Skip to main content
Two boys running into ocean with bodyboards

The benefits of being a third culture kid – a reality check

We challenge the received wisdom — the pros and cons — of growing up away from home

A lot has been written about the benefits and challenges of being a third culture kid (TCK), but we wanted to ask some real TCKs what they thought of the ‘received wisdom’ — whether their experiences corroborated or refuted it.

Various studies, reports and anecdotal blogs say that TCKs can be:

  • Highly adaptive
  • Able to cross cultures with ease
  • More open minded
  • More empathetic
  • Bilingual
  • Better at communication

Many articles list other characteristics and soft skills that fill in the gaps between these abilities and aptitudes. Coverage of TCKs often points out that there is a flipside, which can include problems of identity and trouble dealing with those less ‘worldly’ or more narrow-minded than themselves. We wanted to hear from some third culture kids to see what they thought of the received wisdom – whether it matched with their own experiences.

Scroll to the end for a summary and the key findings.

Our TCKs are:

  • Lithuanian Austeja raised in Lithuania (0-13) and England (13+). 
  • English Carly, raised in Portugal 4-8
  • Thai/Dutch Methee raised in Thailand 0-3, Indonesia 3-8, Brazil 8-15 and Netherlands 16+
  • Argentinian Lebanese Alma was raised in Dubai and now lives in Australia
  • Northern Irish Lisa, raised in Hong Kong 0-12
  • English Tom raised in Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia 4-12
  • German Kim moved to the UK aged 12
  • English Jimmy raised in Dubai until 18
  • German Nina raised in Puerto Rico (until 12), Dominican Republic (12+), Costa Rica, El Salvador (Father is from El Salvador, Mother is Costa Rican with German parents)
  • Lithuanian/Italian Alexander raised in the UK 0-4, US 4-7, Italy 7-19
  • English Lucy raised in Hong Kong 0-2, Germany 5-7, Cyprus 13-15, UK 15+

Experience

Third culture kids understand that there is more than one way to look at situations that they experience. 

Read More 

Emotional intelligence

Third culture kids are able to monitor their emotions, and register societal norms and cues more adeptly. 

Read More

Adaptability

Third culture kids have a better capacity to functional effectively across national, ethnic and organizational cultures. Third culture kids are often bilingual.   

Read More

Personal identity

Third culture kids can struggle with personal identity and loyalty.

Read More

Relationships

Third culture kids can find it challenging to deal with those of a limited world view (people who can't see two sides of a story). Third culture kids are more 'worldly'.

Read More

Humour

Humour is commonly cited as the hardest thing to master in a new country.

Read More

Romance 

Third culture kids can often have problems adjusting to norms of dating and gender roles within relationships. 

Read More

Health

The climate, access to health care and quality of food are three of the biggest influences on health, according to third culture kids.

Read More

Language

Third culture kids often speak more than one language.

Read More

Findings and conclusion

Complexity

The most important thing to say, is that no simple or broad observations can be drawn from the data. If anything, the data serves to remind us how nuanced and complex our respondents' characters and lives are. We have drawn some connections and parallels between our respondents from the data, but given the sample size these remain anecdotal.

We had a small group of subjects and while we can point to the existence of possible trends and patterns, the main conclusion is that the factors which affect a TCK’s character are incredibly hard to pinpoint, and extract, disassociate or disconnect from other factors.

Even large quantitative studies may over-simplify the picture and imply simple patterns and direct relationships where there are only broad patterns (except, maybe, bilingualism).

  • Not all expats or people raised in other countries are technically third culture kids. Lucy was raised in Dubai ‘in’ the culture of the nation of residence, whereas some are raised within expat communities - and don’t learn the language or get much exposure to the local culture.
    Each of these may have patterns that differentiate them if a large sample could be found.
  • Some of our respondents recognised that it’s hard to comment on some of the questions: it’s like being asked what it’s like to be a twin… it’s all they’ve known. Some TCKs may feel like being a TCK has made them more or less a certain way, but, in reality, it may not.
  • Our group showed that younger adults had not yet felt how much it had affected their lives, while those in their 30s and beyond were more reflective and could see how being raised abroad had impacted their character and continued to influence certain decisions.
  • Fields from behavioural psychology and sociology to genetics reveal the complexity of what makes a person the person they become – only extreme cases having even slightly predictable outcomes, from congenital conditions to physical and psychological abuse.

Being raised within another culture is just another factor in the mix with:

  • Social class
  • Religion
  • Family situation, including divorce, and at what stage in the child’s life this happens
  • Parental personalities
  • Age
  • Internationally schooled
  • Languages learned
  • Ethnicity (and how it is viewed in the host nation)
  • Even factors as specific as making one good friend can influence whether someone has a good time or not.

Within our sample are three types of situation:

  • people who were raised by foreign parents in a country in which they stayed
  • people who were raised abroad and returned to their parents’ country
  • people whose parents raised them abroad before they moved to a third country.

Some of our group ‘moved to a new home’ as children, others were globally mobile, moving from country to country every few years, to return ‘home’ as adults. It could be suggested that frequent moving from one non-home to another non-home is more unsettling than ‘having a new home’ but this is not borne out by our study.

Sample features and limitations

Our sample is eleven individuals and anecdotal in nature. The beginnings of patterns and trends may be discernible from this sample size, but would have to be corroborated by subsequent research using a larger sample size.

Our sample are also predominantly aged 35-45 with a few younger subjects around 20 years old. It would be interesting to speak to some older third culture kids to see what patterns and differences emerge. 

