Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Book Summary)

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Book Cover)
A must-read for any TCK

If you’re a TCK (Third Culture Kid), this book is a must read. I’m an adult TCK, and wanted to share my reading notes with anyone who hasn’t had the chance to read it yet. As far as I’m aware, this is the most comprehensive book on third culture kids: their common traits, experiences, thoughts.

Written by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, the book (available on Amazon) provides great insight into the unique experiences and attitudes that many TCKs share.

My notes below (all emphasis mine).


What’s the definition of a “Third Culture Kid”?

A TCK is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years (age 0 to 18) outside the parents’ culture. Consequently, his or her sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

  • High prevalence of TCKs: immigrant children, children of adoptees, children of minorities
  • “Traditional” TCK categories: foreign service kids, military brats, corporate brats, missionary kids
  • There are actually many TCKs out there. As of 2007, there were 4 million Americans living abroad (1 million UK citizens, 1 million Japanese citizens). Many of their children are TCKs by definition.
  • 2% of the US population are TCKs.
  • TCKs find a lot of use in social networks to stay in touch (with friends around the world – Facebook is a great way to stay up to date)
  • “Prototype citizens of the future”
  • Barack Obama is a TCK.

A Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) is a person who is living in/has lived in, or meaningfully interacted with, two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during childhood (up to age 18). Note: NOT merely living side by side with another culture. TCKs are a subgroup of CCKs.

Characteristics of a TCK Upbringing

Two important realities: being raised in a genuinely cross-cultural world and being raised in a highly mobile world.

Common TCK characteristics:

  • Their physical appearance is often unique (compared to norm in “second culture” – their new home)
  • Some, perhaps most, expect to return home at one point (repatriation)
  • Often have a privileged lifestyle due to “sponsoring agency” (e.g. housing covered by parent’s corporate relocation package)
  • System identity: many choose to pursue more important, “representative” roles – TCKs really need a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives

TCKs can viewed by members of “second culture” many different ways:

ForeignerHidden Immigrant
Look different, think differentLook alike, think different
AdoptedMirror
Look different, think alikeLook alike, think alike

Common occurrences among TCKs:

  • Denial of feelings of sadness or grief
  • “We’re just going to move again, what’s the point of getting attached [to person / place / thing” (form of victim mentality)
  • Loss of their “world” (which could mean any combination of possessions, lifestyle, status, relationships, role models, system identity, past life). With that, perceived loss of control over their life
  • Don’t give themselves permission to grieve, or time to process the change.

Benefits and Challenges of being a TCK:

Benefits and challenges come in pairs for the TCK:

Benefit: Expanded worldview
Challenge: Confused loyalties

Benefit: Three dimensional view of the world
Challenge: Painful awareness of reality

Benefit: Cross-cultural enrichment
Challenge: Ignorance of home culture

Benefit: Less prejudice (due to open mind and world experiences etc.)
Challenge: More prejudice (when they can’t help but feel “superior” to citizens of home culture)

Benefit: Appreciative of authority (understand benefits of a system that works)
Challenge: Mistrustful of authority (feel like people are always making decisions for them)

Another benefit: TCKs truly importance of now. They have a sense of urgency. Do it now, seize the day. New, unexpected choices can materialize at any moment – and TCKs know to act fast when it happens.

A unique challenge: linguistic skills (while TCKs may pick new languages, they often lose fluency and depth in native tongue).

Practical Skills that TCKs develop:

Cross-Cultural Skills: TCKs are tend to be naturally good as teachers, mentors, mediator. They have well honed observational skills, especially about cultural norms and expectations (due to having to adjust quickly).

Social Skills: TCKs are confident that they can quickly adjust to new environments. However, they may sometimes hold back and observe new culture passively, afraid to make dumb mistakes.

Rootlessness and Restlessness in TCKs:

The questions TCKs dread the most: Where are you from? Where is home? (Answer: everywhere and nowhere).

