Third Culture Kids

What is a ‘Third Culture Kid’? 

‘Third Culture Kid’ is a term used to describe children who have been raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their developmental years.

The experience of being a third culture kid is unique in that these children are moving between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. A first culture child is one who grows up surrounded by the culture of the country where their parents originated from. A second culture child is one who grows up immersed in the culture of the country where the family currently reside. A third culture child refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures. They form their own cultural group that does not fall into their home or host culture, but rather they share a culture with all other third culture kids.

“A third culture kid is someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Kay Branaman Eakina

In today’s world there are more third culture kids than ever before and there will continue to be due to increasing globalisation, transnational migration, overseas job opportunities and availability of international schools.

The dilemma

Your children are a key consideration, if not your main consideration, when thinking about an overseas assignment and relocation to the UK. Worries about family adjustment and whether your child’s education will suffer are among the top concerns of many families faced with the decision, and they are also the main reasons why an overseas assignment may be turned down.

When deciding whether to accept a post, families must consider the long-term impact that exposure to multiple cultures will have on their child. Unlike adults, children can be more deeply affected by their experiences abroad as they are in a natural process of developing their identity. Each experience will be a part of them forever and shape their identity.

For many families, this will be one of many international assignments. On average, a child of an international assignee will have moved 6-8 times by the time they are 18 years old. For some this may seem disruptive, but for others this presents lots of opportunities.

The positives

  • Third culture kids will have an increased tolerance of, and higher sensitivity to, other cultures, ways of life and people from different backgrounds. They have an expanded worldview and can look at a situation and understand it in more than one way
  • They find it easy to adapt to new cultures and understand how to behave appropriately in these environments
  • Most will be fluent in two or more languages. They obtain language skills by being physically exposed to the environment where the native language is used in everyday life. Often they will be bilingual or even multilingual
  • Third culture kids can easily adapt to change
  • They learn to make friends quickly and also learn to let go quickly
  • They possess an inner confidence due to all of their experiences
  • Families tend to benefit from deeper bonds as they go through these unique experiences together

The negatives 

  • Third culture kids can feel that they are culturally homeless. They can have an identity crisis caused by not feeling part of any nationality or culture. This leads to feelings of rootlessness and restlessness which often makes the transition into adulthood more challenging
  • Most assignments last between 3-5 years. This is the time it takes for a child to fully settle in and get the hang of their new culture. Just as they are adjusting to life and feeling comfortable they are asked to move on again
  • Third culture kids can experience confused loyalties in terms of politics, patriotism and values when moving between countries which are very different from each other
  • They can find themselves ignorant to their home culture making the transition back home a lot harder. They often lack knowledge about their home nation, culture, town and family. Third culture kids can fail to understand the sense of humour when they first move back home. However, we must note that with modern technology it is now much easier to ensure they stay connected
  • Their education is disrupted due to settling in issues and then moving on again. Sometimes families are forced to move mid way through the school year or before exams. Third culture kids do not always consistently follow one education system
  • They may feel hesitant to develop relationships with people due to the knowledge they will soon have to say goodbye. Alternatively they may enter friendships at a deeper level and with urgency as they know their relationships are short lived
  • Any problems they face, they tend to leave behind rather than deal with

As you can see there are lots of positives and negatives to consider and weigh up against each other before making a decision. If you would like to discuss these with TTA then please do not hesitate to contact us. We also have a number of partners who are used to working with expat families and can offer cross-cultural courses to help you and your family make the transition a little smoother.


You know you’re a third culture kid when…

“Where are you from?” has more than one reasonable answer

You feel odd being in the ethnic majority 

You go into culture shock upon returning to your ‘home’ country 

You know how to pack 

You have friends from 29 different countries 

You sort your friends by continent

You have a time zone map next to your phone 

You realise it really is a small world after all 

Home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time 

Contact us

Give us a call on +44(0)1932 881051 or fill in the form below to make an enquiry.

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