What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?

When I tell people that I’m a TCK they often have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m not really surprised as it’s not a very common expression. For one of my  undergraduate psychology research papers, I wrote about TCKs.  I decided on this topic due to the fact that I was curious about how my upbringing shaped my personality and identity, and also what research had been done, and still needs to be done, on TCKs. Following very positive feedback from my professor, I decided to share my final research paper with people I knew. After more positive feedback and several questions from my friends, I thought it would be a good idea to include some excerpts from my paper here.  I will break up my paper into four posts:1- What is a TCK? 2- TCKs and Identity Issues , 3- Programmes in Place for TCKs and 4- Further Research . Please excuse the overly-academic language and the length! The original paper was around 3,000 words in length and I have tried to cut it down considerably.

Traditional African mud hut

A lot has been written about social development during adolescence, a period of time between approximately ages 10 and 22 (Santrock, Mackenzie-Rivers, Leung &Malcomson, 2008). In Erik Erikson’s model of lifespan development, stage five , the identity versus identity confusion stage, occurs during adolescence(Santrock, Mackenzie-Rivers, Leung &Malcomson,2008). During this stage,adolescents discover who they are and decide where their lives will go while trying to fit in at the same time. There are two possible outcomes from this stage; either they will successfully come out from this stage with a new feeling of identity or they will be unsuccessful, which will result in them isolating themselves from family and friends or taking on a group identity (Santrock, Mackenzie-Rivers, Leung &Malcomson,2008). Third Culture Kids (TCKs)  also go through the same stage five development but because of their diverse upbringings, their development process is different and more difficult. (Davis et al., 2010)

TCKs have been around for a long time but it is only within the last few decades that they have been recognized as being a unique group of people who have special needs. (Davis et al., 2010). Due to the global travel trend of the effortlessness in travelling around the world and also due to advances in technology that have mitigated the ease of access to information, a large and unexpectedly high number of children are being raised overseas.  The definition of a third culture kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a large part of their developmental years outside the country of their parent’s culture (Limberg,2011). The term “third” refers to the fact that the individual usually does not relate to the parent’s culture (first culture) or the host culture (second culture) and instead has had to create a third culture that is neither the home culture nor the host culture. The third culture that a TCK creates is  a self-created one which  is complex and intricate and is often described as being an abstract one. (Limberg,2011). TCKs are often the children of missionaries, scholars, military personnel and international executives. They are also known as cultural chameleons and cross-culture kids (Christ & Cigularova,2007).


Although each TCK experiences a different and unique experience, there are indeed certain characteristics which are normally shared, both  positive and negative.

On the plus side, TCK kids are generally able to easily adapt and get accustomed to new and unfamiliar cultural rules. They also often have good social and linguistic skills, as well as strong global views and unique philosophical and political perspectives (Christ & Cigularova,2007). In addition, they have had great chances to encounter different cultures (Davis et al., 2010). Also, they are highly mobile and have large degrees of global understanding; their high adaptability, makes them ideal for many important jobs (Limberg,2011). They often appreciate their own diverse backgrounds and can use their skills to their advantage. One of the most famous TCKs is US President Barack Obama; he has appointed many TCKs to his cabinet where they can utilize the benefits they have acquired due to their diverse upbringings,which include their social and intellectual flexibility, and their ability to interact with those with different thinking and acting styles(Davis et al., 2010)

Learning more about my culture on my last trip home
Learning more about my culture on my last trip home

 On the down side, TCKs have many characteristics which hinder their identity development.TCKs face more identity questions than do most non TCKs. TCKs are apt to experience social isolation as they do not seem to fit into any social group. This is because of the challenges they face of forming senses of identity and belonging and, as a result, TCKs tend to feel as though they have no roots. They are disposed to feel different from others and therefore find it difficult to relate to others since they do not think they fit in and this feeling goes with them wherever they go (Walters,2006).  Due to their tendency of being able to adapt quickly to a society, they are often unaware of much of their parent’s culture and also often have confused loyalties. (Christ & Cigularova,2007).It was found that among TCKs there is always a transitional interruption and often spirituality has a stabilizing effect. They always a deep feeling of being different and also the feeling that their voices are not being heard. Also, while TCKs are more mature than their peers in some situations, they are less so in others.Thus,TCKs are exposed to many more changes and much more stress than non TCKs. They must encounter more  extreme changes in life and more frequently than those adolescents who do not move from their home countries during adolescence.Walters,2006)


17 thoughts on “What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?

    1. I expect being a TCK fosters an exceptional level of self awareness
      But I think research always helps! Reading about the social psychology of gender has changed & developed the way I understand being a woman, for example

  1. Happy you posted this. I remember we talked about it. A very good read. Both for people who have never heard about the concept and for us TCK. I recognize much of what you describe here. I’ll see if I can write something about it too. Thanks for posting 🙂

    1. Thanks Margret! I’m glad I finally did it, I know my essay isn’t autobiographical but I thought that would be better for now. Later I would like to write more about personal observations. I would very much love to read what you have to write 🙂

    1. I agree, Claire. My parents didn’t really have any idea about TCKs, not that I blame them of course as it’s a relatively new field! I’m glad that there is more awareness about the issue especially as more and more kids are likely to be TCKs in the future.

      1. Yes, parents are usually going through a significant and sometimes difficult transition themselves when they are living in another culture, something that not much is written about either. From what I can gather, allowing children to fully immerse in the culture they are living in is a great help, in our case, at least we aren’t moving from place to place, staying in one place helps. Looking forward to more about your own experience.

      2. That’s a good point, Claire. I know it can’t have been easy for my mum to live in the UK so far away from her family in the 1980s when there was no internet and poor phone reception in Africa!

  2. Thank you for this insightful post, Rowena. I had no idea about third culture kids so far. So going by this definition my cousin sister’s kids who are being raised in the U.S. away from their parents’ homeland are also bound to grow into TCKs. Although I certainly hope they do not suffer from isolation in any form and find their own place in life.

  3. There! I don’t have to write a research paper about “my people.” anymore. This is great! As a TCK, I agree with what you wrote, Rowena. Specifically the part where a TCK would have an advantage in leadership and social roles. Being fluent in two or three other languages is pretty cool too! The downside I have personally experienced are, to quote, “confused loyalties” and a weird sense of isolation from my friends. My ideas are different, too mature, or sometimes just outright “impossible.” The hard part, I think, is to returning to thinking like a regular kid again (once you’re back in living in your passport country.)

    1. LOL! You should still write one in case you choose to focus on a certain aspect! And thank you so much for your kind compliments and your insightful comments;) Yes, I completely agree that I often have “confused loyalties”, even now. I guess the issue is we don’t have any true loyalties to one culture as we are “global citizens.” I really really hope you write more about your experiences in Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines on your blog. I think in the future I will do more research on TCKs.

      Thanks again, Noel 🙂

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