Tag Archives: culture

Voice of Experience: Diversity and third-culture kids

By Gregory K. Moffatt September 21, 2022

Pita Design/Shutterstock.com

My client was a 19-year-old female presenting with anxiety. She had just started college, and her anxieties had led to trouble concentrating and making friends, and they sometimes kept her awake at night. She was also troubled by the fact that until recently, she had been easygoing and didn’t get ruffled quickly.

The client was a child of a missionary family, and for over a decade, she had lived in South America. But she was born in the United States and had spent nearly all her grade school years in a rural community on the east coast where she now attended college. She and her family also made regular visits back to the United States during those ten years when she was living abroad.

One would have thought that returning to the United States for college after spending the last 10 years in South America would have been an easy transition for her. After all, she was already an easygoing individual, she functioned well in her adoptive culture, and she never had any issues on her sabbaticals home to the United States. But it wasn’t easy, and she couldn’t understand why.

But I had an idea.

When she left the United States, she was only nine years old. The world she knew was long gone because of the passage of time and her own development from child to adult. On top of that, in her visits back to the United States, she spent most of her time looking up old friends or enjoying the company of relatives until her trip was up and she had to go “home” in South America.

As a white girl with blond hair, she was an anomaly in Ecuador. She lived in a community where English wasn’t spoken. Although she spoke Spanish without much of an accent, it was still not her first language. She was not a true Ecuadorian.

But when she returned to the United States, she also discovered that she was not a true American either. Being gone most of her adolescence, she had missed 10 years of acculturation. TV shows, movies, music and cultural events were just some of the things she couldn’t relate to. It was like she walked into a very long movie just at the end; she didn’t know what was going on around her.

My client was what is referred to as a third-culture kid — people whose identity is influenced by their parents’ culture and the culture(s) in which they are raised. Third-culture kids are often the children of missionaries, nongovernmental organization workers or military families. My client obviously didn’t totally belong to the guest culture (Ecuador), but she didn’t belong to her home culture anymore either. Not every third-culture kid’s experience, of course, is as stressful as my client’s. Most of her stress stemmed from the fact that she was not prepared for feeling like an outsider in her home culture.

Transitions from one culture to the next are easiest when the cultures are similar, when the visit is short, and — as is often true for Americans — when they take U.S. culture with them. When I hear about someone from the United States traveling abroad and I learn that they stayed in American hotels, ate American food and spoke nothing but English, then I know they took America with them.

But for missionaries and NGO families, living on the economy almost necessitates diversity of culture, longer stays, and an inability or lack of desire to take America with them. The “American” stands out and may take years to be thought of as an insider.

At the same time, attempting to gain acceptance in the chosen culture by default also means leaving one’s home culture behind. Third-culture individuals are like ships without a flag.

In our never-ending attempts to improve our understanding of diversity, it would be easy to overlook third-culture kids. Based simply on appearance, people may not realize someone is a third-culture kid. I could have easily missed the significance of my client’s third-culture status and focused only on her anxiety. That would have, at best, slowed down her healing.

Recognizing that she was really neither American nor Ecuadorian helped her understand why she didn’t seem to fit in a culture where she looked like everyone else. This realization was the beginning of her developing coping strategies that worked quickly and helped her symptoms of anxiety abate.

Large international agencies often employ mental health workers to assist their personnel when they transition to a new culture as well as when they are ready to transition back to the United States. But smaller agencies such as the one my client was associated with may leave navigating this transition up to the individual, which is what happened to my client.

When I was a graduate student in the 1980s, “diversity” generally focused on issues of race. Fortunately, our thoughts on diversity have evolved since the 1980s, but we still have a long way to go. And we can start by recognizing overlooked areas of diversity, such as third-culture kids, and developing strategies to help them.



Read more on the nuances of counseling third-culture kids in a recent article from Counseling Today: “Growing up between cultures



Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Growing up between cultures

By Lindsey Phillips August 2, 2022

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.

Cross-cultural identity 

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. 

Regaining choice 

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.” 

Rethinking relationships 

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 lphillips@counseling.org.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

A quest for identity and connection

By Laurie Meyers June 25, 2020

“In some ways, the ‘one-drop rule’ still exists in the minds of society,” says Derrick Paladino, a licensed mental health counselor and professor of counseling at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. “I will always be brown to others, and not white and Puerto Rican, upon first look. Along with that comes people’s immediate perceptions of me based solely on phenotype.”

American society’s understanding of race and ethnicity is still based primarily on skin color. Although cultural identity is composed of myriad factors such as shared tradition, language, religion and familial connections, for people who come from varied ethnicities and diverse communities, racism too often resides in the foreground.

The unbearable whiteness of being

“I really hated being brown, as it was not seen as positive in my youth in that community,” says Paladino, who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. At a young age, he began adding a special prayer to his nightly Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

“I asked God if I could be white like my dad [who was Italian American] when I woke up in the morning,” recalls Paladino, an American Counseling Association member who helped develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population as part of ACA’s Multiracial/Ethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. “Each morning, I would walk into our hallway and look at this wooden, ornate — fake gold — mirror and stare with disappointment. I have a picture of that mirror, and it is a reminder of that struggle.”