  • TCKs have a Migratory Instinct (rootlessness) – they constantly feel it’s time to move even when it isn’t.
  • “No place is permanent—don’t get too attached” and “just leave” (default solutions when a problem arises).
  • In response to this feeling, many swear to settle down and never move again (but ths is not easy)

Relational Patterns of Third Culture Kids:

  • Develop patterns of self-protection (against further pain of separation) that may affect relationships throughout their lives
  • Feel they can’t possibly keep up with everyone (people they know are spread out all over the world)

Relational Levels

What are relational levels?

  1. Superficial level: small talk (“what’s the weather like?”)
  2. “Still safe” level: where did you go on vacation?
  3. Judgmental level: politics, religion, etc.
  4. Emotional level: opening up about being sad, glad, worried, depressed
  5. Disclosure level: private thoughts and feelings

Many TCKs feel that Canadians are Americans are too shallow because they actively avoid discussing issues of politics or religion (whereas TCKs are happy to jump to that level fast).

TCKs jump “relational levels” with others faster than most. Why?

  • They have practice doing it
  • They have content (something relevant to say)
  • They have a sense of urgency

Misconception about relationships: a lot of people may misread TCKs in this sense. TCKs actually place a high value on relationships.

The effect of (cycles of) multiple losses on TCK relationships: they erect walls to keep out anyone who may be coming closer. Ways of dealing with this:

  • Refusing to care
  • Quick release (they make assumption that conflict means loss of relationship)
  • Emotional flattening (refusing to feel the pain) – this may appear like confidence or independence, but is often a form of detachment

Developmental Issues TCKs Face:

As humans, we have a need for strong relationships: a sense of belonging, of being nurtured and cored for, internal unity, significance, being able to make meaningful choices, feeling of knowing ourselves & being known by others. TCKs may not always know or acknowledge this.

Phenomenon: Uneven Maturity. TCKs are mature around adults, but may seem socially lacking among peers.

Early maturity in some respects:

  • TCKs quickly develop a broad base of knowledge & awareness
  • Tend to have good relationships with adults
  • Develop good communication skills
  • Early autonomy

Delayed adolescence (may feel out of sync with their peers):

  • Cross cultural mobility in developmental years leads to extended compliance
    required – pressure to conform to community standards. Translation: not as many opportunites to rebel.
  • Lack of opportunities for meaningful choices (many aspects of life decided for them)
  • Hard to make decisions due to life being unpredictable / family separations
  • Operating between different systems
  • TCK experience can severely impede normal development of sexual relationships

Characteristics of early adolescent rebellion in TCKs (when it actually happens):

  • Loneliness – start doing things like drugs, drinking (alcohol), workaholism, etc.
  • Anger – “if I’d just lived a normal life or had better parents, I wouldn’t be struggling the way I am now” or “the TCKs want to hurt those who may have hurt them”
  • “I spent my whole life doing what others want me to do. Now I’m going to start doing what I want to do”
  •  Common in “boomerang kids” – those who come back home after university

When TCKs marry:

  • 41% did not marry until age 25 (or older).
  • 60% married someone who had other international experience.
  • 80% of those who marry have kids, and teach them to be accepting, respecting and treasuring of differences.

Unresolved Grief

  • Denial: some refuse to admit the amount of sadness they have felt. Leads to grief of separation.
  • Anger: defend need for justice, environmental matters, civil rights, political freedom – with intensity. May find that many may not want to be near such an angry person.
  • Bargaining: they may begin planning how “one day” they will return to a particular location.
  • Sadness and Depression: many get stuck here for years, unable to mourn the loss or deal with it in a healthy way
  • Withdrawal: conscious or unconscious way of striking back at parents who drag them around.
  • Rebellion: whatever they know their parents will dislike, they will do—usually the protective behaviour is punished or put down.
  • Vicarious grief: transferring personal grief to that of others. As such they may become “rescuers of the community,” and may be so involved with rescuing others that they won’t rescue themselves
  • Delayed grief: when they begin to separate from children of their own. This hits hardest at 25-40, when realize that their own parents are far from perfect.

