The trials and tribulations of growing up as a third culture kid

The trials and tribulations of growing up as a third culture kid | FIDI

The benefits of growing up as a TCK (Third-Culture Kid) are well documented. They usually become adults who are more confident, more employable, with a more balanced world-view – and often with a second language on top of that. Research shows that 44% of TCKs are educated to degree level – twice the US average. Indeed more than two thirds of these students say that their life abroad influenced the subjects they chose to study.

But the experience of growing up in a foreign country can be daunting for children of all ages. They will encounter problems that they would have avoided at home, and most expat parents will have heard many of the following statements from their children... 

“I’m not eating this”

Children are instinctively better at change than adults because they are simply more flexible and less entrenched in a certain lifestyle. Yet they also lack the maturity to understand why it is good to try new things. Why should they be interested in trying new food when they already know what they like?

Also bear in mind that adults crave variety – whereas children (particularly younger ones) already have plenty of that in their lives. Wherever they live, children have to make sense of thousands of new experiences in the first ten years of their lives. You only have to look at the repetitive nature of children’s TV to realise that, to children, “trying something new” is not necessarily a good thing.

“I’m different to the other kids”

Third-culture kids are rarely in the majority. They will spend much of their time growing up as the outsider. If your children attend a local school, this will be especially obvious.

Third-culture kids are rarely in the majority | FIDI

“When are we next going home?”

A key part of a successful relocation is to break the ties with home. Not permanently or irrevocably of course, but adults and children need to embrace where they are and accept that it is (for now at least) their new home.

One of the problems with social media amongst teenagers is that it maintains those ties. After all, Instagram chat between school friends is no different just because one of the group is a thousand miles away. It will, however, highlight the real-life difference of their absence when they cannot hang out in person and miss out on the physical events they would normally have been part of.

While ties with family and friends back home are comforting and should not be cut off altogether, they can hold children back from integrating with new networks of friends in the new location. It is a fine balance to strike.

“I hate you, go away.”

It’s the big one. But of course they don’t mean it. However, if children are frustrated, they are often unable to verbalize – or even understand – why they are unhappy.

As pointed out by Tory Almond, founder of The English Connection NL, who has years of experience as a counsellor to expat families, their anxiety manifests itself as difficult behaviour. Smaller children may throw tantrums; older ones may resort to unkind retorts. As a parent, you are in the firing line. 


“I love you, don’t leave me.”

Conversely, another tell-tale sign that an expat child is suffering anxieties is “clinginess”. In a world that is changing dramatically, children literally cling to the few parts of their life that are familiar. Which usually means you.

Also look out for other behavioural changes in younger children. Bed-wetting or simply waking up in the middle of the night can be signs of unhappiness that they are unable to verbalize.

“I’ll be in my room”

Teenagers are moody and solitary by nature. But detachment from the rest of the family may also be a sign of unhappiness. Apart from the dangers of spending hours in their room with only Instagram for company, with its constant social media reminders of their former lives, this self-imposed solitary confinement will become a problem if not carefully managed. If other family members – particularly siblings – appear to thrive in their new environment, it may tempt them to become even more reclusive.

How do you respond?

Whichever way your child’s moods may swing, you should deal with it in the same way: with understanding and sensitivity. Be prepared to listen – and try to understand how they feel. Also be prepared to do this several times as the same questions re-appear. Be patient. It’s tough for them.

For younger children, try to keep as many things the same as possible. Relocation experts always recommend that children are as involved as possible in the process of packing and preparing for the trip. This not only helps them understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, but enables them to take the items they will find most comforting in their new environment. Those cushions, teddy bears, favourite toys and photos will be more precious than ever. Also encourage a daily routine for small children. As noted earlier, routine is comforting and creates a stable framework for their lives in the new location.

For older children, there is also an opportunity to reason with them. For example, explain to teenagers that Instagram is not just there to remind them what they’re missing but a chance to show people back home of the exotic and faraway experiences that the others are missing. Change that profile pic from the back garden to the beach, and let them get jealous.

Whatever their age, developing a new friendship group is essential. Give them opportunities to mix with others of similar age, whether through school, church or through the expat community. Sport, of course, is a great leveller that often transcends language: soccer is spoken the world over.

Focus on the positives

Perhaps the most important way of supporting your children is to lead by example. If you are happy and positive will help your child to understand that any anxieties can be overcome.

the most important way of supporting your children is to lead by example | FIDI

A key part of this is to emphasize the positives, such as the loving family around them. It can also help to recall similar challenges they have faced (such as their first day in school) and to relate the current difficulties to situations that they ultimately overcame.

Some of the most important qualities in a parent or carer of a third-culture child are patience and sensitivity. Listen to them, empathize with them and support them. After all, you may be feeling many of the same emotions – together you can deal with the problems and make your time overseas the happy and rewarding experience it should be.


Find out more about how to make your assignment a happy one in Expat happiness: the constant pursuit of success abroad – and pick up tips on how to cope with new cultures with Cross-cultural awareness: more than just a different country.


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