Kurt Bannert, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), left his home in Texas to move overseas at age 10. When his parents told him they were moving to Serbia for missionary work, his initial reply was, “That sounds awesome. You guys have fun. Don’t forget to call or write me or send pictures about how it goes, but I’m not going.”
Bannert’s family was unable to go straight to Serbia and lived in Bosnia for a few months at first. He remembers leaving the warm, 90-degree weather of Texas and moving to a cold city filled with snow and people who spoke a language he didn’t understand.
He says this experience left him feeling bitter, angry and depressed. “I was angry at my parents. I was angry at God,” he recalls. “I was really mad. I felt it was unfair. I didn’t ask for these things to happen. I didn’t have a choice.”
Over time, Bannert assimilated into Serbian culture and made local friends. But during high school, he mostly stayed in his room and messaged his friends from the United States, which he says caused his parents to worry that he was depressed. They decided to send him to an international boarding school in southern Germany, where he was surrounded by kids who had similar experiences of living abroad.
As a child, Bannert, who owns a private practice (Third Culture Therapy) in Longview, Texas, had heard the phrase “third-culture kid” (TCK), but he says it wasn’t until he attended this international boarding school and met other TCKs that this term really started to make sense for him.
TCK, a term coined by sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1950s, describes someone who has spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. A study conducted by Ann Cottrell and Useem in the 1990s revealed that American adult TCKs are often more successful than their homegrown peers, with 44% earning a bachelor’s degree by age 22 and 85% being bilingual. A 2011 survey by Denizen, an online magazine geared for TCKs, found that 30% of TCKs have a master’s degree and 10% speak four languages.
But this success can often come at the cost of feeling lonely and dislocated. The Denizen survey also found that 70% of respondents weren’t planning to stay or weren’t sure if they would stay in their current city for more than two years. This number increased to 92% when asked if they would stay there for five years. The stressors that come with being a citizen of everywhere and nowhere can lead to anger or depression (as was the case with Bannert), unresolved grief and loss, an uncertain sense of belonging, or issues with relationships.
For TCKs, a nomadic lifestyle is often a normal way of life, which can leave them wondering where exactly they belong. They may feel they are “citizens” of many places yet struggle to pinpoint “home.”
As a child, Josh Sandoz, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Seattle, Washington, often wondered about his own cultural identity. He is a U.S. citizen who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and his parents’ jobs caused him to continuously shift between living in Seoul and different parts of the United States.
When parents make the choice to raise kids internationally, they often don’t realize or think about how they are creating a cross-cultural family, where individuals have different cultural frames of reference, Sandoz says. Parents may assume that their children share the same cultural identity that they do, but this is not always the case. He advises counselors who work with TCKs and their caregivers to initiate conversations around what this cross-cultural family looks like for them.
The TCK population is the epitome of cultural complexity, Sandoz continues, because of their unique and individualized experiences. So he cautions counselors not to make assumptions about a client’s cultural sensibilities based on what they presume to be their ethnicity, race or citizenship. A TCK client can hold divided or multiple loyalties, and these loyalties can be in conflict with each other, explains Sandoz, who founded the International Therapist Directory, which helps internationally mobile people find therapists knowledgeable about third-culture experiences.
For example, Sandoz knew a TCK who was born in the United States, lived in Europe during elementary school, moved to South Korea for middle school, attended high school in Singapore and went to college in the United States. In college, friends constantly told him to “just be himself,” but he wasn’t sure what that even meant. Was he supposed to be his European self, his East or Southeast Asian self or his North American self?
A TCK may look or sound like they are from the United States, says Denese Marshall, an LPC and advanced alcohol and drug counselor with a private practice in New Canaan, Connecticut, but they have not had the same experiences as their U.S. peers. They may not have gone to football games on Friday night or watched the same TV shows, for example. So they don’t necessarily feel like they “belong” even when they are in a country where they are a citizen.
In fact, Marshall acknowledges that the question, “Where are you from?” can cause some TCKs to freeze with fear or become anxious because they aren’t sure how to answer. She works with clients and their families to help these kids have a prepared response, such as “My parents are from this city, and we are currently living in this country.”