From a young age, Paladino also received a “brown is bad” message from his paternal grandfather, an unrepentant racist who disapproved of the marriage of Paladino’s parents and was hostile and disrespectful to his mother, who was Puerto Rican. When Paladino was born, his grandfather asked his mother “if the baby was black,” Paladino says.

“I also always felt like my grandfather favored my brother because he had light skin,” Paladino adds.

Paladino’s mother also managed to convey a “brown is bad” message by making him wear an undershirt whenever he went to the public pool so that he “wouldn’t get so dark.”

Paladino believes his mother probably downplayed his heritage as a person of color because she thought it would protect him, but the approach instead contributed to his self-stigmatization. Paladino’s parents never talked to him about being biracial and how that might affect the way others in the community viewed him.

Colorism is also a problem within the Latinx community. Being of European descent is still prized, despite the reality that most Latinx people are multiracial, says ACA member Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor of counseling at the University of Colorado Denver who researches the ethnic identity development of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os and the effects of internalized racism on students of color.

Those in the community who are of Afro-Latinx descent experience the most stigma — often considered too dark to be Latinx but not African enough to be African American, Hipolito-Delgado explains. “They have nowhere to turn, no cultural support,” he says.

Sometimes belonging isn’t about color and the perception of race but other cultural signifiers. As an undergraduate, Paladino attended the University of Florida, where he at last encountered numerous fellow students who looked like he did. He enthusiastically joined a Latino student group on campus, only to find out that because he didn’t speak Spanish or have specific shared experiences, he was “not Latino enough.”

That experience — of being part of different worlds but not quite belonging in either — is not uncommon for individuals with biracial and multiracial backgrounds. After all, we still live in a society that largely equates identity with placing a check mark in one of a few racial “boxes.” Multiracial people are often relegated to “other” in such instances, but rather than choosing to shade squares, they are creating their own categories out of the cultural elements with which they resonate.

Pieces of the cultural mosaic

Hipolito-Delgado recommends that individuals with multiracial backgrounds learn as much about their culture and history as they can. “Think about what is meaningful to you and speaks to you, not what the media says,” he asserts. He explains that in his time as a college professor, he has seen many first-generation or immigrant Africans seize upon a stereotypical image of what it means to be African American, including dressing like rappers and listening exclusively to hip-hop, even when those weren’t things they particularly enjoyed. “It wasn’t necessarily a piece of them,” he says.

Hipolito-Delgado urges multiracial individuals to go and experience pieces and parts of their heritage to find what feels authentic to them. “Don’t feel like you need to do X, Y or Z,” he says. “Start by looking back at your family. … What is your story? What is your experience? What spoke to you?” 

“Ask yourself what has affirmed me so far and made me feel happy. Like when my mom makes tamales at Christmas,” Hipolito-Delgado says. He notes that his mother recently threatened to skip making tamales this year, but a united family rebellion — centered on the necessity of a significant, shared cultural experience — quashed that notion.

Hipolito-Delgado acknowledges that the search can be difficult, and it can help for biracial and multiracial individuals to have a guide. However, this may require showing up at a community group meeting where acceptance is not readily given. A first visit might be met by stares and people saying that the individual doesn’t belong there, but Hipolito-Delgado urges those who genuinely want to learn about that piece of their culture to keep trying. By the third or fourth time, the group’s members will typically realize that the individual is authentic. Being greeted initially with hostility can be disconcerting, but it is also understandable. As Hipolito-Delgado explains, people of color often have a legitimate fear of the outsider based on a long history of people coming in and appropriating their traditions.

Paladino sought community through social groups and individual friends but says his sense of cultural identity didn’t really begin to solidify until he was in his master’s program, also at the University of Florida. That’s when, through his multicultural counseling class, he started gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning and experience of being biracial.

In college, Paladino’s sense of self shifted, as is true for most students of all backgrounds. “I have found that community is very important for college students and in my personal life,” he says. “In some ways, our sense of self is connected to who we decide to surround ourselves with. College students run in many social circles — mini-communities — and depending on their level of perceived connection, they will fall within a continuum of feeling completely connected to feeling completely alienated. … Students experience a strong sense of self when they can be fully congruent and genuine in other spaces, thus not shifting who they are in order to feel connected.”

For many people with multiracial backgrounds, this is hard to achieve during the college years and throughout life in general, Paladino says. Struggling with one’s identity can create a feeling of balancing on a fence between worlds — an act that requires significant energy, he says.

When that feeling of not belonging runs deep and lasts a long time, it can have a profound effect on a person’s mental health, eliciting symptoms of depression and anxiety, low-self-esteem, low self-efficacy and harmful coping mechanisms, Paladino explains. In other words, “It’s not good to be siloed from society,” he says.

However, Paladino cautions counselors not to assume that all clients with multiracial backgrounds need or want to talk about their racial, cultural and ethnic identities in counseling. “Counselors would be wise to notice it on the intake and ask if the client sees that as a part of their work. If the client says no, then we should honor and respect that,” he says. “It may eventually become part of therapy, as identity usually is at some level, but we don’t push that. Looking back on the history surrounding anti-miscegenation, the limitations of the census, the one-drop rule, and the continuation of parts of society disapproving of interracial unions, much power and voice have been taken away from this population. The last thing a counselor wants to do is continue this.” 

