What Challenges Do Third Culture Kids (TCK) Face?

Whether army kids or those just carted along when their parents change jobs, the result is the same. These children and adolescents may reap countless benefits from being so well-traveled, but the lifestyle certainly has its challenges for young people. 

Third Culture Kids (TCK) is the term given to children and adolescents who grow up in countries and cultures other than their home country. The challenges that TCK face are complex, but they’re not insurmountable. Today, we will take a close look at some of the challenges that Third Culture Kids face growing up.

Who Are Third Culture Kids?

As the world gets smaller, more people find their lives taking them around the globe, and their families often get pulled along for the ride. Children of military parents, expatriate workers, missionaries, and transnational parents find themselves growing up in cultures very different from those they were born into.

Some of these TCK may end up living in numerous countries before they turn 18. They all have a wealth of experiences that most children never get, but they also face challenges that the average child doesn’t. Constantly moving and adapting to life in different places can be challenging, exciting, and at times stressful for adults, but it can be even more challenging for kids.

Challenge #1. Culture Shock

Most people experience culture shock when moving from one country to another. But for kids, this change can be further compounded by feelings of displacement, homesickness and missing formative friends or family members.

Sometimes language can be a barrier for TCK as well. If their native language isn’t spoken in the new country, it can be more difficult for children to know what’s expected from them. The more different the culture is from their homeland’s culture, the bigger the challenge when a child is trying their best to settle in.

Culture shock can also occur when TCK go home to their native country. After spending months or years missing and romanticizing the place they were born, they may find it hard to fit in when they return. After all, they have new life experiences that other kids don’t, and it can be hard to feel like you truly fit in after putting down roots in multiple places.

Challenge #2. Feeling They Don’t Belong

Moving to a country where you have few shared experiences with the people you meet can be disorienting. Children have to make new friends and start their lives over every time they move. This can be hard on even the most gregarious of children, but especially hard on shyer ones.

Of course, once they return to their home country, they may feel like they don’t belong there, either. They’ll have missed milestones that their friends experienced, though they’ll also have gained experiences that other kids haven’t. Being a TCK can feel like belonging to two different worlds but never really fully belonging to either one of them.

Challenge #3. Strained Relationships

For many TCK, it’s hard to maintain long-distance friendships once they move to a new country. Even familial relationships with grandparents and cousins can be hard to maintain. The TCK may feel like they’re missing out when things happen within the family back in their home country.

Often, TCK can feel neglected when they move to another country because their parents are busy with their new jobs or taking care of settling the family in. This can leave TCK feeling frustrated, angry, and stressed with no one they can talk to about the situation.

TCK can find it hard to form attachments because of the strain on their current relationships as well. Why get attached when you could have to pick up and move across the world someday?

What Parents Can Do To Help Their Children

Homesickness and culture shock may be unpreventable, but they aren’t unaddressable. Parents should understand the unique challenges their children face when changing places and cultures while learning who they are. Even if parents face their own challenges as expats, they can still help their children deal with the challenges of adapting to life in a different country. This includes:

  • Acknowledging their grief over lost relationships. 
  • Supporting them in learning about their new culture. Help them find the niche or subculture that fits them best.
  • If you have to move again, minimizing the disruption as much as possible. This may mean waiting until the end of a school year so your child can have some sense of normalcy, at least for a time.
  • Considering therapy. Having an unbiased, sympathetic person to share their problems with can be a massive relief for kids of all ages. Look for someone who understands the unique challenges that expats face.

TCKs have many advantages over their less traveled peers, but their struggles are meaningful. It is important to address these issues and often it may be beneficial to meet with a therapist to discuss these struggles and work to help your child both integrate into their new culture and retain their original one.

Let Me Help Your Third Culture Kid Thrive

I understand the unique problems that TCK and their parents face. You and your child don’t have to struggle with expat issues alone. 

At Lisa Rogers Counseling, I offer a wide range of therapy and mental health services for several areas. You are not alone in your struggle and neither are your loved ones. Reach out today to make an appointment.

I provide services in:

  • Adult Therapy for individuals, marriage, couples, family and groups.
  • Child Therapy for individuals, groups, and families. Therapy for social skills and play therapy available.
  • Adolescent Therapy for individuals, groups, and families. 

Current services are all available via virtual counseling or in-person in the New York City area. Contact Lisa Rogers for more information. 

Since 1993, I have been providing a combination of all my years of training tailoring specific treatments based on the individual needs and challenges of my patients, facilitating healing. I make every effort to accommodate the busy schedules of my patients by offering evenings, weekend appointments and Telemental Health (Online Counseling-Virtual/Video Conference and Phone Sessions) offered in the following states I am licensed in: New York, California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, Florida, and Vermont and international on a case by case basis.