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Raising Future Third Culture Kids

If you are a parent who is (or will be) living abroad with children, there’s a big chance you will be raising a third culture kid (or TCK). Maybe you have heard the term third culture kid and found yourself wondering the full meaning. Perhaps, you want a better understanding of the impact of an international childhood. Does it even apply to your kid’s situation? Need advice on preparations for this new life change with your child? In this article, we will dive deeper to gain a better understanding while presenting tangible transitional advice. Transition can be a big adjustment. But with the right preparation, it can be a successful and rewarding experience for your whole family.

Table of Contents

What is a Third Culture Kid?

In The Third Culture Kid Article I Wish I Had Read, writer Mary Bassey explains how she stumbled upon finding out she was a third culture kid (or TCK) for short. In her words, It was both bizarre and fulfilling to hear these people, these Third Culture Kids, speak of their difficulties with identity and belonging, yet stating how they would not have it any other way. They, like me, were people who spent a significant amount of their childhood outside of their parent’s culture.” As Bassey would go on to explain, she had a term to explain her complex, international experience. 

The term ‘third culture kid’ was first created by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s. At the time, she was working with a group of American children who had been raised in India. She noticed these children didn’t quite fit in with either Indian culture or American culture, and she dubbed them ‘third culture kids’.

When we talk about ‘third culture kids’, or TCKs we’re referring to children who have been raised in a culture other than their parents’ native culture. Expat is another term for kids in this situation. These children who live in a country other than their original passport country. There are various reasons why these children live abroad. Often, children become TCKs when their parents are expats (or expatriates) who have relocated to a new country. This is usually tied to employment such as diplomatic, corporate, military, service or religious work.

However, a child can become a TCK because they have moved for other reasons including international education, changing family dynamics or fleeing conflict situations. Regardless of reasons for moving, the third culture kid experience is impacted by the cross-cultural lifestyle, high mobility and expected repatriation. In many cases, these TCKs grow up experiencing two or more cultures.

Happy Black parents holding black child in arms outside.
Image: iStock

There have been many famous, Black and Brown TCKs including former U.S. President Barack Obama, late basketball great Kobe Bryant, actress Lupita N’yongo and rapper Wiz Khalifa

What Are the Benefits of Being a Third Culture Kid?

There can be many advantages for third culture kids. The in-person approach to seeing a foreign culture first hand is far more impactful long term than simply reading about it. Being exposed to new places, new languages and new cultures opens a world of possibilities.


  • Immersive language learning that leads to becoming bilingual or multilingual

  • Opportunities to see, taste and experience new customs, foods and culture

  • Gain a better understanding of a culture different than their own

  • Develop stronger communication skills with both adults and peers 

  • Be more adaptable to new environments 

  • Have an increased appreciation for diversity 

  • Comfortable navigating international travel hurdles versus kids who have not experienced international travel

  • Many global long-lasting friendships

  • Educational enrichments that many domestic kids do not get to experience

  • Resilience 

  • A sense of global citizenship with a better world view

What Are the Potential Challenges of Being a Third Culture Kid?

TCKs can also face unique challenges. Moving into a new country and culture can be hard so you need to plan and think about how to support your children through the transitions.


  • Difficulty assimilating at first into new culture

  • Sensory overload

  • Not knowing where to belong

  • Temporary or long-term isolation

  • Fitting in with peers, especially when repatriating to home/passport country 

  • Language barriers 

  • Identity issues 

  • Could have difficulty forming long-lasting relationships (if relocation happens often)

  • Anxiety and stress 

How Can You Prepare Your Child/Children For a Move Abroad?

It can be overwhelming dealing with the planning, preparation and details to cover for international moves. One of the most important preparations before moving is having a plan for your child or children. This could help mitigate or avoid some of the challenges altogether. But what does that look like?


Communication with your child is important. It cannot be stressed enough that communication from A to Z is important. Be real with them no matter their age. Let them know all the ins and outs (that are age appropriate) so that nothing catches them by surprise, because that could be traumatic. You want this experience to be as enjoyable and tolerable as possible. Set realistic expectations ahead of time for your child to shoot for once you are in the new country.

Have a plan to stay connected with friends and loved ones. Set departure plans in place for anyone who is important to your children that they will be leaving behind. Reassure them this is not goodbye and that the friends or loved ones will still be very present in their life but that it will just look different. Design a plan with each person of how you can stay in contact until you travel back to see them. It could be some friends will be pen pals mostly and some may be weekly zoom or FaceTime calls. Or, a weekly call on zoom to see Auntie and Uncle on Thursdays at 5 P.M. for example. Have a simple colorful chart of the plans with the addresses, email, phone numbers, or Zoom IDs the child will be in charge of to help keep them accountable in reaching out to familiar loved ones. Make sure the child is aware of the plan and ready to get started on it as soon as they settle in the new land. Do not let a lot of time pass from landing and then communicating with people the child is familiar with in a land of unfamiliar faces.

Black third culture kid/daugher with parent playing on the floor
Image: iStock

Consistency is key. Your daily routines may not be identical to what they used to be once you get there but adjust and develop a new routine as soon as possible and stick to it. Predictable routines will help eliminate at least some of the initial stress a child may feel after a bit in a new place where they are uncertain about everything. At least at home, they will be certain of their routines. 

Look ahead. As you look into your child’s education see if the school has a transition support program. If the school does not see if the community or city you will live in does. Look ahead at an event or activity your child likes to do and make some basic beginner plans ahead of time. For example, your child is in dance class and they love to dance. When they first find out you are moving, they may feel that something they love may be taken away. Reassure them it will not. Let them know you have already found dance classes for them to continue in.

Language immersion starts now. Find age-appropriate fun and engaging language apps or online classes for the country you will be moving to as far in advance as you can. This will give the child some time to begin to hear the spoken language and begin getting prepared for immersion. 

Experience cultural foods ahead of time. Cook some traditional foods together from that country before you move to give them a sample of the new cultural foods while still in their own country with all of their foods. As you all sample look to find some favorites so when the move happens that is one less stressful element for the child to embrace.

Finally, give them time to process and give them time to grieve. Your child or children may go through a period of grieving what they once knew as normal or they may not. But if they do, allow them the time to do so in healthy ways. Be careful and watchful that they do not withdraw too often into insolation.

Children will be watching you during the whole process. If you speak so stressed of the situation, the whole journey of planning and doing so in front of them will indeed spill over on them. Be as positive and upbeat as you can and it will help them in more ways than you realize.

Most of all enjoy the journey and be excited together with your third culture kids for the new lifetime of memories you will make.

Further Resources


The Third Article Kid Article I Wish I Had Read by Mary Bassey

What Exactly Is An Expat, Anyway? 

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Ruth Van Reken, David C. Pollock & Michael Pollock

Raising Up A Generation of Third Culture Kids by Lauren Wells


Black, African, TCK” with Stephanie Taderera & Astrid Chitou

And We Moved To..” with Mariam Ottimofiore


The Journey with Eyitemi Popo

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