Advice for Parents of Third Culture Kids:

The transition (i.e. from home to adopted culture) will be much worse if you don’t tell the children in advance so they can say goodbye.

A TCK’s education should enable them to:

  • Maintain stable and positive self-image while learning new things
  • Acquire survival skills appropriate for their own culture
  • Identify and develop their personal creative gifts
  • Gain access to the major fields of human thought and experience
  • Become aware of the dominant worldviews/value orientations influencing their social world
  • Develop the capacity to think clearly and choose responsibly
  • Develop empathy, respect and capacity for dialogue with other persons

Cultural views of teachers/classmates may influence TCKs more than their parents expect.

Challenges when coming “home” (re-entry):

  • Unrealistic expectations of their “dream world”
  • Expectations of “sameness”
  • Reverse culture shock: everyone is driving a car (more relevant for Americans), using new slang, don’t know how to do basic tasks.
  • TCKs may realize they don’t actually like home culture and it doesn’t like them back.

Common reactions to re-entry stress:

  • Elevated fears: fears of being disloyal to the past, or fears of losing their identity
  • Excessive anger at home culture & peers
  • Sense of elitism (true or projected): sometimes they feel they are the most interesting person in the conversation
  • Depression: having a hard time getting out of bed. Often, escapism: choosing to get straight As or win every musical competition (may be a form of depression)
  • Higher chance of suicide if they feel they are not able to fit in after a year

A journey of “clarification” back to host country can be helpful later on.

Recognize the paradox TCKs are in. Typical comment: “how can they say [the experience] was hard, when their situation was so privileged?”

Observed TCK Gender differences:

  • Women (female TCKs) feel greater concern for interpersonal relationships. Establishe relationships in new places far easier than men. Experience more stress over conflicting desires for both stability & mobility.
  • Men report greater satisfaction with how lives have unfolded. Their self-esteem ties in more with external achievements than with relationships, higher rate of agreement with statements related to things over which they have control.

Common Occupational Choices of Third Culture Kids: 

  • They have a love of learning, interest in helping, and desire for independence and flexibility
  • They are helpers, problem solvers, great at mediating problems, and can usually figure out a way to handle unexpected situations
  • 25% become teachers, professors, school administrators
  • 17% professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers)
  • 17% self-employed, 1/3rd of which are founders of their own companies (this is much higher than normal: the creative and risk taking streak is common among TCKs)
  • Almost none in large corporations or government
  • 4% in foreign service/aid or bureaus of wildlife/fisheries

Most incorporate some sort of international dimension in their occupational role (e.g. working overseas, advising foreign students, etc.)

Volunteering: 75% participate in local community (e.g. UN association, hosting foreign students, translating in courts/schools/hospitals, etc.)

TCKs succeed in jobs they have created to fit their particular talents

Adult TCK Life

Many go on to get Master’s degrees and Doctorates.

TCKs tend to continue their international involvement into adulthood.

90% say they have more awareness than others (i.e. citizens of home country), and welcome opportunities to meet new foreigners and keep informed on the places they lived in while abroad. Most would like to live abroad again and keep passports current.

Most establish relationships easily in new situations and have hobbies/interests that connect them wherever they go

Feel very different from those who have not been overseas. American TCKs: often appreciate things in the UAS that many others may take for granted, and may conclude USA is actually the best place to live (after all).

TCKs locate friends with whom they can share some of their interests, yet also resist being encapsulated.

Their camouflaged exteriors (and understated ways of presenting themselves) hide their rich inner lives and remarkable talents.

Often reach out to foreigners, exchange students and non-English speaking minorities.

They are talented at interpreting the outside world to the world in which they live – many actually do this for a living!


I hope this was helpful in understanding the unique challenges and experiences TCKs face. What do you think? Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts in the comments!

You can read other reviews and notes on the book’s Amazon listing page.

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