Paladino urges counselors to educate themselves about the multiracial population by reading personal histories, reviewing both ACA’s Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies), and learning more about multiracial and interracial organizations.

“There is a lot of information out there, and it continues to increase,” he says. “If you are working in college counseling, check to see if there is a student cultural organization that matches what the student would like in a community. If the client wants to work on discovering their identity, having them interview family they feel safe with or researching the population on their own can be very helpful.”

Paladino emphasizes that the issues the multiracial population struggles with can be as diverse as the people themselves. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach for working with multiracial clients, he recommends some tools that may assist in their exploration of identity, including:

  • Using an ecological framework such as an ecomap
  • Providing psychoeducation
  • Using bibliotherapy
  • Introducing Maria P. P. Root’s “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People”
  • Guiding a free expression of emotions attached to lived experiences

Paladino encourages counselors to enable clients to identify in whatever way they desire — e.g., by only one race, culture or ethnicity; as biracial, multiracial or mixed race; as multiple heritage, multiethnic, bicultural, hapa or mestizo — by including the full range of choices on intake forms.

“Don’t expect them to want to write it under ‘other,’” he emphasizes. After all, too many of these clients have been “othered” their entire lives.

Counseling multiracial couples

Melody Li is a licensed marriage and family therapist from Austin, Texas, whose practice specialties include counseling multiracial couples. Her approach is centered on social justice and creating a place to understand the oppression that has made it harder for clients to thrive individually and as a couple. Li believes this is essential for helping to establish client confidence and trust in the therapeutic relationship, but it is also a practical necessity because life doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

For example, the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, Li notes. Asian communities are experiencing violence, immigrant businesses are being lost, one or two family members are trying to support extended family and friend communities, and the deaths of brown and black people are being swept under the rug, she emphasizes. If one partner in a couple minimizes the other’s racial struggles or how their family is handling the crisis, this can leave that partner feeling isolated and alone in their grief.

What is particularly difficult about the pandemic is the way it has disrupted everything, putting plans and goals on hold (if not derailing them permanently) and leaving many things outside of people’s control, Li says. In addition, there is a systemic pattern in which marginalized communities often get hit first and hardest when disasters strike.

In collectivist cultures, the response to individual tragedy is shared by the community, Li points out. Some of the couples she counsels are currently trying to get pregnant or have recently endured miscarriages while simultaneously providing financial support to multiple family members who have lost their jobs or businesses and access to health care. “They [the couples] are going through disappointment and grief. Having that added [sense of responsibility] is hard, heavy,” Li explains. “Without that understanding of collectivism, [one partner] might say, ‘Why is this on you? We’re all having problems.’”

But for the other partner, collectivism is a part of their cultural and personal strength. So, Li will work together with the couple to come to an understanding and, ultimately, a compromise. She guides the partner making the request through the steps of nonviolent communication: Make an observation, state how the observed situation is making them feel, state what they need to address the emotional reaction, and make a request.

For example, the partner might say, “When my family asks for support and you describe them as overbearing or too demanding, it makes me feel small and misunderstood. I feel like you don’t understand my culture and our strengths, and I need that validation from you. Would you be willing to learn more about our family dynamics and what that closeness is about?”

The other partner may acknowledge and respect the tradition behind the request but still have concerns. So, that partner might say, “I understand and want to help you honor your desire to do all that you can to support your family, but I feel that taking on the responsibility for everyone’s needs will be emotionally and financially overwhelming. Is there a way that we can provide some of the needed resources and perhaps help locate other sources of assistance?”

Ramadan also occurred recently and, as was the case with other religious observances such as Passover and Easter, the performing of traditional rituals was challenging under quarantine conditions. As Li observes, “One partner might say, ‘What is the big deal about fasting and having to see family right now? We are in crisis. … This is not a big deal. Why don’t you just skip it this year?’”

Li notes that such minimization on the part of one member of a multiracial couple is hurtful to the other. She would help the partner develop a more respectful message, such as, “I know this is important to you and your people and family. I understand the significance, and I want to incorporate as much [tradition] as possible. How do we minimize risk while honoring the rituals?”

Transracial adoption

“Adoption is really complicated. It’s not a win-win situation,” says Amanda Baden, an ACA member who specializes in working with transracial adoptees and their families. “Adoptions have gains and losses; you don’t just get one without the other.”

These dynamics can be particularly fraught in transracial adoptions, which makes it especially important that adoptive parents not hold what Baden calls “antiquated notions of adoption,” such as the chosen child or rescue narrative. “The chosen child narrative ignores that to be chosen, they [children] have to be released,” she says. Some adoptive parents from Western countries may also view international adoption as a “rescue,” without considering the child’s loss of ethnic or biological ties.