Sandoz agrees that the “where are you from” question can be problematic or complicated for some clients, so as a clinician, he avoids asking it. Instead, he asks clients, “Where all did you grow up?” This question is more open-ended and unassuming, he explains, and it allows the client to explore all the cultures and geographic locations with which they identify.
The idea of identity is layered for TCKs, says Aishwarya Nambiar, a doctoral candidate in counseling education and supervision at William & Mary. These individuals are still trying to figure out where they belong, she notes, and some are doing this while also navigating their marginalized identities.
One of Nambiar’s research interests focuses on how to infuse the TCK experience within the counseling education curriculum because she finds that counselors often do not understand the complexity involved in TCKs’ identities. As a result, TCK clients can feel misunderstood in sessions. She, along with her colleague Philippa Chin, presented on this topic at the 2021 annual conference of the European Branch of ACA. Adult TCKs often come to see Bannert because they are struggling with understanding their personal or national identities now that they are no longer living abroad. To help them begin to unpack all the layers of their identity, he hands them a family crest with four blank quadrants and asks them to fill it in with their identities. Most of the time, clients leave one of the four quadrants empty, Bannert says, because they feel there is more to them and the story they are developing.
Counselors need to be aware of the nuances associated with the TCK lifestyle, Nambiar stresses, because each TCK experiences a unique set of challenges and benefits. If clinicians are aware of these individualized experiences, then they can provide these clients with a space to process and consider all the layers of their identity and how it affects their experience, she says.
Preparing for transitions
There are two big transitional developmental periods that many TCKs experience: the transition back to their country of citizenship and the transition from college into adulthood. Marshall often works with parents during this first transitional phase when they are moving back to the United States after living abroad while their children were younger.
Marshall encourages TCK parents to plan ahead for this transition to reduce some of their child’s anxiety around the move. Here are a few techniques she often suggests to families as they are preparing to reenter their country of citizenship:
- Help TCKs become familiar with things that peers in their country of citizenship might have experienced. Explaining cultural references (such as the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants) to them can help prevent them from feeling blindsided.
- Find a way to continue one of the child’s extracurricular activities, such as playing a sport or participating in a Cub or Girl Scouts program.
- Contact the child’s new school to see if they will help facilitate activities between classmates or teammates. Even if the school can’t coordinate an activity, they may be able to put families in touch with others who will be attending the school.
- Have TCKs put together a small book filled with images of where they used to live to serve as a reminder of what they experienced and to take away the “mystery” of that life for the new kids they will meet.
- Look at pictures of the new town, school and house if possible. Google Earth can be one great way to explore a new area virtually.
- Ask TCKs to create a time capsule or memory box of special things from the place they are leaving (such as a small toy, a little snip of their bedspread, or photos or video recordings of familiar places).
Sandoz advises counselors working with adult TCKs to be curious and explore these types of transitions to see what each experience was like for them. To learn more about his clients’ transitional experiences, he often asks questions such as “What was it like for you in fifth grade when you moved from Amsterdam to New York?” It may also be helpful for clients to create a timeline or visual map of all the moves and transitions, he adds.
As TCKs transition out of college and enter their late 20s and early 30s, Sandoz says that it’s not unusual for them to wonder, “What now?” This is another transitional time when counseling can help clients as they process and identify what they want to do as an adult. This is a natural part of development, but being a TCK adds layers of complexity, he explains.
Counselors could also connect TCKs with resources such as seminars on these types of transitions. After his senior year of high school, Sandoz had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the transitions of TCKs. “More than anything, it was a very emotional experience just to be with others who were also transitioning … and just share stories and think about what we were going through,” he recalls.
Constantly moving may cause some TCKs to unconsciously internalize that their own wishes do not matter and that things just happen to them, Sandoz says. If a TCK was excited because they just made the soccer team at their school but then finds out their family is moving again, for example, they may be upset about relocating to a new country where they may not be able to play soccer. The situation could cause the child to internalize that their wishes do not matter, Sandoz says.
