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4 min read

Cross Cultural Kids: Who They Are and What Support Do They Need

Third Culture Kid in therapy

What is a Third Culture Kid?

Third-culture kids or TCK's are children who are raised in multiple cultures, due to the nomadic tendencies of their family. A traditional third culture kid is typically the child of missionary families, armed forces families, parents in foreign service, or who teach in international schools and return to their home country after the contract is complete.

There are other types of third-culture kid experiences as well. Third-culture individuals can include international adoptees, children of international business moguls, and children of global nomads, including social media influencers.

In recent years, the number of third-culture kids has shot up. The United Nation reports that 3.5 percent of the world population currently lives outside of their own country, and estimates that this number includes around 31 million kids worldwide.

What is the “third culture” exactly?

Third culture refers to a unique amalgamation of the cultures a child has expatriate children have experienced. These kids may not identify with their primary culture or their host culture, but with a "third culture,"  or a combination of their experienced cultures. This combined culture isn't simply a specific mix of cultural environments, but refers to the culture of other cross-cultural kids. Cross-cultural kids are most at home with others who have experienced a multicultural childhood and don't identify with a geographically fixed location.

Benefits Experienced By Third Culture Kids

Studies conducted on cross-cultural kids show that they have some advantages due to their experience in cross-cultural environments. For example, third-culture kids are highly adaptable when compared to their monocultural counterparts, and during developmental years will learn skills to adapt to new environments. These include proficiency with other languages, cultural empathy, and increased open-mindedness.

Third-culture kids also have a leg up academically. Because of their exposure to other cultures and languages, third-culture kids have high levels of cross-cultural competencies such as a strong ability to manage uncertainty, positive diversity values, intercultural sensitivity, and linguistic skills. The skills that third culture kids develop are extremely valuable to a growing global workforce.

Challenges Faced by Third Culture Kids

Third-culture kids, though competent in many ways from living away from their passport country, also face certain challenges due to their nomadic lifestyle. Because a cross-cultural kid is constantly moving away from established places during his or her developmental years, it can be difficult to feel a sense of security. Continual loss of friends, schools, community, and pets can cause cross-cultural kids to become more wary of building close relationships with others.

In addition, it can be difficult for cross-cultural kids to build any kind of cultural identity. Their rootlessness and ever-changing cultural environments during developmental years can cause a kind of reverse cultural shock in third-culture kids. Often, when they return to their home country (or passport country), they feel alienated. Some may find it difficult to understand their place in the world.

Higher education can also pose a challenge for third-culture kids. A third-culture kid is very often unprepared for the shift into college life. College culture can be very different than other types of cultural communities, and although most young adult third-culture kids are well-versed in multiple cultures, they struggle with campus life. Studies show that almost 40% drop out of their first institution.

And because they have lived a life trying to manage feelings of loss, third-culture kids also have problems with forming strong friendships and romantic relationships with others, which can also negatively impact college life. A third-culture kid will often struggle with social isolation, as well as experience feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Factors in TCK adjustment

Factors that can influence the adjustment of a third culture kid are unresolved grief and loss, the lack of connection to a primary or passport country, and an ignorance of the social mores of their parents' culture. There can also be an ignorance of the traditional third culture in other cultures. Unless an institution is an international school, it's unlikely that the staff understands the needs of a third-culture kid.

What Kind of Support Does a TCK Require?

Adult third-culture kids can be a significant part of the world culture, with their cultural learning leading to careers in international business, foreign service, and other important and growing areas. What a cross-cultural kid needs is support from communities and education systems to help them grow to their potential across cross-cultural environments. Here are some things that you can do to support a cross-cultural kid:

  • Understand, especially in universities, that an adult third-culture kid can require time to process loss, and to mourn. A university can be a place of stability after the continual change of growing up in the third culture model. Working with a counselor during this time can also help.
  • Avoid generalizations about any of the places a third-culture kid may have lived. Show an appreciation for their cross-cultural experience, ask questions, and don't make assumptions.
  • A cross-cultural kid often does not like or understand alcohol culture on campuses. Show an interest in them by inviting them to social events that don't revolve around alcohol consumption.
  • Create a campus community that allows a third-culture kid to mix with other third-culture kids, and share experiences with each other.

Final Thoughts on the Cross-Culture Kid

So, what is a third-culture kid? A third-culture kid can be a product of international schools, foreign service, global nomads, and other world travelers and spend a significant part of their life in a host culture different from their parent's passport country. They are often extremely cosmopolitan, worldly, and empathetic toward different cultural communities.

The third culture experience offers a lot of benefits, but continual cross-cultural transitions can also lead to culture shock for many of these individuals. Therapy may be helpful for TCKs, allowing them to process feelings of grief and loss, and offering them tools to build strong relationships.

Supporting Cross-Cultural Kids in Brooklyn, NY

While cross-cultural kids enjoy many benefits from their experience as global nomads, they can also struggle with feelings of instability and loss. Working with a therapist can help.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of doctoral-level psychologists have experience working with individuals from a variety of cultures, including those who may be a product of many cultures.

Give us a call today, and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Brooklyn child therapist to guide your child through feelings of grief and loss, offer tools and coping skills to manage stress and feelings of disconnection, as well as learn how to build strong and lasting relationships with others.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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