The way we see the world as adults is developed from when we were children. The community in which we grow becomes our “home” and as we grow older, traveling makes us break from the comforts of it.

What happens though when you are a global nomad and your home is a rootless journey around the globe?

Expat children were once limited to a minority of the global population – children of ambassadors, diplomats, or members of the military. However, with international careers growing, this has expanded to multinational business people, global educators, missionaries, and more. Globalisation has increased the number of third culture kids.

Third culture kids is a term coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s for children who spent a significant part of their developmental years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. Ruth spent a year in India researching expats and discovered that kids who move to a country with a culture different than their home country’s form their own distinct culture: a third culture.

Most third culture kids are the children of expats or multinational marriages. Barack Obama is a famous example; his father was Nigerian and his mother American, and he spent four years of his childhood living in Indonesia.

It’s hard to identify the exact number of third culture kids around the globe, but according to the TED talk “Where is Home?” by author Pico Iyer, the estimated number is approximately 220 million. This number will continue to grow as cultural barriers dissolve.

The unique benefits & challenges of third culture kids

This type of nomad lifestyle can have quite an impact on a child. Experiencing different cultures, customs, thoughts and attitudes at a young age can make kids highly adaptive, better communicators, more open-minded, and of course multilingual. This often makes them more attractive to employers or schools later on in life.

According to Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, exposure to different cultures leads to “comfortableness with cross-cultural interactions, often multiple languages, 3-D awareness of the world and friends in many places and from many backgrounds”.

However, they can struggle with personal identity as they may not feel completely at home in any one culture, and it can be hard to maintain relationships when constantly on the move. Some third culture kids say that they feel most at home not in any one place, but with other multinational people like them. They frequently get asked, “No, where are you really from?”: answering it usually requires a detailed explanation of their life story and their origins. For TCKs, home is everywhere and nowhere.

Cross cultural transitions can result in significant levels of emotional stress, particularly the first year of experiencing the new culture. Before even developing their own identity, third culture kids face a lot of challenges trying to absorb many different cultures.

This culture hopping phenomenon can often result in third culture kids developing an identity that is rooted in people rather than countries. For them, transience is the norm. They identify themselves as rootless or citizens of the world instead of a particular country – this can be liberating as they can wear different masks and constantly reinvent themselves.

They may feel they have nothing in common with their parents’ home country and are more comfortable with the customs of their host country. Child psychologists claim that most difficulties usually emerge around the age of ten, when children start figuring out their identities and friends becoming central to their lives.

The constant move and amendment of friends can disrupt their social lives and can result in withdrawal, isolation, or anger.  While some third culture kids reflect on their experiences from living a “transitioning life” negatively, the majority claim that it’s been challenging but positive.

A survey by Denizen revealed that the typical third culture child had moved at least once by the age of five and will move at least four times throughout their lifetime. 85% speak at least two languages and 47% speak at least three.

How to support a Third Culture Kid?

Parents should see their child’s multicultural upbringing positively and educate themselves on how to enable them to make the most of the experience. It is crucial that the child is given a sense of stability and consistency.

Parents can gather information from books, articles, websites and even reach out to the international community and exchange advice with other parents. Websites such as internations and meetup have groups of parents of third culture kids.

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, an Australian psychologist and once an expat child himself has some tips on how to support a TCK and their emotional wellbeing.

1.A strong role model

Ensure that the child has a strong role model in their lives to look up to, feel safe, valued and listened. This role mode should be a good example to the child on how they deal with events such as anger management, problem-solving, decision-making, regulating their emotions and navigating tricky situations.

2.Encourage your child to reframe things in a positive way

Dr. Carr-Gregg says that one of the key traits that sets us apart from other animals is our ability to change the way we think about a situation. We all have an “internal voice” that can have a neutral, positive or negative opinion. If it’s constantly a negative one, it can mess with the emotional well-being.

Teach your child to pay attention to their “internal voice” and the one that prevails. Dr. Carr-Gregg claims that a way to alter this negativity is to be proactive and “reframe things in a positive way”. Reframing can help combat the negative thoughts, making us feel more in control and happier. For example, if the child thinks “Again a new school, I won’t be accepted or make any new friends”, teach them to reframe the thought into something positive such as “a new school, a new beginning filled with exciting people that will turn out being great friends”

3.The importance of hobbies

Dr.Carr-Gregg suggests helping the child find an activity they enjoy and feel they have the talent to pursue. From learning a musical instrument or playing a sport, hobbies will help the child to make friends. It can create a sense of belonging in an otherwise frequently changing landscape.

Because of the different kind of life experiences they had, TCKs develop unique attributes, have a better understanding of collaboration, tolerance and diversity. They are open minded and develop a mindset which is exceptionally understanding and are very sensitive to distinct cultures. With the right levels of support, the family, educators and counselors can help TCKs have a positive experience.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Naser Khaled says:

    شكرا لك على المقال الرائع، تجربتي مع الثقافة الثالثة حاضرة، حيث أن أبني(سائد) سوري الأصل ولد في تركيا وعاش فيها ٣سنوات وانتقل إلى هولندا في مدينة روتردام، حيث الكثير من أطفال الجالية المغربية والتركية، حتى أختلطت عليه اللغات من عربية سورية إلى مغربية دارجة مع اللغة الهولندية،
    تجربة قاسية أرجو أن يستطيع تجاوزها وإيجاد شخصيته الحقيقة، مع كل الشكر ناصر خالد

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