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The Third Culture Kid Adventure: Thrills & Spills

Stories from the Field, 5 September 2023

Speaker: Sharon

Third Culture Kid: a person who has spent a significant of his/her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.

Multicultural children, Image by Freepik

Most of us know a TCK, or you or your child may be one! This is someone who has lived overseas because his/her parents were there for ministry, work or studies. Often, they are highly adaptable and resilient, relate easily across cultures, and have lots of interesting stories to tell. On the other hand, they may experience culture shock on returning to their passport country, have difficulties adjusting to school, seem unable to settle down, and may experience anxiety or depression. This may even persist into adulthood, when they may struggle with issues of identity and belonging which can impact their mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Image by pikisuperstar, Freepik

How can we help TCKs grow up to be mature, God-fearing adults who have learned how to process the positives and negatives of their unique upbringing, are able to embrace the fact that their life is a unique blend of cultures and places, and appreciate their TCK characteristics and experience?

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Research has identified 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which, when experienced in childhood, can affect a child’s brain development and impact their biological, emotional, social and cognitive functioning. These ACEs are:

Abuse and Neglect

(as perceived by the child)

Household dysfunction

(in the home or family)

  1. Physical abuse

  2. Sexual abuse

  3. Emotional abuse

  4. Physical neglect

  5. Emotional neglect

  1. Mental illness, depression or attempted suicide

  2. Incarcerated relative

  3. Parent treated violently

  4. Substance abuse

  5. Parents’ separation or divorce

A TCK lifestyle, unfortunately, puts a child at a higher risk of experiencing ACEs compared with the general population. This is because the family may live in less safe environments, have less social, financial or emotional support, and the parents themselves may experience culture stress and heavy workloads.

Positive Childhood Experiences

Image by brgfx, Freepik

However, it isn’t all “doom and gloom”! Research has also shown that ACEs are not deterministic of health and wellbeing in adulthood. There are protective factors, known as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs), that can be introduced in a TCK’s life which will reduce the negative effects of ACEs. As the main adults who support and care for TCKs, parents must be intentional in providing these PCEs, and engaging others to help.

These PCEs are:

  1. Feeling that emotions can be shared, heard, and validated in the home.

  2. Believing that the family stands together and prioritises one another during difficult times.

  3. Feeling safe and protected in the home.

  4. Having family or community traditions to look forward to.

  5. Feeling supported by a peer group.

  6. Feeling a sense of belonging in high school.

  7. Having two non-parent adults who take a genuine interest in the child.

  8. Feeling a sense of belonging in a larger multigenerational group.

Sharon concluded by sharing stories of how she and her husband (before knowing about PCEs!) worked such experiences into their family life during the years they lived overseas. The family returned to Singapore when their daughters were in their teens, and helped them transition to Singapore schools. They now live and work in Singapore.

Prayer items
  1. Pray for greater awareness of TCK issues in Singapore, especially in families, churches and schools.

  2. Pray for families living overseas or preparing to go overseas, that they will be aware of the difficulties their children face, and be pro-active in helping them cope.

  3. Pray for TCKs who are struggling with re-entry to get help.

For more information about the research into ACEs and PCEs, especially in relation to TCKs:
  1. Tanya Crossman & Lauren Wells, (2022). Caution and Hope White Paper: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids.

  2. Tanya Crossman, Elizabeth V. Smith & Lauren Wells (2022). TCKs at Risk White Paper: Risk Factors and Risk Mitigation for Globally Mobile Families.

About the speaker:

Sharon, herself an adult TCK, lived overseas with her husband and two daughters for more than 10 years. She volunteers at Wycliffe Singapore, mainly writing reports and articles.


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