When people ask you where you’re from, is that a difficult question to answer? Do you feel at home in many places and cultures, and nowhere, at the same time? Do you feel you have more in common with people from all around the world, than those who may share the same passport as you?
If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, it’s possible you grew up as one of the millions of people known variously as Global Nomads, Cross Culture Kids or Third Culture Kids. Your parents may have been diplomats, international business people, missionaries, in the military, or another occupation that involves living and working in different countries.
This can be an exciting lifestyle. There is constant travel, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures and lifestyles.
But this is a counselling blog, and I feel it's important to also recognise some of the possible impacts this way of life can have on mental health. Ones that often remain hidden to both the children who grew up this way, and their families. It’s a topic I’m particularly passionate about as I grew up the child of a diplomat, and the photo above is of just two of the countries I grew up in. I’ve experienced first hand both the positives and some of the costs of this way of life.
Third Culture Kids
The term I find most useful is one I believe was first used by John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s. They were studying American missionaries in India, and became interested in the impact of that way of life on the missionaries’ children. What they found was the children didn’t feel like they were Indian, the culture they were living in, or American, the culture they were from. Instead, they had become what they called Third Culture Kids (TCKs). This term, along with Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) for when they are older, is now widely used to describe anyone who spends at least part of their childhood in countries and cultures other than their own.
Impacts on mental health
What often happens with this lifestyle is a focus on the positives. And indeed there are many. TCKs are praised for being highly adaptable, able to blend into new situations, being open minded, living life in the now. They are often told how exciting and glamorous their lives have been.
But one effect of this can be the child feeling under pressure to ignore or not even recognise any of the costs involved. Particularly when back in their country of origin, it’s likely their new schools and friends will have had no experience of dealing with someone who has lived the life they have. The desire to try to fit in and act as if nothing unusual has happened to them can be very strong. Even though they may now feel like a stranger in their own home.
One of the most prominent impacts of this lifestyle is constant, regular loss. Friends, homes, pets, cultures, lifestyles, schools, hobbies, languages, can all vanish literally in an instant when the plane door closes as they head to their next destination. Unlike if this happened from say a fire, natural disaster, accident or war, these losses often go unrecognised not only by other people, but by the child themselves. The focus is immediately shifted to the next destination, and the adventure that awaits, and away from what is being left behind.
David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, write about many of the effects the TCK lifestyle can have. These include:
- The “Delusion of Choice”. TCKs will be used to being offered choices for the future (“do you want to try out for the school play?”) and then finding that choice suddenly taken away (“start packing, we’re leaving”). The result is actually feeling choiceless. Decisions can often be delayed to the last minute in case situations change. This can lead to missed opportunities, as well as alienating friends and family who experience them as unreliable and indecisive.
- Restlessness. Growing up in a way of life that is by definition temporary, can lead to a lifetime of feeling restless. This can affect everything from where to live, to relationships, to jobs, to hobbies and interests. A constant need to keep moving and trying new and different things.
- Belonging. TCKs can struggle with feeling like they belong, whether in terms of where they live, relationships they form, groups, or schools etc. They might appear to easily slip into new situations, but inside it’s a feeling of having one foot in, and one foot out. There can be a feeling of detachment. There and not there at the same time.
- Relationships. The regular multiple losses of friends and relationships can have a lasting impact. TCKs will have had to find a way to cope, and this often includes erecting some kind of wall or barrier within themselves to stay safe from hurt. This can be experienced as coldness, or a lack of trust by others. Unfortunately the same methods used as a child to feel safe and protected, can actually be the cause of damaged relationships as adults.
These are just some of the effects this lifestyle can have. These aren’t instead of the positives discussed above. Part of the challenge is being able to accept and recognise the whole of our experience.
It's good to talk
Pollock and Van Reken describe a study in which 40% of Adult TCKs saw their experience as having a negative impact on their mental health. This included depression, anxiety, and struggles around loss and fear of intimacy among others.
If this describes your own experience, finding someone you can talk to about it can make a real difference. This can help bring issues, particularly ones that have been hidden from view, out into the open, allowing them to be worked with.
Speaking personally, how I grew up shaped my identity, and ultimately led me to where I am now, which is where I want to be. But I’ve also had counselling myself to deal with the multiple losses I experienced, and the effects they'd had on me without my even realising. I know the positive difference counselling has made for me, and I hope others will experience the same benefits for themselves.