Baden, a counseling psychologist who is herself a transracial adoptee, is not condemning such adoptions. However, she says, it becomes problematic when families don’t see the need to expose these children to their birth culture. Some families also fail to consider how the rest of the world perceives their transracial child.

Baden, whose practice is in New York City, sees a lot of adopted children and adolescents who struggle with being Asian but feeling white, although the world clearly does not view them that way. The adoption is obvious — an Asian child with two white parents — so these kids often get asked questions such as, “Who is your real mom?” Baden says. When the family goes out to places such as restaurants, the transracial child may inadvertently not be seated because they aren’t immediately recognized as belonging, particularly if they have a white sibling. Adoptive families often minimize these incidents, which creates tension, Baden says. 

As transracial children grow older and become more aware of how their experiences diverge from those of their adoptive families, they start to realize that, yes, they are a person of color, and this is something their parents have never really understood, Baden says. That is part of why having a connection to their birth culture can be so important, she adds. Adoptive parents want to believe that if they love their children and give them everything they need, that should be enough — but they have never experienced racism themselves, Baden explains. 

Baden was adopted before there was much awareness of the importance of establishing a connection to a transracial adoptee’s birth culture, but she says her parents did make an effort. “In my high school of approximately 550 students, I think there were three Asian kids, including me. … My parents tried to make friends, but there were not many Asian people [in their area],” she says. “We did talk about race, which was one of the best things they did.” Baden says her parents never tried to pretend that she wasn’t experiencing racism and never told her that she just had to “deal with it.” In addition, they always reassured her that the incidents were not her fault.

Ultimately, Baden says, her parents could have moved to a more integrated neighborhood, which is what she mentions to parents who are interested in adopting transracial children.

Baden also tells parents to begin talking to their children from the start about racism and how to handle it so they will be prepared the first time they encounter it. “Parents want to believe it is not going to happen, but it is,” she says. “Talk about racism not being about them [the child]; it’s about the other person.”

In fact, Baden advises parents of transracial adoptees to get really comfortable talking about race. This is something that many white parents can struggle to do without personalizing it or feeling attacked.

“A lot of people think racism is just about violence, but it is a system,” Baden says, noting that policies can be racist. It’s not that everyone who is white is racist but rather that the system benefits whiteness, Baden continues. One way of explaining systemic racism to children might be to say that sometimes groups of people in charge will treat them differently because of the way they look. However, this happens not because there is something wrong with them (the children), but because the people in charge think it’s OK to not treat everyone fairly.

“One of the things I really worry about is that because it [transracial adoption] has become more common, the bar has maybe been lowered for parents,” Baden says. Many adoptive parents want to think of themselves as being colorblind and assume the majority of the world will be that way too. She advises parents to not even think about adopting a child from a race they know nothing about, and if they already have, she strongly suggests they go out and meet others from their child’s birth culture. 

“What am I supposed to do?” clients ask Baden. “Go to a black church and say, ‘Hi, my name is so and so, I want to be your friend?’”

“Yes,” Baden responds. “That’s what you are asking your kid to do every day.”

Baden also works with adult transracial adoptees who are deciding how they would like to connect with their birth culture. Some people want to immerse themselves, whereas others just want to gain a little bit of knowledge. She encourages people to connect with adoptee groups.

Baden also helps clients learn more about the different aspects of their birth culture, with an emphasis on how family structures and expectations are often very different. Adoptees also need to consider how their experiences growing up in the white world set them apart from those who were raised in their birth culture. “There’s an assumption that certain cultural values are universal, and they’re not,” Baden says.



Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory, and Application, Fourth Edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, Fifth Edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata

Continuing Professional Development: Multicultural (https://imis.counseling.org/store/catalog.aspx#category=multiculturalism-diversity)

  • “Addressing Clients’ Experiences of Racism: A Model for Clinical Practice” with Scott Schaefle and Krista M. Malott
  • “Counseling Refugees: Addressing Trauma, Stress and Resilience” with Rachael D. Goodman
  • “Multicultural Counseling With Immigrant and Refugee Communities” with Vivian V. Lee and Courtland C. Lee
  • “Affirmative Intakes: Creating Intentional, Inclusive Forms to Retain Diverse Clients” with Shannon M. Skaistis, Jennifer M. Cook, Dhanya Nair and Sydney C. Borden

Counseling competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population
  • Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies

Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (multiculturalcounselingdevelopment.org)



Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

From Combat to Counseling: Cultural competence in the military affiliated population

By Duane France September 11, 2019

There were two things that I learned in my degree program regarding cultural competence. The first was that there is a need for the counselor to develop an understanding of how culture influences the unique point of view of a particular client. The second was that it was the responsibility of the counselor to develop that understanding on their own, not put the burden on the client to teach it to them. I’m certain there were more things that I was taught, but those two stand out the most.

When it comes to serving the military-affiliated population, however, some counselors don’t consider these clients to be part of a different culture. Perhaps their perception of diverse cultures is based on geography (e.g., urban versus rural), ethnicity, religion or nationality. All of these cultural values are valid of course; any counselor working with a client whose life experience is rooted in a culture different from the counselor’s own can and should develop an understanding about them. Somehow, though, perceptions of cultural diversity do not usually include the military population. But they are of diverse geographic, ethnic and religious backgrounds, correct? Of course.

