Raising Third Culture Kids (TCKs)

Published on: December 17, 2018

Clinical psychologists Catherine and Benjamin teach us about raising TCKs. By Catherine Barbier, MA, and Benjamin Weinstein, PhD “Where are you from?’ As expats, this is a question we hear (and ask) over and over. Most of us have quick and frequently practiced answers. Some of us even have stock answers that we pull out as needed: the short version, the long version, the version for work, and so on.
TCKs […] inhabit a unique space, a space that is neither here nor there.
For third culture kids (TCKs), it’s not so simple. Many TCKs say that this simple question leads them to hesitate and pause. TCKs have a reaction most of us don’t. They stop each time and wonder, “Where am I from?”

What is a TCK?

Before going on, it helps to take a moment to define what a third culture kid is. The original (and still helpful) definition is that TCKs are children who are being raised in a host culture that is different from the family’s “home” culture. We have to put “home” in quotes because many TCKs often do not feel at home in the parents home culture. The typical scenario looked like this: parents from one culture are living in a different country and culture and raising their children there. This is the “host culture.” However these days, there are so many different variations on this theme. There are people who have emigrated from their home country to another country and started a family with a local spouse/partner. Other families include parents from two different cultures who are both expat professionals raising children while living abroad.
Every experience is a kind of split experience.
There also families from the “host” culture that send their children to international schools. These children face some of the biggest challenges, whereby the child is exposed to what their parents regard as the “home” culture at home and during visits to the “home” country, yet at the same time, the children attend school and participate in many activities every day in a foreign culture and language. They are constantly in contact with influences that people living in the “home” culture never experience and with an array of friends and teachers from diverse cultures.

Living between two cultures

TCKs learn more than one language and hear people talking different languages every day. They grow up eating “home” and “foreign” foods, celebrating “home” and “foreign” holidays and so on. Every experience is a kind of split experience. TCKs grow up knowing that there is one culture that their parents tell them is their “home.” They live their daily lives is another culture (or many cultures if the family moves around).
TCKs do not have the same experience of rootedness and belonging as their parents.
TCKs themselves therefore inhabit a unique space, a space that is neither here nor there. They grow up living “in-between” two cultures. This unique space is the third culture, a special space situated in-between clear definitions and categories. So, when someone asks a TCK “Where are you from?”, their internal response could be “Well, I grew up in Bangkok, but my parents came from Canada and I visited Canada every year but I never really felt like I lived there. So, I’m not sure.”

The challenges of identity development

The “in-between” experience has a number of potential pluses or potential problems. From a psychological perspective, the fundamental issue is related to identity development. Most of us develop our individual identities in a specific context that includes a family, one language, and one culture. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this context helps most of us to develop a solid sense of belonging and rootedness in a place and a culture. We feel this as a sense of comfort and familiarity with the home culture. TCKs do not have the same experience of rootedness and belonging as their parents.
[For a TCK] a “return” [to the home country] is another separation from a familiar environment and transition to a new place and culture.
TCKs have core developmental experiences of living in between cultures and mobility or movement between cultures, a kind of moving back and forth. They are not rooted in the “home” culture in the same way as their parents, and they are not rooted in the host culture in the same way as their friends. This unique set of life experiences has a range of potential strengths and weaknesses. The table below briefly describes a few of the possible responses TCKs have to their unique upbringing. It’s remarkable and confusing that, from a psychological perspective, the same experience can develop into a strength for some TCKs or a problem for others, and in some cases, both for the same person!

A plus vs a problem: Influences

So, what influences whether the experience becomes a plus or a problem? There are three main influences:
  1. the parents’ responses to transition and change
  2. the family environment and cohesion
  3. the child’s temperament and individual needs.

Tips for parents raising TCKs

So, here are some tips for parents raising their kids as TCKs… The foundation of parenting TCKs is to accept that your children will not have the same relationship with your home culture as you do. At some level, it’s not their home culture. Many parents of TCKs have real difficulty in identifying with or understanding their child’s experience. Most parents have been raised in their home culture and feel a solid sense of belonging and rootedness in that culture (of course, this doesn’t apply to parents who were raised as a TCK themselves!). In raising TCKs, taking steps to make the home culture as available, present and alive for the child as possible, especially during early stages of development can help provide a stable and supportive environment for everyone. This can also include doing your best to provide opportunities for your child to put roots down in your home culture, like regular home visits and extended periods of time with family in the home country. One special note here is the issue of “return.” While this is a return for the parents, for a TCK who was born overseas or left before the age of six or seven, this is not a return; it is another separation from a familiar environment and transition to a new place and culture. Repatriating parents need to bear this in mind. The general guideline about parenting TCKs effectively is that it’s the same as being an effective parent, plus a bit. In general, parents need to be reasonably happy to be at their best as people and parents. Unhappy parents’ unhappiness tends to influence their children. For TCKs, parents need to be happy as expats in order to be available for their kids. So…
  • Try to make sure that you’re adjusting and coping well as an expat which in turn will help you to model a successful transition and adjustment for your child. Making sure your needs reasonably met makes you more emotionally available for your kids!
  • Do your best to make sure that you and your partner are a stable and supportive team. You don’t have to agree about everything (is that even possible?!), but you support each other.
  • Do your best to make each house a home or home base. Carry a little bit of your home culture everywhere with you.
  • Celebrate the holidays of your home culture and consume the home culture (books, video, music/songs, games, and so on) together as a family. If possible, make sure that your child spends some time in your home culture regularly.
Most importantly, think about the needs of each child separately and individually. Your child is not a TCK yet! They are their own developing person, with their own individual constellation of strengths and needs. It’s important to be flexible and responsive. Of course, this is also the hardest part of parenting. The hardest part leads to the most amazing part: interacting with your kids and seeing them develop into their own amazing people! Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash  

About the Authors

Ms. Barbier and Dr. Weinstein are clinical psychologists with Psychological Services International (PSI) in Bangkok. PSI has been supporting the mental health and personal growth of Bangkok’s expatriate and local communities since 2003. Catherine, who trained at the Sorbonne, is the mother of two. Ben has been working with expats, sojourners, and residents alike in Bangkok since 2004.
The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.