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How Growing Up Abroad Can Affect Mental Health As An Adult




Before I begin discussing the mental health aspects of a global upbringing, let me tell you that I am in the unique position of being able to see this issue from two perspectives, one as a psychodynamic therapist who specializes in analyzing how inner-conflict is created and maintain, and two as someone who has spent a large part of their formative years living abroad, in other words a Third Culture Kid.

I was born in Sweden, lived in England until I was three, then spent fifth-teen years in Hong Kong before moving back to England for another three years. Then I moved to Japan for six years before eventually resettling in Sweden.

So, what is written in this article is based not only on my ability to analyze the human psyche but also on my own experiences.

In this article, I will show you how growing up abroad can affect your mental health as an adult.



In This Article…

  1. The Three Pillars Of The Third Culture Kid Identity
  2. Itchy Feet – A Fear Of Commitment? The Achilles Heal Of The Third Culture Kid
  3. Learning How To Make Sacrifices As An Adult Third Culture Kid


The Three Pillars Of The Third Culture Kid Identity

The identity of the Third Culture Kid is built on three pillars. The first two pillars represent the passport culture (the country the TCK is originally from) and the host culture (the culture they live in). Since the TCK does not have full access to either of these cultures, they form a third pillar which represents their identity as a global nomad.

For example, when I was a kid, I didn’t know enough about Swedish society or Swedish popular culture, to prove to myself that I was Swedish. On the other hand, I didn’t look like I was from Hong Kong and I didn’t know enough about the society or popular culture in Hong Kong to prove to myself and others that I was fully connected to it. So, I created an identity as the foreigner as a substitute for a national identity. This worked fine until I became an adult.

As adult TCKs we have to chose whether to continue living in the host culture, move to another host culture or return to the passport culture. There may be many reasons why we have to move. The cost of living might be too high, the career opportunities might be too few or the higher education that is available might not suit us. Here we are faced the weakness of the TCK identity.



If we move to the passport culture, the host culture pillar falls and the TCK pillar quickly follows. If we move to a host culture that we, on a surface level, may have a connection to (because of our race or fluency in the language) the host culture pillar and TCK pillar will fall. So, if we wish to maintain the TCK identity (which most of us do since it means maintaining our connection to all cultures) we are left with few other options than to move to a host culture which we don’t have a connection to on a surface level. 

For example, when I moved to the UK, no one knew that I was from Hong Kong unless I told them and reminded them about it. And even then they would much rather see me as the Swedish guy. In other words, my connection to Hong Kong and Asia was lost (and my identity as a TCK with it) so therefore I moved to Japan.

This becomes problematic when also wanting to settle down, have a family and pursue a career. 


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Itchy Feet – A Fear Of Commitment? The Achilles Heal Of The Third Culture Kid

Many Third Culture Kids spend the majority of their “young adulthood” moving from one country to the next in order to maintain their identity as a TCK.

The term “itchy feet” is often applied to Adult Third Culture Kids and refers to the urge to move to a new country every few years.

At first glance, it might seem like the Adult Third Culture Kid is simply running away from their problems but the psychological process is much more complex than that.

Due to their upbringing, Adult Third Culture Kids have not been able to create an identity based on their nationality. So instead, they adopt the TCK identity.




Therefore, the thought of settling down becomes a threat. Even though ATCKs have a natural urge to settle down and seek fulfilment in family life and at work (just as much as non-TCKs do), the implications of living in one culture for the rest of one’s life can be too much to bear since if they choose to do so, they will no longer be the foreigner or the TCK. 

It is in the inner-conflict between The TCK Identity and The Urge To Settle Down where most Adult Third Culture Kids become depressed.

The depression is maintained when the person in question chooses to compromise and uphold the inner-conflict.

The depression is solved when the person in question chooses one of the urges over the other.



Learning How To Make Sacrifices As An Adult Third Culture Kid

The depression is solved when the adult Third Culture Kid choses one urge over the other, in this case chooses the settled life over maintaining their identity as a TCK.

After this, they enter a grieving process.

More often than not, the adult TCK chooses to settle down and therefore has to mourn their past life as a TCK and their connection to many different countries.

The adult Third Culture Kid has to find different ways of mourning their connection, be it through regular visits, ornaments, maintaining friendships, or maintaining their knowledge of the language etc, until they have come to accept their settled life.

Once this is done, the grieving process is over and the mental health issues associated with being an adult TCK are overcome.

In other words, no more depression or anxiety.

In this article, I’ve shown you how growing up abroad can affect your mental health as an adult.



Next Article: Are you a Chameleon, Screamer, Wallflower or Adapter TCK?

As you surely know by now, we’re all different. But little did you know that as Adult Third Culture Kids our personality can be boiled down to one of four types, the chameleon, the screamer, the wallflower and the adapter… READ MORE



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