Another issue with our sample is that most of our subjects were from middle-class and/or forces families. Their lives were also usually predicated on an open-mindedness that led them to abroad. The character of the family may have as much effect on a young mind as the surrounding culture. For example, there are embedded communities within host nations that do not assimilate or integrate – maintaining traditions, including language, over generations.

Findings

  • Supporting the statements
  • Many of our group went on to live abroad as adults. This suggests a fearlessness about moving abroad or at least a comfortableness or willingness to do so.
  • People said that staying healthier was easier in a good climate – as exercising was more enjoyable and offered more options.
  • Some also cited the freshness of produce and lack of junk food, in some countries as a plus.
  • While TCKs’ identities aren’t simply based on where they’re from/live or even where their parents are from, most of our group said that it was a challenge to say ‘I’m from XYZ’. Most stated that this could be troubling, but ‘got over it’ in later life.
  • Even when not directly answering questions about whether they are more adaptable, ‘flexible’ and ‘flexibility’ were often used in relation to emotions, people and situations.

Disagreeing with the statements

  • Our group got on well with their parents. TCKs can perhaps bond more easily or intensely with their parents as the only people who have also lived where they have.
  • While being raised abroad opened minds and made people see other ways of living, some of this came from living in big cities. Being raised in Hong Kong and returning to Belfast might have the same effect as being raised in London and returning to a small Chinese city. The biggest effect being city living – cosmopolitan culture - more than being raised in another country.

Further findings

  • Most of our group were proud to be open-minded, proud of understanding cultures and having experienced them. They enjoyed being able to talk knowledgably about the world. While they didn’t necessarily withdraw from people with a more limited world view, they did identify the limited view quickly and with ease.
  • Our group expressed a sense of responsibility to represent the world amongst ‘the narrow-minded’ – to be the voice of a nation or culture that isn’t there to defend itself; often taking the position that an entire argument is flawed, not just the point of view of the other.
  • From our group’s responses, there is a sense of an expat community: there is something that unites all those with this shared experience. Some even indicated that they sought out others like them, those who were strangers in a strange land.

Conclusion

Just as the musical term ‘jazz’ includes so many different things as to be almost meaningless, so too the term third culture kid covers a huge range of experiences – only a small number of which are represented here. Even within our sample, the experiences and results varied – even contradictory. 

Many studies simplify the expat experience to paint patterns, but we acknowledge how hard it is to find meaningful and accurate findings. Even large quantitative studies may be missing complexities and caveats that exist in the real world.

Our focus group almost unanimously supported the claim that TCKs are more ‘worldly’, more self-aware and aware of the differences between people. But everything else pointed to almost infinite complexity. Even so, this apparent connection between our respondents would need to be tested against a larger sample size before we could claim that “more worldliness” is a typical feature of TCKs.

In conclusion: the “term third culture kid” does not describe a unified set of experiences that lead to a homogenous set of individuals.

Aetna International understands that one size so rarely fits all. This is why we not only tailor international health care plans to suit individuals’ needs, but can help you and your family prepare for your relocation to ensure you make it the success you want it to be. Get in touch to see how we can support you with your move.

Why not read our articles on:

We use cookies to give you the best possible online experience. See our cookie policy for more information on how we use cookies and how you can manage them. If you continue to use this website, you are consenting to our policy and for your web browser to receive cookies from our website.

You are now leaving the Aetna International website

Links to various non-Aetna sites are provided for your convenience only. Aetna Inc. and its subsidiary companies are not responsible or liable for the content, accuracy, or privacy practices of linked sites, or for products or services described on these sites.

Continue

You have been redirected to an Aetna International site. InterGlobal is now part of Aetna, one of the largest and most innovative providers of international medical insurance. We have combined our businesses to create one market-leading health care benefits company. This means we can better serve people who depend on Aetna International and InterGlobal to meet their health and wellness needs.

Please read the terms and conditions of the Aetna International website, which may differ from the terms and conditions of www.interglobalpmi.com.

You may not be able to access certain secure sites and member pages on the Aetna International website unless you have previously registered for them or hold applicable policies.

To continue, please close this message or navigate using the links above.

Close

You have been redirected to an Aetna International site. InterGlobal is now part of Aetna, one of the largest and most innovative providers of international medical insurance. We have combined our businesses to create one market-leading health care benefits company. This means we can better serve people who depend on Aetna International and InterGlobal to meet their health and wellness needs.

UltraCare policies in Thailand are insured by Safety Insurance plc and reinsured by Aetna Insurance Company Limited, part of Aetna International. You can access our plans by following the links below:

Please read the terms and conditions of the Aetna International website, which may differ from the terms and conditions of www.interglobal.com/thailand.

You may not be able to access certain secure sites and member pages on the Aetna International website unless you have previously registered for them or hold applicable policies.

To continue, please close this message or navigate using the links above.

Close

You have been redirected to an Aetna International site. InterGlobal is now part of Aetna, one of the largest and most innovative providers of international medical insurance. We have combined our businesses to create one market-leading health care benefits company. This means we can better serve people who depend on Aetna International and InterGlobal to meet their health and wellness needs.

UltraCare policies in Vietnam are insured by Baoviet Insurance Corporation Limited, and reinsured by Aetna Insurance Company Limited, part of Aetna International. You can access our plans by following the links below:

Please read the terms and conditions of the Aetna International website, which may differ from the terms and conditions of www.interglobal.com/vietnam.

You may not be able to access certain secure sites and member pages on the Aetna International website unless you have previously registered for them or hold applicable policies.

To continue, please close this message or navigate using the links above.

Close