Could you have taken a similar picture to the one above? It’s just four of the yearbooks I’ve held onto from my own childhood as one of an estimated 220 million Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Four schools, four cities, three continents. Each one filled with hundreds of photos of friends, classmates, clubs, sports teams, and teachers. And every single person in those photos vanished from my life the moment the plane door shut and off I went to the next city/school/country.
If that sounds at all like how you grew up, it’s likely you’re also a TCK. David Pollock in his book Third Culture Kids defined TCKs as “a person who spends a significant part of his or her first 18 years of life accompanying parent(s) into a country that is different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training.” This could involve parents who were diplomats, missionaries, military personnel, teachers, or working for multi-national companies or NGOs. It refers to no longer being part of the culture of your home country, or the country or countries you're living in, but part of a Third Culture. That of people living a similar Global Nomad (another term used) lifestyle.
Tanya Crossman and Lauren Wells have published two white papers on TCKs (here), with some striking results about the mental health impact of this way of life. They found “1 in 5 TCKs reported enough Adverse Childhood Experiences to put them in the high-risk category for negative outcomes later in life, twice as many on average as seen in these monocultural studies conducted around the world.”
What makes these children particularly at risk includes how these experiences can be normalised. They often go to International Schools where all the other children are experiencing the same way of life. Each school year starts by looking around to see who hasn’t come back from the Summer break and who the new people are. Everybody lives with a lack of security, knowing their world can change overnight. They all have parents who are also adapting to a new country, new jobs, new homes, and new stresses.
It’s no surprise with this much stress and instability at home that 39% of the TCKs in the study above reported experiencing Emotional Neglect, for example. Put simply, the impact of this way of life on a child’s mental health can easily fly under the radar. They will then often blame themselves for the issues they have and feel too ashamed to seek help. A common belief among TCKs is “I need to be strong and take care of myself”.
If any of this resonates with your own experience, then please do e-mail or phone me to see how counselling can help. As I wrote in my blog There’s No Place Like Home, there are many benefits to this way of life. But there can be hidden costs and with the right help and support those costs don't need to keep having a negative impact on your life.