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Bringing up a Third Culture Kid

Updated 8 Jan 2016
Your child has flown around the globe before he or she could walk, lived in several countries outside of their home country, switches between one and at least another language with ease, and feels that he/she is a part of more than one culture. If this describes your little globetrotter then, just like Barack Obama, your child is a classic Third Culture Kid or TCK.

According to the term’s founder, Ruth Hill Useem, a TCK integrates “aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique "third culture".  While many TCKs are known for their multiculturalism and adaptable personality, being immersed in a third culture can bring with it confusing and complex situations. It is therefore, pivotal that parents of TCKs are able to identify their children’s challenges and that they are able to address and support their unique needs. 

TCK-typical challenges and strengths

Although TCKs are afforded very special cultural experiences when they move from country to country, this continuous relocating also brings with it feelings of instability and of lacking a home base. Many young TCKs find it difficult to answer the simple question “Where are you from" because they may have never even lived in their country of origin. Older TCKs may answer the question by explaining which country to consider home rather than their country of origin.  
It is difficult to adjust to a new country, home, friends, school, etc., and then have to do it all over again when the family moves to its next country. As the TCK matures this instability can influence and impact his/her personal identity development. The frequent parting with friends, pets, lifestyle, status, etc. can make the TCK more possessive and protective of items/persons they deem stable. So a toy teddy bear who has travelled the world with the TCK may not just be a toy but an important item of stability, safety, positive memories and comfort. In contrast, other TCKs may acquire a defense mechanism, which disrupts their attachment to people and things. This defense mechanism is adopted so that the TCK does not have to feel loss whenever he/she relocates again. It makes it easier to adjust to a new place without forming emotional relationships to classmates, teachers, pets, etc. The problem with goodbye every few years. 

The upsides of being a TCK are plenty. A TCK is cultured, well-travelled, open-minded and generally flexible to change. Such unique experiences gives the TCK an advantage in terms of life experience and being able to collaborate with people of all backgrounds. Research on TCKs even demonstrates that they are four times more likely to complete a university-level qualification and tend to be more innovative, entrepreneurial and successful in their careers.

What can parents do to help a TCK adapt to a new country?

As a parent of a TCK, you yourself know what it is like to have to part with friends and possessions every few years. While you take the adjustment in stride, you know that it will take some time to transition fully into your new life. Armed with this personal knowledge your role then is to help your TCK adjust smoothly, to feel secure and to know that their home is where the family is and that it is not defined by a specific, geographical location. This is a pivotal role for you to maintain as it will help your child form a secure attachment, which will help your TCK develop into a fulfilled, resilient and independent individual, who can build quality relationships with others. The following tips can help you to achieve this:


  • Implement and maintain family routines. These routines should be engaged in regularly and in every country you move to (until your TCK outgrows them). Some examples include a family-bedtime routine, which may include story time and cuddles or a special family day every Sunday, where the entire family plays games together or goes to a movie.  
  • Create familiarity in the home. No matter where you move to, try to keep certain key pieces of the home, e.g., furniture, toys, picture frames and even better try to arrange them in a similar way in the new home.  
  • Hold weekly family meetings. These meetings should encourage the TCK to air any concerns, discontentment and provide an opportunity for you to help him/her cope or problem-solve. Of course, family meetings are also intended to bond over positive experiences in the new country.  
  • Maintain cultural traditions. Celebrate your culture of origin. If you are Christian and celebrate Christmas then get the Christmas cookies baked and the Christmas tree decorated each year. Remind them of the history associated to such traditions to further solidify their identity.
  • Allow your child to grieve and heal from the loss. Provide space for your TCK to come to terms with their individual losses. Normalize their sadness about saying goodbye, their frustration about having to change their lives around again and their anxieties about the imminent change. If your child seems to be battling with this adjustment for longer than 6 months, then it may be in his/her best interest to seek professional assistance from a psychologist or therapist. 
Generally, TCKs are adaptable and resilient. With your added support and understanding, your child will surely make the best of their new home, like they have done before. 
Written by Dr. Vanessa von Auer (Principal, Integrated International School)

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