These days people move a lot, nationally and internationally. Families may find themselves living in countries very different from where they come from because one of the parents is in the military or employed by a multinational company. Many kids who have experienced a change of culture (or cultures!) when they’re young settle in quite well and adapt quickly, but many can begin to experience competing loyalties or question their identity, especially as they approach adolescence. Children who’ve lived abroad internationally may have moved so many times that they feel like they belong everywhere and nowhere.
By the time they are adults, kids who grew up outside their home country may notice patterns in their life that they can trace to their nomadic childhood, once they become aware of it. This is the “TCK” experience of those for whom changing cultures (and languages and friendship groups) has been a big part of their development.
Let’s define this TCK acronym, as it isn’t too well known: a TCK is a Third- Culture Kid. A third-culture kid has parents who are from one country (i.e., the “first culture” or the “passport country”) and the family lives in a second country (the “host culture”). The host culture, where the family actually lives, is the “second culture.” Then the “third culture” is the kids’ experience of navigating the first and second cultures at the same time. This situation creates a unique experience and sense of identity for children in an expat or immigrant family.
So a TCK is a person who has spent their childhood (or part of it) in a country/culture that is different than their parents’ home culture(s). Their parents may be mainland Chinese and the family lives in the U.S., or Japanese and they live in Australia. A TCK may have parents who come not from one but from two different passport countries, such as a mother who’s from Thailand and a father from Denmark, but the family currently lives in the U.K. That’s a lot of cultures and customs to juggle!
There are many reasons for all this moving around. The TCK’s parents may be political refugees, military, or missionaries. Or the parents may have moved overseas for their business. Whatever the reason, many families find themselves immigrating permanently whether it’s because chaotic conditions at home push them out or because promising opportunities pull them to a new place.
And what makes TCKs unique? Their experiences and touchstones of identity may be quite different than either their parents’ first culture or the host culture where they live. Having been raised internationally in a global context, they are accustomed to traveling between countries. They may be skilled at adapting to new cultures, communities, languages, and groups of friends. They may be used to the discomforts of looking and speaking differently than the majority of others around them. They can feel rootless because frequent moves have kept them from getting very attached to the people or places they have lived. Many have privileged lifestyles that are not typical either in their home or host cultures. Having these experiences of change, novelty, and of being an outsider while still in their formative years can affect a TCK’s sense of identity, national loyalty, and approach to long-term relationships.
If your background fits with the TCK’s international experience and you have felt unsettled or sad about elements of your experience, working with a therapist who understands what you’ve gone through can lead to many a-ha moments. You might find a sense of relief that you are not alone and that there are resources and a whole community of other TCKs who share your experience. It can sometimes be hard for people who‘ve never left home to understand these experiences, but there are therapists like me who can help you address both the struggles and the strengths that a TCK upbringing can bring.