Added to that is the fact that serving in the military necessarily begins with an assimilation process. As I mentioned in the first article of this series, if you look at the various definitions of culture, they can be applied to life in the military. We have our own way of dressing, our own language (I’m fluent in “acronym” and often forget that others aren’t), and our own way of looking at the world.


Intergenerational transmission of knowledge

Merriam-Webster provides one definition of culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

If that’s not a clear description of the traditions that are passed down through generations of military service members, then I don’t know what is. For example, the Army’s Drill and Ceremonies manual can be traced directly back to the Continental Army and Baron Friedrich von Steuben’s Regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States. Tradition is also preserved through established customs and standards. The rules of service etiquette for the various military branches and their academies are outlined in a 562-page monster of a book. The long and rich history of military culture is conveyed through its customs and courtesies, and even in traditional aspects present in today’s uniforms.

The accumulation of cultural knowledge begins when the service member first reports to their basic military training and continues throughout their time in the service. Some aspects of cultural knowledge are unique to the various service branches. For example, all Marines are aware — and consider it a point of honor — that the Marine Corps was born in a bar.


A common way of life

Merriam-Webster provides a second definition of culture as “the characteristic features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time.”

There’s no denying it: Service in or affiliation with the military has some unique characteristics. As an old Army slogan put it, “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” A typical morning in the military starts by 6 or 6:30 a.m. (and, for leaders, even earlier). Then there’s the constant movement, for both the service member and the family. My wife and I lived in nine apartments in two states and two countries in the first 10 years of our marriage. The high number of different schools that military kids attend is so common that it’s almost cliché. For my two, it was four schools in five years.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Henry Villarama/defense.gov

The military is also very hierarchical in nature. One glance and a service member knows where they stand in that hierarchy: above, below or on the same level. Built on a foundation of mutually understood respect and obedience from senior to subordinate, the daily life of service members is typically planned and scheduled from the minute they stand in formation to the minute they are dismissed. Does it always work that way? Of course not, which is also part of the culture — no plan survives first contact with the enemy, etc.


A common set of values

A third definition of culture from Merriam-Webster is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

The military is as much a values-driven organization as it is a mission-driven organization. Starting with the Oath of Enlistment or Oath of Commissioned Officers, the common goal — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, to bear faith and allegiance to it, and to obey the orders of the officers appointed over them — is clearly stated and immediately understood.

Each of the branches of service has its own core values. The Army’s values form the acronym LDRSHIP: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. The Marine Corps uses less words for its values in favor of going straight to the point: honor, courage and commitment.

For those who haven’t served, it may seem archaic to be so obligated to a set of values. For those who have served, however, these are values that are instilled as core beliefs. When actions are taken that violate these values, either by the service member themselves or by others, it can be as difficult to overcome as the violation of any other core belief that we help our clients with. Sometimes I help my clients see that the cause of distress in their post-military lives is their failure to live according to these values.


Military cultural competency is necessary for counselors

Although many counselors recognize the unique nature of military service, it’s also essential that they understand how important that culture is to a member’s self-image. When I joined the Army, I stopped being a suburban St. Louis kid and became a soldier; when I left the Army, I became a veteran. It has become as much a part of me as any other label, such as father, husband or son. It has become my identity —not all-consuming and not my entire identity — but a large part of it. Chances are, if you are working with a service member, veteran, or military family member, it will be a large part of theirs too.




Duane France, LPC

Duane France is a retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer and combat veteran who practices as a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the director of veteran service for the Family Care Center, a private outpatient mental health clinic specializing in service members, veterans and their families. He is also the executive director of the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is professionally affiliated with the Family Care Center. In addition to his clinical work, he writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com. Contact him at duane@veteranmentalhealth.com.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Investigating identity

By Laurie Meyers November 21, 2016

“W hat are you?”

That is a question commonly asked of individuals who are multiracial. As a society, we have gotten used to checking off a metaphorical — and often literal — “box” when it comes to questions of race. We seem to expect everyone to “just pick one.”

But the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of our nation’s racial makeup, but also in the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to two, three or more racial groups.

The U.S. Census Bureau first started letting respondents choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in its 2000 survey. Since then, the multiracial population (defined as individuals who have at least two different races in their backgrounds) has grown rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black Americans who identified as biracial more than doubled, and the population of Americans who identified as being of both Asian and Caucasian descent grew by 87 percent. In addition, according to information compiled from the family2010 census and the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the percentage of infants born to parents of two or more different races increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And, of course, in 2008, in a historic event that in part reflects the nation’s growing multiracial population, Americans elected a biracial president, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan farther and a white mother.

The Census Bureau estimates that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. However, in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and issued a report, “Multiracial in America,” estimating that 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. The Pew study arrived at this figure by taking into account not only how individuals describe their own racial backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the U.S census does not do.

The Pew survey also found that many people with mixed racial backgrounds do not identify themselves as “multiracial.” In fact, 61 percent of such respondents identify themselves as belonging to only one race. However, the survey also discovered that individuals’ racial self-identification can change over the years. Some choose to identify with a different part of their racial background later in life or decide to begin identifying as multiracial rather than monoracial (and vice versa).

