Helena is a 17-year-old teenager with parents of Turkish origin, a British passport and who has lived in three European countries throughout her life. Now that she has moved to a different city due to her parents’ jobs, she is excited to make new friends. However, although she enjoys meeting new people, it is not always easy for her. Especially when the most feared question comes up… Where are you from?

This is when she starts to get nervous, feels a knot in her throat and thousands of thoughts uncontrollably land in her head: «Should I talk about the country where I grew up as a child, or the country where I lived the last eight years of my life, or maybe the country where my family is from?» Finally, she chooses to tell the short version of a long life story full of airports, goodbyes, welcomes, languages, schools and experiences.

The complexity hidden behind a simple question

«Where are you from?» is one of the easiest questions to answer for most people. However, for some minorities, it is one of the most difficult. Helena feels a different attachment to each of the countries she has lived in, as well as to the country her family comes from. From each of the cultures in which she has found herself immersed throughout her life, she has acquired different ways of interacting with others, habits, values and ideas. However, she has no sense of belonging to any of them.
«Where am I from?» she has asked herself several times. This is the question often asked by people who, like her, belong to the collective of «third culture kids», TCK´s for short.

What does it mean to be a Third Culture Kid?

TCK’s are those children/adolescents who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the culture of their parents or the culture that would correspond to them by the nationality of their passport.

The first culture refers to that of the child’s parents. The second culture is that of the host country (or countries) in which the child has lived. The third culture corresponds to the fusion of the first two, in which the child adopts certain traits of each to create his or her own cultural identity.

This is, however, a very basic definition, as each child has his or her own history. The term TCKs encompasses not only children who have grown up in a culture different from that of their parents, but also children adopted by families from another culture, and even children of parents with different cultures. While some of the sepnd most of their childhood jumpimg from one place to another, others remain almost all their childhood in the same place, cohabiting permanently with different cultures inside and outside the home.

Nowadays, due to the high level of globalization achieved by society, it is very difficult to define the various circumstances by which a child can be defined as a TCK. However, there are two aspects concerning this group that are clear. On the one hand, due to the exponential increase in migratory movements, it is a group in constant growth. On the other hand, although the history of each TCK is unique and unrepeatable, this group of people share the singular characteristic of having grown up in intense contact with different cultures.

Advantages of being a TCK

From childhood, people tend to adapt to the culture around them, internalizing the attitudes and behaviors promoted by that culture. We acquire habits, such as eating or sleeping at certain times, we learn to relate and communicate with others in different social contexts, and we develop our sense of humor, as well as our opinions on what is right or wrong. Through our culture, we build our own glasses for observing the world and our guidebook for living in it. It is therefore not surprising that the coexistence of different cultures in a child’s life, or the change from one to another, has a great impact on his or her psychosocial development.
Numerous positive aspects of this experience have been identified:

  1. TCKs have a strong international background and tend to maintain a lifelong interest in learning about new cultures. They have a great capacity of adaptation and a great sensitivity to appreciate the value of the richness of each individual’s culture.
  2. They tend to develop an open mind, as well as an interpersonal style based on tolerance, respect and empathy.
  3. They quickly acquire social skills, communication skills and are often fluent in two or more languages.
  4. The diversity of the situations they face, makes them become people with a high level of autonomy, high problem-solving skills and willing to help others.

Challenges of being a TCK

On the other hand, the cultural changes that TCKs experience from their first years of life also bring with them some difficulties:

  • As described in the introduction to the article, TCKs may have great difficulty in defining their own identity, as they are not bound to a specific culture. A behavior considered perfectly normal in the culture of the place where they live may be forbidden according to the culture of their parents. A joke that is funny in one of the cultures in which they have lived, might be offensive in another. As a result, they undergo a complex process when internalizing the values and habits that define them as individuals. In other words, when it comes to understanding who they are.
  • For some TCKs, the feeling of not having a home base to which they can always return can generate a sense of insecurity and loneliness in the world. For these children, the widespread cliché «home is where the people you love are» is a very important reality. For them, home is not defined by a place, but it is wherever they can live with their loved ones.
  • On many occasions, TCKs feel like they are the different kids, the odd ones, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones who don’t share interests, hobbies or ideas with their classmates. The ones who don’t have the same way of speaking, accent or expressions. And sometimes, those who have a different physical appearance than the rest. This may sometimes cause them a feeling of being «left out» or isolated, especially when it comes to new beginnings.
  • For most people, it is never easy to say goodbye. Some of these children spend several years in one place, until one day they have to pack up their bags and say goodbye to everything they have built there: friends, teachers, activities, routines… The emotions produced by these constant goodbyes can be very strong and painful for some TCKs. This feelings also get in the way when creating new social connections in the places they are moving to, as they sometimes wonder «What´s the point of making new friends if we’ll be leaving again in a while?».

Tips for TCK parents

It is normal for parents to have many doubts when it comes to educating their children in a culture different from their own. Many times, parents have experienced a very different childhood from the one their children are facing, and may feel lost when it comes to empathizing with their experience and identifying the aspects in which they may need more support.

Here are some general tips that may be helpful to these parents:

  1. Try to remain aware that being a TCK can bring difficulties in many ways. Be honest with your child, let him or her know that you are aware it’s not easy. Be open about it and try to make your child feel as safe as possible when talking about his or her feelings, toughts and needs.
  2. Keep the bound with your home culture and family members alive to strengthen your child’s sense of identity and belonging to a culture. Try to communicate with your child in your language and to make him/her participate in the traditions of your culture (food, customs, festivities…).
  3. Help your child to establish new relationships in the places where you are moving to, by encouraging them to meet other children who have lived the experience of being a TCK. In this way, he/she will be able to feel more accompanied and understood by friends of his/her age.
  4. Communicate with your child’s educational institutions, explaining his or her specific case, and involving teachers and counselors during the adaptation process.
Emma Chancellor Díez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Emma Chancellor Díez
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé