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Supporting our Third Culture Families in Transition

Supporting our Third Culture Families in Transition

When does transition begin? When does it end? For many of us, this is a difficult question…a question that can only be understood by those with our shared experience. Our “back home” family can never truly  understand the feelings associated with the multiple transitions we experience as families who do this dance over and over again. Why do we put ourselves through this cycle of transition every few years? Each family has a different answer to this question. Have you reflected on yours? 

A second consideration is the impact of multiple transitions on our family members. Family may include our children, our partner, friends, and family left behind….and even our dog. Anyone who has transitioned with a pet knows what I’m talking about…or had to leave one behind. Transition also includes those who are left behind, those kids who say goodbye to friends over and over again. 

For this article let’s consider the impact on our children. In 2021 the organization TCK Training surveyed over 2000 Third Culture Kids (TCKs) to collect data on the impact of growing up abroad. Researchers used the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) framework to research the developmental challenges experienced by TCKs. The ACE framework has been used in studies of TCK experiences for about 20 years and focuses on 10 childhood factors that may or may not impact adult behavioral, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing. High ACE scores have been associated with higher risks of mental and physical health challenges in later life.

Viewed through an asset lens, if we know the ACEs that can contribute to challenges in later life, what can we do to help our children thrive and grow as TCKs? Research indicates there are preventative factors that counter the ACEs described above. I love acronyms! Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) are what researchers call the preventative factors to support our children growing up as global nomads. PCEs are specific experiences that can support the developmental growth of children growing up as TCKs. They include:

  • My feelings are heard and validated by my parents
  • I feel physically safe in my home
  • I feel my parents stand by me when things are difficult and they would choose me before their job
  • I feel supported by my peer group
  • I feel a sense of belonging within a larger, multigenerational group
  • I have routines and traditions to look forward to
  • I have a sense of belonging in middle/high school
  • I have two non-parent adult relationships who take a genuine interest in me


As parents it is important that we reflect on both the ACEs and PCEs and their impact on our TCKs….just writing that sentence was fun! How would you “score” as a parent on the PCEs? What would your kids say? Might be an interesting family conversation over the holiday. The benefits of living this internationally mobile life are many, but it is also important to reflect on the challenges and how we are supporting our family members as we move along. If you have questions about the research or anything related to TCK family life, please reach out to your divisional counselor. Take care and be well. 

Joe Murphy

Head of Counseling