Third Culture Kids - The Early Years

Category: Third Culture Kids

In my work with Third Culture Kids I not only get the privilege of talking to TCKs but I get to spend quality time talking to parents of TCKs as well.

During those times I often get questions like, “When will my child become a Third Culture Kid? What are some of the typical TCK characteristics? At what age do those TCK characteristics begin to surface?"

Since I get those kinds of questions most often from parents of preschoolers and elementary aged children I thought I would like to address it a bit here.

I can say definitively…it depends.

I think it is fair to say even at very young ages children pick up on queues that something is different. It is not uncommon at all for infants to respond to transition. Of course whether their response is based on the differences between actual places, or changes in climate, odors, foods, etc. is not really known for sure. But at the very least an infant responds to changing stress levels in their parents. And anyone who has moved cross-culturally knows about elevated stress levels involved in an international move. So does an infant display the characteristics of a TCK? Probably not, but it can begin there.

At the same time I know of children who have displayed TCK characteristics at a very young age. I talked to a mother of a preschooler whose daughter was attending Korean preschool. Mom had gone to the preschool to pick up her daughter and was engaged in conversation with the preschool teacher. Her blonde fair skinned daughter interrupted the conversation and explained to the teacher that while the teacher was Korean and she herself was Korean, her mother was not. She felt the preschool teacher needed to know.

Already at 4 years old, this little one could see differences between cultures but at the same time she identified with both. The developmental years in a person’s life are so critical for identity and defining what normal is. At 4, this child has formed a bi-cultural identity. In her mind she was not confused at all, though she thought the teacher might have been. So will confusion come later? Maybe. So much will depend on her future experiences and responses of others.


I am now going to make a generalized statement. From my 25+ years of working with Third Culture Kids, I do not find “cultural identity confusion” to be a big issue until TCKs return to their passport country. Yes, there are kids who question their identity during their adolescent years, but I have not found the percentage to be disproportionate from that of mono-cultural young people at the same age. It is normal for kids to question who they are during their middle and high school years. For most TCKs, when they are no longer in an environment where there are other TCKs or in an environment where they are accepted, the feelings of not fitting in, being different, identity confusion are the greatest. Why? Their “normal”, however they may define it, is no longer the status quo.

So what TCK characteristics tend to show up in the early years of TCKs?

  • Second language ability
  • Telling stories based on place rather than time
  • Grief…loss of friends, family, pets and special belongings
  • Cultural awareness…ability to distinguish one culture from another
  • Country awareness…flag recognition, enjoying maps, begins to keep a mental record of all the countries they have been in
  • Associating foods with countries
  • Social greetings

What Third Culture characteristics have you seen in your children or the children you work with?

Photos courtesy of Ben Hale and used with permission.

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