Third Culture Kids

A home away from home.  Caught between cultures.  A foreigner in your own land.  These phrases all describe the experience of a third culture kid.  The term "third-culture kids" refers to children who spend a significant amount of developmental or formative time outside their (parents') home culture.  Children of military, missionaries, or other expats are good examples.  This results in an interesting phenomenon - these children, caught between two cultures, create a culture of their own.  

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Spending one's formative years in another country means that third culture kids internalize that country's customs, culture, and language, while also retaining their home culture and language.  At the same time, however, they are perceived as foreigners in their host country.  They create a "third culture" to deal with this tension.  This usually means spending lots of time with others who experience the same situation - usually other third culture individuals, who can bond around the same shared experience.  Often, third culture kids have multiple stays abroad, at times in multiple countries, therefore repeating this process over and over again.

Here are some interesting positive trends observed in Third Culture Kids:

  • They usually do well academically (40% have postgraduate degrees or doctorates) and usually grow into successful professionals.
  • They adapt to new situations quickly and are skilled at navigating culturally diverse social situations.  
  • They develop excellent communication and diplomatic skills, and pick up new languages quickly.
  • They have good self-confidence.

Some challenges faced by Third Culture Kids are:

  • They may have difficulty immersing themselves completely in the host culture.  As adults, they may often feel like perpetual outsiders, regardless of their environment.
  • Making new friends and saying goodbye becomes routine, often creating an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude.  It can be hard to maintain close friendships and relationships.
  • Returning to one's home country after many years can lead to "reverse culture shock".  Third culture individuals are expected to remember how to behave at home, which can be hard when you've internalized other cultures.  Peers in the home country have moved on within their own cultural customs.  This, too, can lead to feeling like an outsider.
  • For the third culture kid, the home country can prove to be more foreign than previous host countries, and many of them create and retain their own, separate identity as a third culture person.  Many move abroad again as adults, and will work and raise their family in a foreign country.

Support for third culture kids is crucial.  Their adjustment usually depends on their personality, the duration of the stay abroad, their age, the parent-child relationship, family support and circumstances, and parents' attitude.  Giving third culture kids a sense of stability and consistency is important.  Parents should encourage safe and supportive dialogue around cultural and social issues.  Parents are also encouraged to support safe immersion in the host culture and promote learning of the host language(s), and interaction with locals.  And when returning home, parents should expect their children to experience reverse culture shock, and be supportive and available in this process.  Finally, parents of third culture kids may need to get their own outside support to help cope with these challenges.

Resources for Third Culture Kids:

TCK World

Denizen Online Magazine

Book:  

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds