Raising third culture kids

We dive into the cultural nuances of children raised outside of their parents’ country of origin.

In a world where globalisation is on the rise, more families than ever before are moving from country to country in search of new employment opportunities, access to better healthcare and education or a more favourable political environment and lifestyle. Children who spend much of their formative years outside either of their parents’ dominant culture or place of birth are referred to as ‘third culture kids’. While this upbringing offers a myriad of opportunities and often gives rise to some developmental superpowers, it also presents unique challenges for both parents and little ones when it comes to understanding their place in the world. In this article, we’ll explore what it means to raise third culture children and provide practical tips for managing the ups and downs.

Understanding third culture children

Third culture children are exposed to a blend of cultures, often resulting from their parents’ international assignments, expatriate lifestyles or multicultural backgrounds. As a result, they often synthesise elements of their first and second cultures to develop their own ‘third culture’, mixing aspects from their home culture and host culture, alongside the global communities they encounter. These children may get along best with other kids who also experience the same cultural jumble. How each child adapts or handles their circumstances is heavily influenced by their individual personality and disposition, but also the duration of their time abroad, their age, the length of time they previously spent in their ‘home’ country and their parents’ attitude. The good news is that little ones cope with this mixed, culturally nomadic way of life very well.


Despite the challenges they may face, third culture children often reap numerous benefits from their distinctive upbringing. Some of the positive characteristics it brings are international experience, neutrality, open-mindedness, flexibility, adaptability, increased empathy and tolerance of others’ worldviews and cultures. These young individuals tend to be fluent in multiple languages, at least two cultural ‘codes’ and comfortable navigating diverse social settings. They develop a global perspective early in life, which can be a valuable asset in an increasingly interconnected world.


While the benefits of this multifaceted upbringing are evident, there are also challenges associated with this lifestyle. Third culture children may struggle with issues of identity and belonging, enculturation, grief and loss, and faith, having moved between cultures before they have the opportunity to fully develop their own personal and cultural identity. A weak sense of belonging can sometimes result from a lack of meaningful contact with either their home culture or the host culture where they have been raised. Frequent relocations can also disrupt friendships and educational continuity, commonly leading to feelings of isolation and rootlessness.

Five parenting strategies

However, there is so much you can do as a parent to support and nurture your third culture children and mitigate any issues they might face.

Home as a haven

Providing your kids with a sense of stability and consistency is one of the most important tasks for a parent raising their child in another culture. Little ones who come up against feelings of cultural rootlessness usually turn to their parents to work out which social and cultural rules apply – therefore family and home should always be a safe haven in which a child feels like they fully belong.

Cultural ties

It’s good to strengthen your child’s links with their heritage and country of origin, as this can help them feel like they have a secondary place of belonging and closes the cultural gap between parents and kids. Some parents do this through cooking food from their home country as household staples, regularly taking trips ‘home’ to visit relatives, celebrating cultural holidays, festivals and traditions together and teaching children their native language – oftentimes speaking it as the main language at home. These things provide children with a green light to explore their heritage and celebrate their unique identity, instead of feeling ‘apart’ from their home culture.

It’s also beneficial to encourage your little one to become familiar with the language, customs and norms of your host country, so they feel grounded in the culture they’re being raised in, and also so they have the ability to communicate and bond with the people around them more easily.

Maintaining friendships

In families that switch countries or cities a lot, it’s vital that parents support their children in keeping up with the friends they have to leave behind, whether through messages, video calls or trips back to visit. This keeps these important relationships alive for children and mitigates the loss, grief and distress that can come with saying goodbye often.

Open communication and expression

Children adapt to multiculturalism differently as, at the end of the day, we are all individuals and no two people will have the same experience. With this in mind, it can be wise to have open discussions with your little ones about their cultural circumstances. Many children are afraid to disappoint their parents by being seen as ‘foreign’ or to not be embracing their home culture enough. Therefore, it’s common for kids to hide any feelings they may be harbouring in regards to cultural distress or identity worries. However, it’s incredibly important to be as delicate and empathetic as you can, as bottling up any negative feelings that arise can lead to mental health issues for kids. So focus on making sure that your little ones know that you don’t expect them to be the same as you, and that you understand they have a mixed set of cultural norms that you fully accept. In these conversations, it’s best to remember that reverse culture shock is likely to be much stronger for your children than for you. Afterall, they grew up abroad and they don’t have the same references, memories or attachment to your native culture. The most important thing is that they feel able to chat to you and work through their own thoughts and emotions in a safe and supported way.

Multicultural education

Research suggests that third culture kids may find it easier to feel a sense of belonging with other children in a similar position, regardless of backgrounds or differing native countries of origin. There is a mutual experience shared between all third culture children, alongside many common values, traits and lenses on the world. Enrolling your little ones in international schools that embrace diversity and offer opportunities for cross-cultural learning will give them the best opportunity to find a set of friends that they feel understood by. Exposure to others having a similar experience is a wonderful way of helping children find their ‘normal’, combatting any alienation they may be vulnerable to feeling and helping them develop their own ‘third’ culture or code.

The importance of community

Connecting with other third culture families can be a brilliant way to gain invaluable support, build a village who understands your lens on life and create a sense of belonging in your new home country. It can also be good to seek out international schools, expatriate groups and online communities where you and your children can make friends with others who share similar experiences.

Embrace the journey

The task of raising third culture children requires patience, understanding and a commitment to embracing their unique cultural background, accepting it as different to your own. Raising third culture children is an expansive and rewarding journey, filled with both challenges and opportunities for growth. Rest assured, by embracing your children’s multicultural identity and providing them with the support and guidance they need, you can help kids thrive as empathetic global citizens who have a multifaceted outlook on life. Remember, the experiences and memories they gain along the way will shape little ones into resilient, adaptable people, capable of navigating the intricate cultural complexities of our increasingly interconnected world.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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