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Third Culture Kids: The Challenges of Growing Up in Another Culture

When children leave their home countries to live in other cultures, they adopt parts of both cultures, and sometimes end up feeling like outsiders to both. These kids often have more in common with kids who are also growing up outside of their passport culture than kids in their own passport country. They often feel like they belong to a “third culture,” instead of just their passport culture or their host culture. This is why they’re called Third Culture Kids (TCKs). 

Two common types of TCKs are missionary kids and children who have a parent in the military. Because Encompass is a missionary-sending organization, we have plenty of TCKs within our circles. And while there are many wonderful benefits to growing up in another culture, there can also be many challenges that need to be proactively mitigated.

As one of our global workers, Christy has lived in Cameroon since 2014 and has dedicated much of her life to working with TCKs. Not only has she raised TCKs of her own, but she’s also the principal of an international school of about 50 students from nine different countries. She has years of experience working with TCKs, educating herself on them, and accumulating a library of resources to help them.

When asked if there are specific challenges TCKs often face, Christy said, “Oh yeah, a lot. But I would say a common one is that there’s just a lot of grief associated with the TCK life. When they move overseas, there’s so much they have to say goodbye to. And if we’re not acting in preventative ways, those griefs can start to pile up.”

While adults also have a lot to grieve when moving overseas, their brains and identities are more fully developed. Living in a foreign culture is even more difficult for children, since they are still developing and forming their sense of identity. They’re still figuring out who they are, so living as a foreigner can make that process even more confusing with all the added change and grief associated with a life overseas.

One of the ways Christy currently helps TCK families is by leading a cohort to educate and resource Encompass missionaries who are parents.

She observed, “TCKs (and kids in general) often don’t want to (or can’t) talk about their own hard experiences, but they can talk about the experiences or emotions of a character in a book. So using books can be a fun way to help TCKs normalize their experience.” One such children’s book is “Swirly,” which features characters whose multi-cultural experiences are depicted with a blend of different colors. 

As many of our global workers realize, caring for all the unique challenges that TCKs face requires proactive intentionality.Parenting emotionally healthy children is hard enough without the added layer of difficulty! Thankfully, plenty of resources exist that can help. Christy says, “You don’t have to do all the research—we can help.”

Christy recently started a Raising Resilient TCKs fund where you can sponsor the distribution of TCK resources to Encompass’s families. Would you consider making a contribution to invest in the healthy development of our missionary kids?