Counselors who study multiracial issues and in some cases are multiracial themselves say that this finding of shifting racial identity is indicative of one of the core issues of being from multiple races — identity and belonging.

On the outside looking in

“When I was young, I didn’t know I was different,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Leah Brew, who is half white and half Japanese. “Then we moved, and I was made fun of [at her new school] because they said I was Chinese.”

Brew didn’t know what being Chinese meant, but based on the teasing she was subjected to, she assumed it was something horrible. “So I asked my mom if I was Chinese, and she said, ‘No, you’re Japanese,’” Brew recounts. She was relieved but soon found that when she corrected her tormentors, it made no difference. Although Brew was also white, it was her Japanese appearance that mattered to her classmates.

As she grew older, Brew, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, became interested in exploring the Japanese side of her heritage and even traveled to Japan. Although she loved experiencing the culture and the people, she didn’t feel quite at home there either. For one thing, she says, she inherited her white father’s height and towered over everyone on the street. “I thought, ‘No, that’s not it’” — where she “belonged,” Brew says.

“When I moved to California, I thought this was it” because the state has many residents from various racial backgrounds, Brew says. “But the other biracial people I encountered were very dissimilar to me and got their identities from other things, like religion.”

Today, Brew, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees a significant number of multiracial and multicultural clients in her practice. She also helped write the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, a set of professional counseling practices developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network to competently and effectively attend to the diverse needs of the multiple heritage population. When it comes to her own identity and culture, Brew says she at times sees herself as mostly white and at other times mostly Japanese. She acknowledges that she is always moving back and forth between the two.

C. Peeper McDonald, a practitioner and counselor educator whose research focuses on multiracial issues, is both white and Native American. Most people assume she’s white, however, which makes McDonald feel that they are missing or ignoring a large part of who she is.

“I often use the opportunity [the assumption of her monoracial whiteness] to correct people and educate them about my identity,” McDonald says. “I do, however, often get the sense that people feel that I am reaching. For example, I often hear, ‘Oh, well, everyone in the United States has Native American in them.’”

McDonald, who teaches undergraduate psychology classes part time at Georgia Gwinnett College and is also counseling and supervising part time at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, often feels compelled to “prove” her ethnicity, she says. For instance, she will share her Cherokee name with people, which seems to satisfy them.

It was actually McDonald’s interest in her family’s Native American heritage that led to her maternal grandfather reclaiming his history. For most of his life, McDonald explains, her grandfather experienced severe racism because he was a Native American, so he often identified himself as Hispanic instead. McDonald’s mother was raised by her white mother and a white stepfather and, as a result, has never really considered herself Native American, even though McDonald says her mother does not look white. It wasn’t until McDonald started asking as a child about the Native American side of the family that her grandfather, then in his 70s, started to embrace his heritage again.

ACA member Derrick Paladino, who is part Puerto Rican and part Italian American, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. When kids at school would question him about “what” he was, Paladino would simply say Italian because that seemed easier and perhaps safer.

Paladino, who also helped to develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, says he didn’t have a lot of contact with the Puerto Rican side of his extended family when he grew up, so he didn’t have much opportunity to explore the Latino part of his identity. When he ultimately decided to go to college at the University of Florida, Paladino says he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting other Latino students.

“I got my Latino Students Association card, and I was so excited,” Paladino recalls. “But I discovered that because I was not fluent or hadn’t had [what was considered] the full Latino experience, I didn’t fit in well.”

Paladino, a professor and coordinator in the graduate studies in counseling program at Rollins College in Florida, may no longer stand out like he did in the white Connecticut enclave in which he grew up, but like most people of color, he is still subject to many assumptions and microaggressions. For instance, Paladino, who co-wrote and co-edited the book Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families (published by ACA), has been asked by a cashier at a department store whether he was his son’s nanny. Recently, as he stood in line at an amusement park, he was asked to settle a bet between two people he didn’t know. The wager? Whether Paladino was Puerto Rican.

These counselors’ stories provide a glimpse of the myriad forces — societal, familial and personal — that shape and challenge the lives of multiracial individuals. Counselors can play an integral role in helping their clients navigate these forces.

Identity intervention

That sense of not quite belonging — or even being told that they don’t belong — often starts early for multiracial individuals.

As Brew notes, as early as elementary school, multiracial children can begin experiencing microaggressions such as that question: “What are you?” Or, as in Brew’s case, these children might become the targets of racist taunts based on their actual or perceived ethnic backgrounds. For that reason, it is important for the parents of multiracial children to talk to them about race and racism from an early age, she says.

“Parents, in general, are reluctant to do that, but when parents do engage in it, the children are more prepared to handle comments,” Brew says. “There was an interesting study out of [the University of Texas at Austin] where they asked participants to talk with their kids about racism. When it came down to the wire, most parents dropped out of the study. It was simply too hard.”