To counterbalance this, he often advises parents to allow TCKs to make small choices to give them autonomy and independence in areas where they can have control. For example, maybe the child gets to pick what the family eats one night each week or which restaurant they go to.
Bannert agrees that allowing TCKs some form of choice helps offset the fact that they did not have control over the decision to move to another country. It can sometimes be challenging for parents to understand how their kids feel, he explains, because they processed and dealt with the consequences of moving when making the decision. The kids, however, did not.
Parents also have to give kids space to make choices independently — even if that means they mess up occasionally, adds Bannert, who oversees a mental health program for the Ore City Independent School District in Upshur County, Texas. If not, when they get to college or move out on their own, they may not know how to make their own choices.
In fact, lack of choice during childhood can even result in an inability to make decisions as an adult. Sandoz says he’s known some adult TCKs who specifically partner with people who will make decisions for them. Counselors can help clients realize that it’s OK to have preferences and empower them to get to know more about their own agency, he says.
TCKs learn to adapt and assimilate to the various cultures that they live in, but this can also make them unsure about their own preferences, Sandoz says. “And sometimes there’s not a lot of focus given to getting to know oneself [in that way] or giving oneself permission to hold those kinds of preferences because there can be such a high value for blending in,” he adds.
The counselor’s role, Sandoz says, is to ask questions and listen to get a sense of whether this behavior of allowing others to make decisions is something the client is choosing or whether it’s a pattern that is getting repeated based on their past experiences as a TCK.
Bannert says sometimes his TCK clients look to him for all the answers because they are used to having choices made for them. If this happens, he focuses on helping them regain agency and encourages them to find the answers on their own.
Unresolved grief and loss
Saying goodbye to people and places is so commonplace that TCKs often don’t even recognize they are experiencing grief when they leave, says Nambiar, a resident in counseling in Virginia.
Bannert’s adolescent clients struggle with grief when they move away to college, and because they are TCKs, the grief is complicated by the fact that they are often moving to a new country and adjusting to cultural differences in addition to leaving behind their family, he says. He helps them recognize the grief associated with this transition and advises them to say goodbye to the people, place and culture. If a client is struggling to say goodbye because of some internal conflict, then Bannert may have the client do the Gestalt empty chair technique or write a goodbye letter to someone or someplace to help them better understand their thoughts and feelings about leaving that country.
Some families do allow grief to be a part of the process when moving, Sandoz says. They eat at their favorite restaurant one last time, they say goodbye to their friends, and they give themselves permission to be sad. But other families just pack up and go. They don’t allow the children time to mourn, he continues, because they don’t realize how hard it will be on them or they assume the children are too young to remember it. Not allowing for grief could put the child in danger of repeating that dynamic when they get older, he adds.
Sandoz advises counselors to acknowledge the loss associated with moving. For example, he may tell a client, “Growing up as a TCK, you’ve probably had a chance to say a lot of hellos and goodbyes. What has that experience been like for you? Were you able to say goodbye? If so, what were those goodbyes like?”These questions allow the clinician and client to notice areas where the client experienced grief as a child and where they may still be grieving, he explains.
Being in a household that doesn’t allow for them to express their feelings around these transitions, Sandoz notes, can lead to unresolved grief that TCKs carry into adulthood. But therapy presents an opportunity for the counselor and client to create “a relationship together where there is freedom to actually feel those things and express those things and sometimes actively grieve losses that maybe were experienced years and years ago but were stored up somewhere inside all this time,” he says.
Parents may inadvertently minimize their child’s sadness or grief by focusing only on the positive aspects of living abroad. Children may be told they should be happy about this “great life” or the next adventure, for example, but this often results in unresolved loss, Marshall says. It may be challenging for some parents to let their children feel sad, she admits, because they often want to distract their child or refocus on the positive to make them feel better. Counselors can work with parents to help them resist this urge and instead acknowledge the loss and give the child the space to feel and process all the emotions they may have about the move, she says.
