10 Things to Know About Teenage Third Culture Kids (TCKs)

Plenty of things change when your third culture kid starts into the teenage years. You can expect that things won’t be the same as when they were younger, and that your kids will be different from teenagers in your home country. Here are ten things you should know about teenage TCKs.

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1. Friendships are increasingly important

As your child becomes a tween and then teen, relationships with those their own age will start to take center stage. This means it’s even tougher on teens when friendships have to change, such as when your kid switches schools, or when their BFF moves to another country. And things like that happen a lot in TCK circles.

2. They’re comfortable with adult interactions

On the whole, TCKs tend to be more comfortable with adult interactions than their monocultural peers. It doesn’t faze them to engage in conversations with grown-ups. This is part of why TCKs are often seen as very mature. However…

3. They’re not on par with passport country peers

TCKs teens might feel comfortable with adults in any country, but they often feel awkward with teenagers in their “home” country. After all, your passport country likely feels like a foreign country to your kids. They may not fully understand the rules of engagement, and may feel like an outsider in circles where everyone else has known each other since they were toddlers.

4. They immediately sense their tribe

On the flip side of feeling like an outsider in certain circles, TCKs teens will often immediately (and deeply!) bond with other TCK teens that they meet. One kid may have been raised in Singapore city life, and the other may have been living in a village in rural Mexico, but they “get” each other quickly.

5. Their worldview is a WORLDview

Another reason TCK teens are often pegged as mature for their age is that they have a much wider worldview than their monocultural peers. They’re more aware of different cultures, countries, and languages. They tend to see their passport country in a more objective light than kids from that country do. And when they hear world news like mudslides in the Philippines, or riots in Venezuela, they are much more likely than moncultural kids to have a personal connection to those places. As in, “My family went to Palawan for vacation,” or “My classmate’s mom is from Venezuela.”

6. They may have delayed emotional processing

Certain aspects of emotional maturity frequently come at a later point in life for TCKs. For example, TCKs often wrestle with who they are as a person during their university years, whereas their monocultural peers do a lot of that processing during high school.

7. They face loneliness

Whether it’s frequent changes in friendships, or feeling like there aren’t too many people who “get” them, teenage TCKs have to face loneliness fairly often. Be prepared to help them grieve their losses and support them through the lonely times.

8. They’re struggling more than you might know

Teenagers all over the globe have a lot of worries, but TCK teenager worries are at a different level. They may face anxiety thinking about questions such as, “Where will my family move to next? If I hate this school, will it mean my parents have to leave China? Will I have to navigate university by myself?” They might feel like they can’t always be honest about their worries with their parents. Realize that any changes you’re considering for your family will have an impact on your kids. They may not voice their worries unless you ask…and really listen.

9. Stability is still incredibly important to them, but looks different now

Remember back when you had an infant or toddler? Stability for them meant a predictable naptime, and reading the same board book eight. million. times. Stability is still very important to your teenager, but in different ways. Teens back in your home country have the luxury of routines like, “We go to the same lakeside cabin every summer,” or “Grandma comes to visit the first weekend of every month.” Your kids probably don’t have those types of predictability, but they’re still looking for something stable. Consider family traditions or rhythms that travel easily such as, “Mom makes the same cookies for Christmas every year,” or “We have family board game night once a week.” Don’t be surprised if you discover that you’ve inadvertently created a “tradition” by doing something once or twice. You might get pushback when you try out a new recipe for their birthday cake, and then you’ll know the old one was something your teen considered really important!

10. They are amazing!

All in all, most adult TCKs look back on their international upbringing with gratitude even though there were challenging aspects to the global nomad life. Living in another culture has a deep impact on kids. TCK teens are unique, special, and amazing people!

Is there anything we missed about teenage Third Culture Kids?

To share your thoughts, click the link for the group of other China-focused parents on Facebook or share on WeChat by scanning my QR code and asking to join the WeChat group.

Emily Steele Jackson is the writer behind Small Town Laowai, a funny, relatable blog for China expats. She enjoys traveling, though she enjoys it a lot more now that her kids can haul their own suitcases. Emily and her husband have over a decade of experience raising TCKs in China. Home, James is her first novel.




Picture: US Department of State

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4 Thoughts to “10 Things to Know About Teenage Third Culture Kids (TCKs)”

  1. […] How are things different having a teenager overseas versus having a younger child? And how are teenage TCKs different from their monocultural peers? I’m answering those questions in a guest post over at China Family Blog: 10 Things to Know About Teenage TCKs. […]

  2. Beth

    I don’t have TCK teenagers yet, but one thing I’ve noticed about some friends’ kids and also about Chinese kids going to study in the States is a difference/difficulty in navigating guy-girl relationships and sexual emotional maturity. There’s a lot to be said about this topic that could probably take its own article but I just wanted to mention it specifically as something parents should take extra time helping their kids navigate as they visit or return to their passport country.

    1. Editor at China Family Blog

      Totally a topic of its own and especially interesting. Jingkids and beijingkids both made a big wave of interest when we released sex education related magazines in 2017. In some parts of China, sex education is limited to posters in bathroom stalls. It’s just such an uncomfortable topic in China while in the States it’s something that most parents need to introduce very early for protection.

  3. […] Steele Jackson offers ten things you need to know about teenage TCKs. Really good stuff here! Also check out Emily’s new novel, Home, James. It’s about an eighth […]

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