the time they graduate from high-school, TCKs have had the opportunity to interact with many other cultures (friends, school-mates, neighbors, etc.) developing a capacity to do so with ease, understanding where they are coming from, developing cultural sensitivity and a broader world view. They are respectful of differences, being able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and developing the capacity to bridge cultures. It´s no wonder that many of TCKs’ best friends are all either other TCKs themselves or from multicultural backgrounds, and this plays out throughout their lives. Take my brothers, for example: one is married to a Chinese woman he met in the US and the other is about to marry a Chinese TCK who grew up in Japan.
Flexibility: Because most TCKs are exposed to big changes (moves, new schools, new friends…), they are able to adjust more quickly and develop a resilience that makes them stronger when facing other life changes and difficult moments.
Wealth of knowledge: As a general rule, TCKs have travelled more than most kids of their age and they have been exposed to a minimum of two different cultural experiences with their own particular cultural wealth (literature, history, customs, folklore, etc.)
Language skills: Many TCKs are bilingual (some are even fluent in 3 or 4 languages!) and all are exposed to a variety of phonetic and tonal systems which establishes the groundwork for learning other languages.
Employability: Because of all the strengths mentioned, TCKs are good candidates for many jobs out there. They usually leave recruiting teams quite impressed with their world knowledge and maturity.
WHAT CAN TCKs STRUGGLE WITH?
As mentioned before, not all TCKs are the same, but many find they struggle with some of the following:
No real “home”: Most TCKs have a real hard time defining where “home” is. Not just because it could be a number of places, but because some have never felt at home anywhere they’ve lived. Some consider it’s wherever their parents and siblings are (even when they go off to college and their parents’ move to a country they’ve never visited before).
Identity: I definitely struggled with this one growing up (and I was lucky to be one of five children!). What am I? American? Spanish? I don’t feel 100% either… What happens when US plays Spain for the gold in the Olympics? Who has my allegiance? Where do I belong? Sometimes, when it’s time for TCKs to move back to the parents’ passport culture, the one they’ve grown up hearing they are really from, they often find themselves not really fitting in, feeling like outsiders though looking like everyone else. This is where the term “hidden immigrant” applies. Many end up finding their identity in people, and not in places or nationality.
Rootlessness: This refers to the fact that, because of how they’ve grown up, they find it difficult to stay in only one place and often find themselves needing a change and “moving on”.
Lack of emotional investment: After years of losing friends and other relationships, or being left behind, they find themselves wary of making new meaningful relationships. What’s the point if I am going to be moving away in two years?
DO OR WILL ALL THIRD CULTURE KIDS NEED THERAPY?
No, of course not. But just like any collective, some may be having a harder time of it, needing help at one point or another, and can benefit from working with a therapist familiar with TCKs and their common struggles. Along with identity and stress management, a lot of the work I do as a clinician with this community is in reference to unresolved grief. Many have to move every couple of years and are forced to experience so many losses! Not just friends, family, etc., but cultural aspects they’ve grown to identify with and won’t have available in their new “home”. Also, parents don’t feel the same way and don’t understand the grief or don’t identify it as such. Sometimes, there is just no time to grieve with all the changes (packing up, traveling, unpacking, new school, making new friends…).
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO HELP WITH THE TRANSITIONS?
Talk to your kids about the concept of being third culture. Many will feel a sense of relief at knowing there are people all over the world that have gone through similar experiences and feel just like they do.
Allow time before every move to emotionally prepare for the change. Talk about the things you are going to miss and the feelings it all brings up. Help your children say good-bye and to gather up all the contact information of friends and family you are leaving behind so they can stay in touch. Involve your children in the process of choosing the new home or the new school (show them pictures, take a virtual walk with Google Earth…).
Allow time after the move to grieve. Many times, parents respond quite naturally to a big change focusing on the positive and encouraging their children to see the pros, thinking it will make it easier for them. Encouraging is good, but you must also remember to validate the pain and the losses. Those grieving feelings need to be acknowledged and voiced.
Help them stay connected to the parts of their identity they’ve integrated from their last “home” as they are a big part of who they are now. Continue with typical traditions from the country or cultural aspects you had incorporated (some festivities, traditional meals, décor, scents…) Encourage your children to stay in touch with the friends they’ve left behind (organize Skype calls, fix care-packages…)
Connect with other multicultural families or TCKs. Making new friends in the host country is great, but it will also benefit your children to make connections with those they can relate to on a deeper level.
Keep an eye on their progress. Nobody knows your children as well as you do. Be mindful of how the change is affecting them, knowing that stress and sadness are common in transitions. Open communication is important and if you think they are struggling, know there are always professionals out there that can help them process and adjust, as well as guide you on the best way to help them at home.
Do you still have doubts after reading this article? Let us know and we will set up an appointment with one of our professionals!
(1) (2): Pollock, D. C., & E., V. R. (2009). Third culture kids: Growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Pub.
Even more resources below!:
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken.
Misunderstood: The Impact Of Growing Up Overseas In The 21st Century by Tania Crossman.
A Ball, A Book and the Butterflies. A Story About International Transition by Anna Barratt and Sally McWilliam.
The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick.
Home Keeps Moving. A Glimpse into the Extraordinary Life of a “Third Culture Kid” by Heidi Sand-Hart.