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Expat Parent: Raising Third Culture Kids

Are you a parent living abroad? Do you have children who accompany you or who were born in the expat country? If yes, you have a TCK. You might wonder "A what?"

A TCK - a Third Culture Kid.

The term was coined by Ruth Useem in the 1950s. She observed that children who used to live for a longer period of time away from home have something in common - a third culture. They have a unique, yet similar view to see the world, to communicate, to socialize, to live their lives.

If you raise your child in a foreign country, your child is surrounded by another culture than you grew up in. Yet, you will also introduce him or her to parts of your culture. Here is an example: If you are from America and you live in China for a while, your children will celebrate Chinese New Year and will eat with chopsticks, but you might also celebrate Christmas and eat with a fork and a knife. Your child is exposed to two cultures, which leads to a new question: What is their cultural identity?

This is where the term third in third culture kid comes in. They adapt to both cultures. You can imagine how confusing it can become to find their own cultural identity. Where do they belong?

Keep in mind, as an adult, everything you see, you interpret through your own cultural lens. But children are not interpreting, they are making memories. They accept the status quo. This is their normal. This is how things are done. This is their reality.

One significant factor is age. If your child was born in a foreign country or was very young when you arrived at the expat country and you move back before school starts, chances are that your child, after a short period of time, adjusts to the new place just fine.

But the older they get, the more challenging moving becomes, because their roots are growing and they realize and remember what is going on and what is changing. Saying good-bye to their friends gets tougher, leaving a place they call home gets harder and realizing that they are different than their peers becomes more and more obvious to themselves and this can leave them bewildered and perplexed.

Another factor is how often you move during their upbringing and the diversity of the places you will live at. Sometimes it is actually easier for third culture kids to move from one country to the next, because they will always live among other TCKs and therefore never feel like the odd one, which happens the moment you move back to the place where you were born and everyone around them expects them to fit in. (see the blogpost: Coming Home - When Repatriation Hits You)

There are of course many advantages in being a TCK:

The obvious one would be that in most cases your child will speak at least two languages fluently and without an accent. In a more globalized world, this is definitely a plus.

Most of them have no problem to adapt to new situations, since this is what they had to learn growing up. And experiencing various cultures is an education that no textbook can give you.


Experiencing various cultures is an education that no textbook can give you.


But how can you as a parent support your child during those transitions?

Being aware that your child is a third culture kid might already help especially when you move back home and everyone around them expects them to fit back in. You know where they are coming from and you can encourage them with a lot of love and a lot of grace.

Now on a practical side what TCKs are often not having is a routine. They move places, they move schools, they have to say good-bye to friends often, hardly anything in their lives stays to same. So if you want to support them, you can figure out ways how to bring routine into their lives. This might be a Friday game night with Pizza every week. This might be a very unique way in celebrating their birthday in a similar way every year. Often it is food. Find ways to give them something they can remember and they have something they can count on.

Furthermore, whenever they are having a bad day (or bad days), it doesn't help them if you tell them what a fabulous life they are living and under what circumstances you grew up, instead ask them a simple "Tell me more" and validate their feelings.

This is even more important when you are about to leave a place. We adults often make the mistake that moving is easy on a child. But it is not. Allow them to grieve. Allow them to be sad and mad and everything in between. You can even buy them a notebook in which they can write down all their thoughts or feelings. Or get them a pair of sneakers and tell them whenever they wear them, it is okay to remember the old days in the other country and to be sad. Give them permission to cry, to grieve and often your example speaks louder than words.

Furthermore, having a professional coach by your side who assists you as a parent and if your child is old enough, your child personally, is a huge benefit. Every teenager wants to figure out who they are and being a TCK is a whole other story, but having a coach who guides you through that transition could not be more valuable. You don't have to do all on your own.

COACHING because every TCK deserves to find his or her place in this world.



- Ijeoma Umebinyuo -


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