Because the topic is so difficult and sensitive, counselors can be a tremendous asset to these parents by helping them to have conversations about racism with their children and with each other, Brew says. “This conversation needs to be explicit and purposeful,” she says. “The parents may need to work on thinking in inclusive ways rather than judgmental ways — the way we teach our students to respect differences. It’s the seed that helps teach children about their own culture as well.”

“I think it’s important for parents to start with very small children talking about skin color and how it’s different, but to give no meaning to color,” Brew continues. “We all see differences, and that’s fine. It’s when meaning is applied that differences become a problem. For biracial children, talking about how mommy and daddy — or mommy and mommy, or daddy and daddy — are different is also important to note, although, again, not giving meaning to those differences.”

“If the child is likely to experience racism or any other type of prejudice based upon differences, then [it’s] letting kids know that some people don’t understand differences and believe that people are bad based on how they look or how they dress, etc.,” she says. “Then when it actually happens, kids can feel safe to talk with parents, who should validate the child’s experience and help them make sense of it.”

It isn’t unusual for multiracial children to grow up, like Paladino did, in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even if these children don’t encounter bullying or overt racism, being one of the few (or perhaps only) children of color in an overwhelmingly white environment can exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. Counselors can help these children cope, Paladino says.

“I would want to continually validate what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be ‘otherness’ or not fitting in,” he explains. “At a young age, it may be difficult for [children] to fully grasp why they are experiencing these feelings, so I really want to be there for them in this part of the journey and allow them to ventilate feelings, thoughts and experiences.”

“For the parents, if they are a part of counseling or a parent consult, I would talk to them about what their child is feeling,” Paladino continues. “[I would] help them to experience empathy toward their child, talk to them about how to create a safe space for their child to talk and ventilate about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing, and help them look up children’s books as a way to talk about feeling different.”

School counselors — indeed all school faculty members — also play a critical role in helping multiracial children cope with racism and the struggle to feel included, says Taryne Michelle Mingo, an ACA member and former school counselor whose research focuses on marginalized populations. “I would [as a school counselor] develop a trusting relationship with the children and let them know that I can be a support system,” she says. For instance, she explains, if a child is being taunted or verbally abused, it is important for the child to view the school counselor as a safe person whom he or she can trust and feel comfortable going to for help.

One of the primary tasks for school counselors, Mingo says, is to get to know their students and make sure that everyone feels included. During her time as a school counselor, Mingo, who is African American, worked at a majority white school where only a small number of students were African American. Children of color aren’t typically used to seeing themselves reflected or represented in school materials, Mingo says, so she was careful about making sure there were dolls and books in her office that included children of multiple races. “Make sure that [these children] know they are visible,” she urges. “[That as counselors you are saying], ‘We know you are here.’”

When children who were feeling excluded showed up in her office, Mingo, who is now an assistant professor in the Counseling, Leadership and Special Education Department at Missouri State University, would engage them by asking them what they thought about themselves aside from what anyone else thought about them. She would have them describe themselves and ask them to draw a self-portrait. She would then go on to ask them what they liked to do and who their friends were.

If during the course of the conversation Mingo discovered that the child was feeling harassed or hearing negative comments, she would inquire where the child was and what was happening when he or she heard such comments. Mingo then asked what the child said or would have liked to say in response to those comments. Finally, she and the child would practice responding.

Mingo would also bring in the child’s teachers to make them aware of what was happening. When possible, she also liked to bring in the child’s parents or parent so that she and the parents could work together to more effectively support the child as a team.

Family tensions

In some cases, a child’s feelings of exclusion might be emanating from within the family itself. Not necessarily within the immediate family, but more often from the extended family, which might not have approved of the multiracial relationship in the first place, Paladino says. He notes that it was only in 1967 that it became legal to marry outside of one’s own race throughout the United States. That’s when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Brew has worked with multiracial couples and families facing the disapproval of extended family. “In terms of working with extended family racism, I first provide empathy to both partners,” she says. “Then I provide psychoeducation about the damage to self-esteem on children who listen to that type of talk. The biggest challenge is that so many minority families are hierarchical, so the adult child may not feel comfortable initiating these kinds of conversations. When it’s a Caucasian family member, then the relationship can often be less hierarchical, so the biggest challenge is just getting that partner to buy in and set limits with family members.”

“I haven’t had experiences with needing to cut off family members,” Brew continues. “[I] try to avoid that unless abuse is part of the picture. So, I help the clients manage their feelings about their own family members’ disapproval and try to offer support so that they eventually have the courage to confront their families. If they choose to confront, of course we practice that many times and prepare them for the worst possible outcome so they feel more confident.”

But even when there is no racial tension in the family, a multiracial person’s parents and other monoracial family members can never truly understand what it is like to be multiracial or multiethnic, Paladino says. “Validation is huge for this population,” he says. “They need support to figure out what they are, to allow them to be angry at family, angry at friends.”

McDonald agrees. “My father, who is white, never understood why it was important for me to identify as biracial,” she says. “He views me as white and thinks I should identify as white. In a way, my white dad has always been a symbol for me of white culture because he also holds beliefs that don’t acknowledge institutionalized oppression and a belief that because we live in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — beliefs in which I do not share. Even as adults to this day, we do not speak of race, politics or privilege.”

