Report on Expat Children

“Where did I come from?”: A Special Report on Expat Children

Feature Article: “Where did I come from?”

The world today is much smaller than it once was and the availability of worldwide transport systems and international trade means that people can relocate from country to country almost seamlessly. Frequent expatriation of families has spawned a new culture of children that is known as Third Culture Kids or Trans Culture Kids, TCKs for short. Pollock et al, in their book Third Culture Kids, The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds, define TCKs as children who, “are spending or are have spent, at least part of their childhood in countries and cultures other than their own” (6). As such, TCKs will generally be children of diplomats, aid workers, teachers and lecturers, researchers, business executives and military personnel.

A major distinguishing feature of a TCK is the fact that they will have often been raised in a privileged environment, which emanates as a result of the fact that their parents enjoy good expat packages. They will usually attend international schools, live in gated developments in expat communities and will be largely sheltered from the local community of the country within which they are based. This creates a barrier between them and the children of the local community and leads to a situation whereby expatriate children have their own distinct social group and culture that is very separate both from the culture of their parents, and that of the community within which they are based; hence they are of third culture.

Experts largely believe that once a child gains experience as a TCK, they will never truly be capable of becoming monocultural individuals, even if they do ultimately return to their “home” country. This leads to a situation whereby they feel “outsiders” in their home country and that they don’t truly fit into any one culture. The psychological impact of this can be quite damaging, especially for children who are experiencing adolescence.

Report on Expat Children

Major research findings:

Research completed by three sociologists/ anthropologists: Drs. John Useem and Ruth Hill Useem of Michigan State University and Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell of San Diego University, together with Dr. Kathleen A. Finn Jordan, a counsellor in Washington, D.C, focused on a study of 700 American children who have had the experience of living abroad and revealed a number of key research findings that will be of interest to the parents of expat children:

  • TCKs are more likely to gain a degree. Children who have had the experience of living abroad with their parents appear to demonstrate a higher level of commitment to their continued education. 81% of Americans who have lived overseas have attained a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, versus 42% of Americans who have not experienced expat life as a child (Useem, 2001).
  • The majority of TCKs do experience issues when returned to their home country; these are termed “re-entry problems” or “reverse culture shock”. Some expat children never truly readjust, with “only one out of every 10 of our nearly 700 adult TCKs, who-range in age from 25 to 80, say that they feel completely attuned to everyday life in the U.S. The other 90 percent say they are more or less “out of synch” with their age group throughout their lifetimes” (2001).
  • Adult TCKs acknowledge that their international backgrounds have positively contributed to their adult lives and two-thirds of the sample claimed that their experience of life abroad had a beneficial effect on their adult relationships.
  • TCKs generally progress as adults onto very successful careers, and the majority (over 80%) find themselves operating in careers as professionals, semi-professionals, executives, or managers/officials.
  • TCKs are much more likely to speak more than one language on a regular basis than their counterparts. 80% of those surveyed speak a second language at least occasionally whilst up to 20% speak more than one language regularly.

It is clear that children’s experiences of living in different cultures do have an impact upon their future lives and this impact has the potential to be either negative or positive. A website that is dedicated to the wellbeing and psychological health of TCKs, Interaction International, offers a wealth of advice on how the experiences of TCKs can be channelled effectively and how parents of TCKs can ensure that their children remain grounded and focused. Their advice includes the following-

  • Accept your TCK for who he or she is. Do not try and force them into one cultural belief system but instead acknowledge the benefits of them having extensive cultural experiences.
  • Recognize that your child’s culture base will ultimately be different from your own.
  • Embrace your child’s culture and engage in positive experiences that enable them to appreciate the culture of their parents, that of their expat community and that of the host country within which they are based.

Further Information:

“Interaction – Third Culture Kids.” Interaction – Home. 14 Sep. 2009 .

Pollock, David. Third Culture Kids, Revised Edition: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.

Useem, Ruth Hill. ” Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study.” International School Services. 14 Aug. 2009 .

David Tompkins
Author: David Tompkins