Counselors can also work with parents and caregivers to help them and their children recognize and grieve the losses that come with transitions. It can be tempting for families to downplay or overlook a young child’s grief at moving away from what is familiar and comfortable, Sandoz says, because they assume the child won’t remember the grief that comes with moving. A three-year-old child, for example, is just becoming familiar with the language and routines around them, so moving overseas to a country where the sights, sounds and smells are all unfamiliar would set the stage for this child to experience many types of losses simultaneously, he says.
Nambiar acknowledges that therapy can help TCKs accept the challenges and realities that come with this lifestyle as well as find the beauty in it. “You can be sad that you have to say goodbye to these people,” she explains. “But you can also recognize that you’ve had a lot of experiences now and you’ve met so many different people and you’ve grown because of that.”
This mindset of constantly moving affects the way TCKs view relationships. Although a transient lifestyle allows TCKs to connect easily with others, Nambiar says, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain the relationships they have made when they have to move again.
Marshall has noticed that her TCK clients may not put a lot of effort into developing close relationships. For example, they may not see the point in attempting to resolve a conflict with a friend because they assume that in a few months one of them will move away.
It’s common to see more shallow or disrupted relationships with the TCK population, Marshall continues. She once knew a TCK who had attended 14 schools in 12 years. As an adult, this woman lived in the same town for more than 30 years, yet she hadn’t developed any close friendships because of this ingrained mindset that she shouldn’t get too close to anyone in case she had to move. Someone who is struggling to form or maintain relationships like this could benefit from counseling, Marshall says, because it could help them process the loss around moving and learn how to develop deeper connections and be vulnerable with others.
These interpersonal issues and conflicts often resurface later when the TCK becomes an adult. Several of Bannert’s adult TCK clients have come to counseling because they are struggling with romantic relationships. “They tend to act like someone who has been abused or traumatized,” he says. “Whenever someone starts to get close to them, they break it off because they’re afraid to be intimate. … They’re so afraid they’re going to lose something good that’s outside of their control.”
Bannert works with TCK clients to help them be more vulnerable and form healthy boundaries within relationships. They tend to share a lot of details about their life really quickly, he explains, because they grew accustomed to having to get to know someone fast before one of them moves away. This approach of sharing too much too fast, however, can scare someone who didn’t grow up as a TCK, so he helps clients learn appropriate boundaries when first getting to know someone who is not familiar with a TCK lifestyle.
Marshall also encourages the parents of TCKs to use technology to promote healthy relationships for their children. Video chats and social media can become tools that allow TCKs to stay connected with long-distance friends and help them develop deeper connections even after relocating, she says. Parents often have valid concerns about social media use, she adds, so she takes time to clarify that staying in touch in a structured, meaningful way is more beneficial than simply “following” someone on social media or “liking” what others post.
Putting down roots
TCKs often have many homes but do not have one place where they feel settled, Nambiar says. Home is everywhere and nowhere.
Some TCKs may struggle with feeling grounded, Bannert says. They may be “stuck” — living in transitional housing or jumping from job to job out of a fear of what it means to “settle down,” he explains. Bannert once knew a TCK adult who refused to unpack even after living in an apartment for almost two months. The man couldn’t shake this restless feeling that he may move, even though he had just signed a two-year contract for his job.
Bannert encourages his clients to find ways to root or ground themselves in some way. To help with this process, he sometimes asks clients to create a vision board of their five-year plan so they can find something they can work toward, which helps grounds them.
Bannert and Marshall both agree that this notion of being “settled” or “grounded” does not have to refer to something physical, such as a 30-year mortgage. Clinicians working with TCKs may have to help clients expand this concept and reimagine ways they can ground themselves despite undergoing constant transitions or feeling restless. For example, TCKs could ground themselves in a relationship by staying connected with a close friend online, Marshall says.
Bannert admits he still has moments of restlessness and a strong desire to travel, but he takes his advice to heart and finds ways to ground himself. He has one object that comes with him during every move: a plaque containing the words of a Serbian prayer. “That’s the first thing that gets hung up and it’s the last thing to come off the wall,” he says. “It grounds me.”
Lindsey Phillips is the editor-in-chief for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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