Growing up in a foreign country (or countries) can have a positive effect on a child’s personal and cognitive development. TCK’s are thought to have specific qualities and skills due to their upbringing, for example increased tolerance for other cultures, high interpersonal sensitivity, good adjustment skills and increased cultural intelligence. On average, Third Culture Kids have a higher education than non-TCK’s, are less likely to get divorced and are linguistically more adept. Most Third Culture Kids learn to live comfortably in their world and can adapt and adjust easily from one situation to the next, growing up to be open-minded and culturally sensitive adults.
Third Culture Kids also face some challenges growing up in their neither/nor world. They can experience confusion with politics, patriotism and values. This is especially the case when moving from collectivist to individualist cultures, or vice versa, as the values within each culture are different from the other. Secondly, there is a need for special attention of young TCK’s in educational settings to make sure they are supported when and if entering a new school. TCK’s can also face difficulties with adjusting to adult life: the mixture of influences from the various cultures can create challenges in developing an identity as well as with a sense of belonging. Feelings of rootlessness and restlessness can make the transition to adulthood a challenging period for TCK’s.
Another area of life that is greatly affected by a TCK-experience is forming relationships. On the one hand, being in an ever-changing social environment with friends coming and going makes TCK’s very sociable and they tend to make friends easily. On the other hand, the cycles of frequent goodbyes can lead Third Culture Kids to develop patterns of self-protection against further pain of separation, which can also affect relationships later in their lives.
In a 1986 survey of 300 Adult Third Culture Kids, 40 percent of the respondents said they struggled with a fear of intimacy because of the fear of loss. Although this means that the majority of TCK’s will be able to form safely attached relationships, here are some signals for a protective response:
Refusing to care.
Some people try to limit vulnerability by not forming friendships and rather staying ‘independent’.
This is a form of ‘leaning away’ when a possible (temporary) separation is expected. When friends are planning to move, this quick release response means that people tend to already let each other go: stop meeting, stop calling and terminating friendships in order to prevent the upcoming pain of separation. Adult TCK’s sometimes notice that they get in arguments with their spouses much more easily on nights before upcoming business trips – an unconscious attempt to protect against loss.
Refusing to feel the pain is also a common response to avoid the pain of separation. The flat feeling – neither joy nor pain- often feels safer that the pain of missing someone.
Source: Third Culture Kids, Growing Up Among Worlds (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999)