How to Support Third-Culture Kids

For many people, the word “home” can evoke familiar memories of the house or apartment they grew up in, their childhood bedroom, and the yard where they played with their best friends. But conjuring up an image of home doesn’t come easy for everyone. For children who spend their formative years growing up in a country (or countries) not native to them as a result of their parents’ career moves, home can be rooted in a variety of places.

Third-culture kids (TCKs) are defined  as “children who are raised in a country other than their parents’ for a significant portion of their developmental years.” This may include the children of diplomats, international businesspeople, missionaries, foreign aid workers and military personnel. These children experience a uniquely nomadic and international upbringing hallmarked by transitions that can uproot their lives.

“The idea of ‘third culture’ is relatively abstract when people usually want to define cultures in traditional terms of religion and country,” said Ann Baker Cottrell, a retired sociology professor at San Diego State University and TCK expert.

Cottrell says that TCKs experience a culture of in-betweenness not everyone can relate to.

For example, an immigrant might feel uncertain and in between cultures when they move, but they recognize that they’re settling into a new place and are expected to adjust to their new culture.

“A TCK, on the other hand, is not always expected to assimilate because they’re going to go back home,” Cottrell said. “But even returning to their home country may feel foreign to them if they’ve spent a significant portion of their childhood overseas, so it’s harder to define.”

According to Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds and co-founder of Families in Global Transition, TCKs share the following common characteristics:

Cross-cultural lifestyle: TCKs have a large world view and tend to serve as “cultural bridges” for people. Global identity is important. In her research, Cottrell surveyed 603 adult TCKs and reported that more than two-thirds of her respondents believed maintaining an international dimension to their lives is important.

High mobility: TCKs change cultural environments frequently and repetitively. As a result, they are more rootless and restless, albeit adaptable. Cottrell reported that roughly 8 out of 10 TCKs believe they can relate to anyone, regardless of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural differences.

Expected repatriation: TCKs are eventually expected to return to their home country, even if they haven’t spent much time there.

What Mental and Emotional Challenges Do Third-Culture Kids Face?

Stress and anxiety are not uncommon for TCKs,  as they are repeatedly forced to leave communities with little time to process the move and then expected to extend the emotional energy necessary to build new relationships.


Intense negative emotions: As TCKs move around, they lose contact with familiar people and places, which can lead to withdrawal, isolation or aggression.

Unresolved grief: Moving environments can make grief feel sudden and intense, External link  explains author and counselor Lois Bushong. Anger and depression can manifest if children do not feel adequately supported or feel misunderstood.

Difficulty forming attachments: TCKs might have trouble forming and maintaining long-term relationships. They also may struggle with feelings of belonging, External link  writes counselor Lisa Green.

Delayed adolescence: Many of Cottrell’s respondents felt out of sync with their age group. Some avoided settling down, getting married or having a career in favor of living a “prolonged adolescence” lifestyle, she said.

What Does Transition Look Like for Third-Culture Kids?

Not only are TCKs moving from one home to another, they are also relocating between cultures on a recurring basis. In a paper sponsored by the American Counseling Association (ACA), authors discuss implications for professional counselors working with this population and highlight the five stages of transition that adolescent TCKs experience (PDF, 266 KB). 

How Can Counselors Support Third-Culture Kids During Transition Periods?

In an increasingly globalized world, counselors are in a position to better educate themselves on cross-cultural communication, multiculturalism and diversity in order to help people like TCKs, as described by Courtland C. Lee in the Professional Counseling Digest article “Elements of Culturally Competent Counseling” (PDF, 45 KB).  According to an ACA-sponsored paper on implications for professional counselors, it’s also important for counselors to be able to individually assess each TCK and their different experiences to pinpoint areas of transition that can lead to stressors. To best serve TCKs, compiled a list of tips for counselors.


  • Address your own biases and assumptions about people and culture. Ask yourself if you are making assumptions about how clients experience your culture based on predetermined ideas.
  • Adopt a broader perspective on culture and global living. Recognize there are subcultures within cultures and that there is more to culture beyond race and ethnicity.
  • Acknowledge that there are differences in backgrounds and multiple dimensions with TCKs. For example, not all TCKs live an upscale, privileged lifestyle.


  • According to Cottrell, it’s important to let TCKs know that most people might not understand their full experience, and that’s OK.
  • Reach out often (especially if a TCK is starting a new school).
  • Suggest TCKs work on keeping in touch with friends.


  • Divide losses into categories (such as friends, teachers, stores, pets, food, weather) and give TCKs a space to express how they felt about each loss, Bushong suggests.
  • Do not reframe TCK losses into gains because it can lead to feelings of shame, withdrawal or anger.
  • Name and identify emotions, Green says, and practice developing healthier emotional responses to loss.


  • Parents can try to minimize disruption in schedule for the next move as best as they can. This can look like waiting until the start of a new school year or semester to relocate, if possible.
  • Parents can also host open discussions on new challenges and learning curves, such as saying goodbye to friends or getting to know a different culture.

Are you interested in pursuing a career counseling adolescents and teens? Learn more about how to become a child counselor and the requirements for getting licensed.

Where Can I Get Help for Third-Culture Kids?

Exposing TCKs to information and resources on TCK life can build familiarity with what it means to be a TCK. This can help them feel less alone in what they’re going through and better understand why they may feel different.