Identity and acceptance

Ultimately, it is up to the multiracial individual to determine how he or she wants to self-identify. “A lot of clinical work is to help my clients articulate and identify what is from what culture so that they can make choices,” Brew says. “What feels right in different situations? Who am I, and what’s the right way to be?”

Counselors can play an important role by helping multiracial clients sift through all of their experiences and beliefs in the search for identity, says Mark Kenney, who helped write the multiracial counseling competencies and co-founded ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. He advises counselors to start by validating a client’s personal experiences and creating a safe environment for self-disclosure.

In some cases, counselors may need to help clients find resources, such as social groups or books, to explore their heritage because these clients didn’t have full access to part of their heritage growing up, Kenney says. He uses Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as an example. “His white family can’t tell him about being African American, and his father is Kenyan, so he can’t impart the African American experience,” Kenney notes.

Although identity is a pressing issue for many multiracial individuals, so is the question of feeling accepted or belonging. Kenney returns to the example of President Obama. Because of his phenotype, or physical appearance, most people automatically view Obama as African

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

American, and physical appearance is often an important factor that influences how multiracial individuals ultimately choose to identify themselves, Kenney explains. Given his lineage, Obama could have decided to identify himself as white, Kenney says, but because of the way he looks, society at large wouldn’t see or “accept” him that way, especially in our current racial climate. At the same time, Kenney continues, because Obama’s father was black but not African American (and because his mother was white), other people may not embrace Obama fully as being African American.

McDonald says she sometimes struggles with feeling that she is a legitimate member of the multiracial community. “I am often viewed as white and, as a result, receive white privilege,” she explains. “So in many ways, I am an outsider to the multiracial community because I still receive privilege versus minority status.”

Again, counselors can help multiracial individuals reconcile these factors, but the process may not be smooth or easy. “Helping the person sort through their particular journey and come to their own decision about how they want to identify may put them in conflict with their family and their community,” Kenney notes.

With multiracial clients, Kenney likes to use solution-focused and narrative therapy. With narrative therapy in particular, clients can write a new story of their identity, he says. Kenney also stresses the importance of counselors familiarizing themselves with multiracial identity models so they are aware of all the factors involved in a person choosing an identity.

Because individuals who are multiracial might not be or feel fully accepted by any of their racial groups, counselors should help them seek out individuals who possess similar backgrounds, Kenney says. If organizations for multiracial individuals aren’t readily available in their communities, counselors might consider forming groups — perhaps using the group therapy model, but for social rather than therapeutic purposes, Kenney says.

Kenney and Paladino also recommend bibliotherapy as an effective intervention with multiracial clients who are struggling with their identity or sense of belonging. Paladino says he personally found Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, edited by Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn, very helpful in his journey.

No assumptions

All of the counselors interviewed for this article caution against assuming that individuals who are multiracial have come to counseling because of their multiracial status. At the same time, Brew and McDonald say it is important not to automatically assume that no connection exists between the person’s presenting problem and his or her multiracial status. After all, being multiracial does exert influence on clients’ lives, just as do other factors bound up in identity, such as being female, having a disability or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Catherine Chang, an ACA member whose research specializes in multicultural issues, believes that society needs to change how it identifies people. Counselors can help, she says, starting with their intake forms and how they designate racial background.

“We force people to check a box,” Chang says. “I’m 100 percent Asian and married to a Caucasian man. My children have to check two separate boxes — white, Asian. They can’t check multiracial or biracial.”

Chang urges counselors to offer an option for multiracial individuals on intake forms and to also leave space for clients to fill in what they feel their background is. Paladino agrees, noting that check boxes don’t encompass multiple heritages such as being black and also being Jewish.

Finally, Chang says that it is important for counselors to examine their own heritage and how that background affects who they are and how they interact with individuals from other groups and races.




Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s online article about transracial adoption, “Adopting across racial lines” wp.me/p2BxKN-4xn




Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, take advantage of the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

ACA Interest Networks and Divisions

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, written and edited by Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Derrick A. Paladino
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latina/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Queer People of Color” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
  • “Microcounseling, Multiculturalism, Social Justice and the Brain” with Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does it Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas

  • “The Invisible Client: Ramifications of Neglecting the Impact of Race and Culture in Professional Counseling” by Issac Burt, Valerie E.D. Russell and Michael Brooks
  • “Appreciating the Complexities of Race and Culture” by Ria Echteld Baker
  • “Counselors’ Multicultural Competencies: Race, Training, Ethnic Identity and Color-Blind Racial Attitudes” by Ruth Chao
  • “Enhancing Multicultural Empathy in the Classroom and Beyond: A Proposed Model for Training Beginner Counselors” by Jorge Garcia, Gerta Bardhoshi, Matthew Siblo, Sam Steen and Eileen Haase
  • “Ethnic Minority Clients’ Perceptions of Racism-Related Stress in Presenting Problems”
    by Ruth Chao
  • “Interracial Adoption and the Development of Cultural Identity” by Kimberly Kathryn Thompson

Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II and David G. Zelaya





Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.