"I'm Not From Here..."

Adult Third Culture Kids: Children of the world and three of their greatest challenges

By Kayleen Pen MA, LPC

“Third culture kid” (TCK) is not exactly a common household term. In fact, the majority of those who qualify as a third culture kid have never heard the term! The concept of TCK was first introduced to me as a young child when I began to live among various cultures. I moved from place to place and country to country. Like many TCKs, I had the pleasure of attending an international school where I became passionate about working with adult TCKs. TCK “refers to children raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or of the country given on the child’s passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early developmental years” (Van Reken & Pollock, 2009). In other words, TCKs are children who live abroad with their parents between the ages of 0-18, often moving from country to country. There has been a steady increase of TCKs within the past decade, as the number of families who travel and live abroad has grown in popularity. As a result, there are numerous studies and resources that look to understand this unique population.

Despite the increase in research, there is still great mystery around how a TCK background affects adulthood. These adults grew up moving from place to place and from culture to culture, losing and gaining along their journey. Having a third culture background potentially creates challenges for adults as they begin to form their identity and live their own independent lives. While this is a smooth transition for some, others struggle as a direct result of having a high mobile background. This article aims to address three of the largest challenges adult third culture kids (ATCK) face.

1.  Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation

ATCKs are no strangers to the feeling of change and are known to be very adaptable to new cultures. However, feelings of loneliness and isolation can also be common among ATCKs. ATCKs naturally have a unique background and can struggle to convey that to friends and peers. Friends and peers are quick to assume that an ATCK (especially if one looks similar to the current country of residence) understands cultural references and fits nicely into their perspective of the world. Despite a friend’s good intentions, ATCKs often feel misunderstood and alone with their international experiences. The question, “where are you from?” can become especially difficult because it’s often impossible for ATCK’s to answer without having to explain their entire past. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are incredibly normal and valid for any ATCK to feel. Reaching out to past friends or to fellow ATCKs are key ways to seek out support. It is also a good opportunity for an ATCK to look inward and listen to those emotions. During those times an ATCK should ask oneself:

  • What is evoking these feelings?
  • What are these feelings trying to tell me?
  • What can I do to take care of myself through this difficult time?

2.  Unresolved Grief

ATCKs have many qualities as a result of having an international and nomadic background. However, what can be someone’s greatest strength can also be his or her greatest weakness. An ATCK may have gained truly incredible life experiences, but there is also no denying that they have also witnessed a great deal of loss. As mentioned previously, ATCKs grew up gaining and losing homes, possessions, friends, and more. Kids are resilient, but constant change can take a toll as one emerges into an adult. ATCKs often feel a sense of loss in their lives, often due to it never being processed. This is especially true if an ATCK’s parents did not allow a grieving period between moves. Parents often tell their young TCKs to “man up” or “stop complaining” when they make transitions to a new country. While it is often out of best intentions, this can be damaging for how TCKs process loss and change. As a result, ATCK’s unresolved grief can often manifest in a variety of ways. Some of the most common manifestations of unresolved grief include anxiety, anger, and depression.

The best way to deal with unresolved grief is to seek out professional help. Unresolved grief can be particularly difficult for individuals to identify. Seeking professional help from someone who specializes in expats, immigrants, or TCKs will help process those feelings and grief through helpful strategies.

3.  Unhelpful Coping Mechanisms

ATCK or not, it is a known fact that we tend to stick with behaviors that have worked for us in the past. While these behaviors often play certain functions in our lives, they are not always the healthiest. One of the most common coping skills that ATCKs develop is chronic moving. This becomes particularly unhelpful if an ATCK is using it to avoid life difficulties. When an ATCK is struggling somewhere in their life, their first instinct might be to get up and move; thinking that this will be a fresh start for them. While this may be true, an ATCK will find that their troubles continue to find them in each new place. One’s desire to move should come from a place of choice rather than a chronic necessity. By facing one’s troubles and developing healthier coping skills, an ATCK will be able to sort through those difficult times without having to constantly start over.

In addition to chronic moving, ATCKs also develop other unhelpful coping skills, such as forming surface level friendships. ATCKs are very skilled at making friendships because of their adaptability. However, ATCKs may also find it challenging to make deep friendships. ATCKs are used to losing friends frequently and find it very difficult to continue to keep up with friendships due to their nomadic tendencies. Making deep friendships makes relocating and change difficult for ATCKs because they run the risk of dealing with the pain of leaving those friendships behind. While technology is making communication easier for ATCKs, there is still a tendency to keep friendships at a distance.

The best way for ATCKs to tackle these unhelpful coping mechanisms is for them to first identify their presence. An ATCK should look at the patterns in their life and determine the function it plays. Here are some questions that look at:

  • Is this coping mechanism helpful?
  • In what ways is it not helpful?
  • How can I adapt my coping mechanisms to allow them to play a healthier role in my life?

The Benefits

While ATCKs can experience a variety of challenges as a direct result of their nomadic and international upbringing, there are far more wonderful elements that outweigh the challenges. ATCKs are incredibly adaptive and open to new cultures. They are able gain world wisdom and strength because of their vast cultural experiences and the challenges they have had to endure. This is an amazing and open community, despite the fact that it often goes unseen. ATCKs connect to each other on a deep level and are always welcoming others with open arms. While their nomadic experience presents challenges, there are a number of ways an ATCK can gain support. Therapy is a great way for any individual to get the support they need. ATCKs can particularly benefit from a therapist who has experience in the international setting. If you or a loved one may be struggling due to a nomadic and international background, start your research today to find a therapist that will best first your needs.

* Kayleen Pen, MA, LPC at NVision You specializes in therapy for ATCK individuals and experiences.