Photo by Geralt,

Third Culture Kids: Counsel for their Counselors

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So, today I had the immense privilege of presenting my Third Culture research to a group of soon-to-be counsellors.

Having met their tutor last week, I had been asked to speak to the group about both my doctoral work and my therapeutic work with Life Story, and I’d jumped at the opportunity! For any researcher, the chance to share connections between theory and practice is a real thrill, and I wasn’t about to turn it down. But more than this, I was delighted to be able to introduce counselling practitioners to the Third Culture Kid concept, and to add another arrow in their quiverful of therapeutic resources.

I spoke to the group about my research, explaining the Third Culture Concept laid out by the Useems in the 1950s – the first culture being one’s passport culture (potentially multiple), the second culture being the host culture (also potentially multiple) and the third culture (the shared experience of frequent childhood mobility, often within a transnational expatriate community).

I explained how Third Culture Kids were often ‘hidden immigrants’ but as a group they were of increasing interest in an ever globalising world, and as mobility becomes more and more a way of life for many of its population. Through a better understanding of the Third Culture Kid experience, we are able to better understand processes of identity formation, belonging, and relationship to place.

My full thesis, for the brave at heart (!) can be read here, but I summarised its main contributions for my listeners…

  1. That despite the variances in ethnicity, language, nationality, sponsor background and amount of time spent abroad, frequent and significant childhood mobility experience does consistently impact notions of identity, belonging, and place.
  2. That Third Culture Kids represent a cosmopolitan outlook that is not rootless, but rather is rooted in an expatriate transnational network.
  3. That I developed the notion of ‘elite vagrancy’ to describe the inner compulsion frequently described by respondents as restlessness, or wanderlust, as a force that propels Third Culture Kids into perpetual mobility in adult life.

But so what? What does all this mean for the counsellor working with the Third Culture Kid?

This is where the power of method comes in. The life story interview emerged as a therapeutic process for many of my respondents, as well as providing me with the context necessary to interpret the ‘data’ of their stories effectively.

The same is true for the counsellor. Context is All. And so this was my counsel for the counsellors today…

  • Keep listening. The person in front of you may not inhabit the cultural background they appear to. Paying attention to the cultural influences of their past may well provide clues to the challenges they are currently facing.
  • Assume nothing. The concepts you may be working with, ‘restlessness’, ‘home’ ‘identity’, may need some deconstructing so that you and your client can understand each other. Assume no shared understanding when multiple cultural backgrounds are present.

In our remaining few minutes, I shared some resources that I would recommend to anyone interested in Third Culture Kids, or who is supporting a Third Culture Kid in any way.

Military Brats by Mary Wertsch

Third Culture Kids by Dave Pollock and Ruth van Reken

Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile by Lois Bushong

As I expounded on the issues that frequently challenge adult Third Culture Kids, and discussed different approaches to supporting clients through these, I was encouraged by the receptiveness of the group.

When I asked if anyone had any questions, I was struck by the number of comments that revealed group members to be Third Culture and Cross Cultural Kids themselves, and who remarked on the significance of the discussion on them personally, as well as professionally. After all, where counsellors are able to piece together the pieces of their own identity journeys, they are better able to help clients with the jigsaw puzzles of their own lives.

Photo by Geralt,
Photo by Geralt,


It was an absolute privilege to share with these counselors the significance of the Third Culture Kid experience, and the impact of this experience on later adult life. It was a joy to see theory and practice working together to bring new concepts to the counseling room.

Context is All.

Our life stories bring the past, present and hoped-for future into the same space and time, and in doing so, bring both Understanding and Hope.

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    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      Thanks Laura!! It was so exciting to see a group of people both care about and apply thinking about Third Culture Kids so immediately to their own and their clients’ lives… a researcher’s dream! Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Dan Elyea says:

    Greetings, Rachel . . . This comment is not about the blog piece itself, but speaks to something you laid out early in your thesis.

    There you mentioned losing the fluency in a language of your youth. In my own (large) family, several of the sister siblings lost their fluency, too. On the other hand, the four brothers retain significant facility in the African language (and enjoy injecting words and phrases into their communications with other siblings).

    Strange, huh?


    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      Strange, indeed, Dan… I wonder if language loss/retention correlates with how close or positive siblings feel about their host country in general… When we don’t have the words, something very precious gets lost and belonging is harder to maintain… Thank you for sharing, and for reading my work!

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