The world today seems smaller than ever before. We think nothing of travelling to once exotic destinations for our annual holiday and more and more of us are choosing to live in countries other than that of our birth.
Alongside these effects of globalisation is that of children who are now growing up in cultures other than that of their parents and yet remaining to varying degrees apart from the culture of the country they live in. These children are known as Third Culture Kids.
What defines a Third Culture Kid?
The term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was first defined in the 1950’s to give a classification and understanding to American children growing up outside of the United States. Technically it refers to a child who is likely to have parents (or a parent) who are working in a foreign country (or countries) for a period of time and the child therefore spends a significant part of their development growing up in that country; they therefore neither really belong to their original nor host culture and are defined as being of a ‘third culture’.
Effects of globalisation
More and more children are growing up as TCKs as people think less and less of living and working in other cultures and countries. The benefits of being a TKD are obvious if not always ubiquitous: TCKs learn to mix with other cultures; they frequently speak multiple languages; they are more likely to undertake a degree and can easily feel at home anywhere.
So, are there only positives?
Put simply, no. If a child grows up as a TCK and has a ‘secure base’ – is securely attached to their caregivers – then the experience can often be largely positive though still comes with a price such as a loss of belonging, limited contact with wider family, confused loyalties etc.
However, if a child has a less than ‘good enough’ home environment then the experience of being a TCK can exacerbate their lack of boundaries and can make neglect and/or abuse more likely as there is no wider family network or community to care for the child.
It takes a village to raise a child
In my clinical work I have come across individuals who have survived extremely neglectful or virtually non-existent parenting, who have nonetheless managed to locate enough consistency in adults around them in order to be OK. In other words, there is great truth and wisdom to the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child and often, the village is the container and parent for the child where their biological parents have failed them.
Third culture kids and loss
Loss is a key aspect of growing up as a TCK. There is often the initial loss of ‘home; to overcome – house, town, culture, extended family, friends, identity – which can be a significant shock in itself.
However, the losses continue to define TCKs as it is extremely likely that if they are growing up as part of an expatriate community, friends, teachers and familiar faces will come and go fairly frequently as contracts end and jobs take the adults elsewhere in the globe. This can be a particular challenge when it comes to the frequent and ongoing loss of friends which is often the hardest part of a TCKs experience.
On a psychological level the losses combined with a lack of cultural embeddedness and identity can lead to difficulty in settling down, committing and fitting in. This can then translate to anxiety, depression and a sense of free-floating dread.
A rolling stone gathers no moss
Third Culture Kids can grow up to become Global Nomads, relishing the confidence that being able to settle anywhere brings to them. However, this is also often not the case and TCKs can oscillate between a dread of not belonging versus a fear of putting roots down and building an ordinary life with substance.
As with most experiences, whether something is positive, or negative is so very often contingent on how secure a child feels in the relationship with their parents. With a secure base, we feel safe enough to venture further from home, even when that means exploring other cultures.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a self-defined Third Culture Kid who, by the age of 12, had attended 10 schools across five countries. He speaks four languages and is attuned to working with Third Culture Kids, Global Nomads and Existential Migrants, as well as anyone struggling with cross-cultural experiences. Mark sees clients in Hove and Lewes.
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