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In Search of Home: Caring for Third Culture Kids

Can you remember the first time you flew? Perhaps it was with great excitement or maybe even some trepidation. But for some who grew up as third culture kids, the thought of going through security, boarding the airplane, and settling in for yet another international flight is mixed with so many more feelings than just excitement. Sadness, a twinge of bitterness, and exhaustion from all the goodbyes. Or maybe just numbness because he or she is worn out from attaching and detaching with every transition. They have just had to say goodbye to familiar sights, sounds, smells, people, and places. They do not know where to call home and yet, in some sense, the whole world is their home. And when they step off the plane, there will be family, strangers really, who embrace them exclaiming “Welcome home!” Home? Here in their country of origin, they might look like everybody else, but it is a far cry from feeling like home. Everyone expects them to be able to fit right in and are confused when a simple trip to the grocery store is overwhelming.

Complicate the goodbyes with the reason for having to leave, and this is a recipe for even more distress. A whole host of factors could have contributed to leaving. Maybe the country erupted into war, and they had to evacuate, with only what they could carry, and not knowing if they will ever see their friends alive again or if they will even be able to return. Maybe the country refused to renew their visas, their parents are burnt out, or a family member needs greater medical care than can be provided there. As a result, the TCK may also be dealing with guilt, shame, helplessness, and fear.

Who Is a TCK?

David Pollock offers this definition of third-culture kids “[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009, pp. 15-16). This includes missionary kids, military kids, and any other families that are frequently on the move due to business. Although some TCKs may come to see the richness and value in their experiences, for others they wrestle with bitterness because they did not choose this lifestyle and yet had to learn how to cope with being uprooted repeatedly.

TCK Pattern of Relationship Building

Because of the regularity of goodbyes both from leaving or being left, TCKs often adapt the manner in which they approach relationships. How long they will get to enjoy a friendship face to face is always in question. This uncertainty leads TCKs to make the most of the short time they have with others. There is no time for trivial matters and superficial conversation in the mind of a TCK. They want to connect much more deeply in short order and can become frustrated when someone is reluctant to share from their heart. Michele Phoenix explains this well, “Introducing The Time/Depth Dilemma: whereas MKs [missionary kids] and TCKs generally require depth in forming relationships, mono-culturals require time to form meaningful connections.” On paper, it looks like this:

(Phoenix, 2014, n.p.)

This skill of developing friendships quickly can be both a gift and a problem. TCKs tend to be adept at relating to people wherever they go. This is their best chance at establishing a sense of “home.” Home is not a place as much it is people. This ability in building community does not mean, however, that they feel refreshed from these interactions. Rather, they often feel the pang of being different and that others do not “get” them. They frequently have the sense of being on the outside. This is not necessarily due to others intentionally excluding them or the TCK refusing to engage socially. Rather, the disconnect naturally arises from the fact that the TCK is always bridging cultures unless they are relating to a fellow TCK.

Constant cross-cultural engagement is exhausting, and this is no less true for the TCK. Unless, the TCK attends to their emotional needs, this exhaustion may lead to burnout socially and result in the TCK numbing their emotions. The work of attaching emotionally to someone with the knowledge that this person could be taken away from them at any time becomes too much of a risk. Remaining emotionally distant becomes a necessary survival strategy to prevent getting buried alive in grief.

This grief and the pressures that come with being a TCK could be lessened in intensity if others were more aware of their needs and responsive to their pain. Consider these six permissions that are important for any TCK to receive: the permission to be kids, to fail, to grieve, to dissent, to doubt, and to redefine significance (Phoenix, 2015). Why these six? Because these children are often held on a pedestal as mature beyond their years, and particularly for MKs, are under pressure to not do anything that would taint their parents’ ministry.

So if you have the opportunity to relate to a TCK, be a person that they can trust to acknowledge both the beauty and heartache of their experiences. Let them find a home in your heart where there is no need to be perfect or avoid their grief. Bridge the gap to meet them in their culture rather than expecting them to meet you in yours.


Phoenix, M. (2015). Six permissions most MKs need. Retrieved from

Phoenix, M. (2014). MKs & relationships: The time/depth dilemma. Retrieved from

Pollock, D. C. & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: Growing up among worlds. (Revised ed.). Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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