The stress for most TCKs is not from the multiplicity of cultures they experience in their childhood but comes when they try to repatriate or fit into some other cultural box which others expect them to belong to. Non-TCKs use this “cultural box” as their way of defining culture in racial, nationalistic, or other more traditional ways.

PolVan Cultural Identity Model 1

TCKs need to be able to acknowledge the reality that this world of multiple cultures they have experienced as children is a valid place of belonging, even if not rooted in one geographical place or ethnicity.

There are some common reactions that TCKs have as they try to sort out their identity issues. They might be a “Chameleon – trying to find a “same as” identity. Or, they might be a “Screamer”—trying to find a “different from” identity. Or they might be a “Wallflower”—trying to find a “non-identity.”

Ironically, when TCKs are in the foreigner or mirror box, who they are inside is what others expect them to be when looking from the outside. Their identity is clear and life is relatively simple. When, however, they are in the hidden immigrant or adopted box, life can become quite complicated. Who others expect them to be is not who they are because they have learned their cultural cues amid and among various cultural groups.

Go to Third Culture Kids (audio file only) to hear Ruth Van Reken and two TCKs discuss this topic further.

To read an example of the identity model, go to An Example Using the Identity Model.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. D. Pollock & Van Reken & M. Pollock, Third Culture Kids, Growing Up Among Worlds, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, c. 2017. (Chart c.2006 by Ruth VanReken