Are immigrant kids TCKs?

An updated version of this post has been published at


Continuing my series of posts looking at commonalities and intersectionalities among Cross Cultural Kids, today I’m tackling a question I hear a lot: “are immigrant kids TCKs?”

I have been approached a number of times by people who immigrated as children, saying they really identified with a lot of the content in Misunderstood. Some really grabbed onto the vocabulary of being Third Culture Kids, even though they did not technically fit the description. I think this is largely because there is a similar but opposite dymanic happening for the immigrant kid and the TCK.

In both cases, the child is caught between two cultural influences and allegiances: the place in which they live, and the place from which their parents came (before or after having children). Both immigrant kids and TCKs experience the tension of differing expectations – which country is their “real” home? Which country are they really “from”? Questions from others – friends, family members, and strangers – can all add confusion and a sense of pressure.

Both immigrant kids and TCKs have dealt with living between these different countries, cultures, and expectations. There is a great deal of emotional resonance between their experiences. And yet, they are not the same. Children of immigrants, and child immigrants, are absolutely Cross Cultural Kids – they belong to the wider umbrella of cross cultural childhoods. But there is a distinct difference as well, so I would not call immigrant kids TCKs. (Although there is definitely a segment of Cross Cultural Kids who are both TCKs and also immigrant kids.)

But this is an example of why I think it’s so important to shift the conversation to discussing Cross Cultural Kids generally, not just TCKs. The overlaps in the experiences of Immigrant Kids and TCKs are real, the resonance in their emotional landscape is real. It means that resources ostensibly for TCKs may be really useful for some immigrant kids, and resources ostensibly for immigrant families may be really useful for some expatriate families. Widening our view of what it means to grow up cross culturally allows for the inclusion more people, and for connection between more people through shared experiences.

Now, in this example, how can understanding the similarities between the experiences of immigrant kids and traditional TCKs (without ignoring the differences) help both groups?

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the conflict of expectation to connect to their parents’ cultures, while living in a different culture.

This means many can identify with each other’s similar struggles in this area, such as accusations of “betraying” one culture by attaching to the other (and perhaps vice versa).

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs bridge the two cultures (the parents’ culture and the host culture) due to their parents’ decisions on behalf of the family.

This means many can identify with each other’s feelings about being born/brought into a situation of cultural complexity beyond their control.

And, as with all Cross Cultural Kids, both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the experience of navigating lives of cultural complexity – with all the innate pros and cons that come with it.

There are limits to the overlaps in their experiences, however. An immigrant kid has legal status in the country where their family now lives. A Third Culture Kid, however, generally lives in a country they know they will leave, and may not have the option to stay. This “unrequited love” is a feeling immigrant kids may well be able to deeply sympathise with, but do not share.

Both may share the experience of being seen as “foreign” in a place they love and are very familiar with – but Third Culture Kids don’t often deal with being seen as “foreign” in a country that legally recognises them. (Unless they have the intersectional cross cultural experiences such as being part of a minority group, etc.)

These differences mean it is also important to recognise the distinctiveness of their different cross cultural experiences. In Misunderstood I collected the experiences of a wide range of TCKs – different parents’ work (missionaries, foreign service, corporate, educators), different schools (international school, local school, boarding school, homeschool) and different experiences of transience (a long time in one country, frequent moves, first move happening in high school). It was important to recognise the distinct differences in these different types of Third Culture experiences. But it was also helpful to express their commonalities.

In the same way, while immigrant kids and traditional TCKs are distinct experiences – they are not the same – the commonalities they share as Cross Cultural Kids are real and worthy of recognition. If an immigrant kid finds TCK resources like Misunderstood helpful – fantastic! That’s great to hear. The more resources available, the better. But I also hope to see more resources developed for Cross Cultural Kids generally that will openly include the wider and more nuanced range of experiences that exist among CCKs.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

3 thoughts on “Are immigrant kids TCKs?

  1. I would argue immigrant kids and TCK’s are different in mentality. An immigrant kid can become a TCK if given the opportunity to form their own culture from the different cultures around him/her. Unfortunately most immigrant kids/2nd gen immigrants I have met were pushed by their parents into one of those monocultural directions:
    – Full assimilation into the host culture, only use that language, deny the heritage and become more native than the natives themselves. This usually fails, and results in either a backlash, or self-hating, nationalist right-wingers who are not fully assimilated but obsessed with pointing out others who “do not belong”
    – Rejection of the host culture, the kids are raised without regard to the surrounding host culture. This is where you find kids who do not know a word of the local language when starting school, and only have friends from the same culture as their parents. This can be more successful as they at least have a strong sense of cultural identity – and can eventually become TCKs if they venture out of the narrow boundaries set by their parents.


    • There are definitely different reactions to the cultural complexity of the immigrant experience. An important aspect of being a TCK is living in a country of which you are not a citizen, and can’t or do not intend to settle permanently. An immigrant kid can also become a TCK if they later move to another country. But they’re both cross cultural childhood experiences, whether the child in question embraces or one both cultures.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This distinction sounds to me similar to the immigrants-expats distinction, which is basically economical and cultural, but nobody wants to express it this way. No expat who expatriated to offer their competencies and their highly qualified skills likes to be compared to an immigrant forced by the circumstances to leave their country of origin to find fortune somewhere else. And no expat likes to hear their kids called second-generation immigrants, either, for the same reasons. The reality is that immigrants and expats do share the same psychological challenges even with undoublty different economic and cultural backgrounds. The alleged difference between the second-generation kids and the TCKs related to the limited time spent in a third country does not include the thousands of TCKs who do spend most of their young lives (and sometimes beyond) in the same host country, still being TCKs and still sharing the same feelings with their less fortunate second-generation peers.


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