The Cross-Cultural Child (AKA The Third Culture Kid)

We live in quite an international and cross-cultural world—more and more families are leaving their home countries and moving internationally. Whether you’ve moved for work, a change of pace in your lifestyle, or to expose your children to different cultures, living internationally has some amazing benefits and some incredible challenges. Many parents find it difficult to anticipate what cross-cultural life will be like for their children and most likely the decision to move outside of your home country was not an easy one. Uprooting their children from their schools and communities, sending them to school in a new language and new culture, watching them try to fit in and belong. It’s all quite frightening for parents.

At the age of 15, my parents felt called to global work and we moved to the Black Forest of Germany. I was quite lucky, because I attended an international school with all my classes taught in English along with English-speaking classmates. However, some of my peers had different experiences. Some of them had moved to different countries as children or teenagers and had promptly been enrolled in a public school in their new country. Many of my peers experienced bullying, criticism from teachers, and general difficulty in their transitions.

In my experience, living overseas was an amazing opportunity to travel to many different countries, meet people from all over the world, and broaden my horizons. I wouldn’t change it for a minute. But was it all rainbows and butterflies? Of course not.

You may have heard of the term “TCK,” which means Third Culture Kid. A TCK is generally a child who is living and growing up in a culture that is not their own. They can’t fully identify with their home culture, but can’t fully identify with their “host” culture, leading to a “third” culture of their own.

What’s it like growing up in another culture and being a TCK?

Well, think about the challenges you’re facing as an adult living internationally, then remember what challenges you faced as a kid, and try to combine those two things. Quite a lot, huh? We know the normal struggles of children and teenagers include, but aren’t limited to: peer pressure, fitting in, bullying or cyberbullying, school performance, relationships, self-esteem and self-image, and identity crises. We also know some of the struggles of living overseas include, but aren’t limited to: language learning, finding a routine, learning new norms and expectations, and finding local resources like doctors, shops, and office buildings. All of the challenges of growing up are met with even more challenges when you’re doing it in a culture outside of your own.

What can I do to support my TCK?

First thing’s first: empathy. It’s crucially important to be empathetic and put yourself in your TCK’s shoes. Listen, listen, listen—maybe without offering advice. Children need to be heard and be known by their parents. The first step of this is listening with the intention to understand, rather than listening with the intention to react or advise. Sometimes kids just need to vent. I know that I need to, especially after I’ve spent all morning unsuccessfully trying to accomplish a seemingly simple task, or after I’ve been shouted at in a different language for doing something I didn’t know was wrong. We all need a safe space to vent and let out our frustrations!

Help your TCK identify their resources. This is important because it empowers your TCK to help themselves when they’re able to. Helping connect your TCK to safe adults at school, other TCKs in the community, and places they can safely venture out in the area are all ways to give your TCK a sense of belonging and power. Additionally, identify your own resources so that you can be better prepared to help out your TCK in tough situations and feel supported yourself.

Counseling for TCKs can be a great option, as well, as it provides a safe space for TCKs to discuss their feelings, frustrations, and confusions about living cross-culturally. A counselor can also help your TCK identify ways to cope with stressors and empower your TCK to understand their emotions and how to appropriately respond to them. It is also important to find counseling in English (if English is your child’s first language, or a bilingually spoken language for him/her), as it will give them the opportunity to express themselves in their native tongue, rather than navigating yet another situation in a foreign language.

As a former Third Culture Kid, I can offer a unique counseling perspective for your family. I know what life as a Third Culture Kid is like—uniquely fruitful and upsetting all at the same time. If you would like English-speaking counseling for your child, feel free to contact me and schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And follow my blog for more tips on raising an emotionally healthy child!

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