The Missionary Kid (MK) Experience III

In this series of blogs, we are exploring the experience of third culture kids, particularly children of missionaries or MKs. From the interviews done among MKs, the main emerging themes were:

  • Cultural Confusion
  • Self-esteem
  • Transitions and Adjustments
  • Identity and Belonging

Transitions and Adjustments

The life of an MK entails frequent transitions. This could be between their country of residence and country of passport, or even from one country to another as their parents relocate mission fields. These transitions represent the beginning of something new and unknown and are challenging at any age. They come with a sense of loss and grief for what you are leaving behind which is old and familiar and can lead to the accumulation of unresolved grief (Rauwerda, 2012). When MKs leave the mission field for good with their parents or for higher studies, they pack up everything they own and say goodbye to the people in their lives, not knowing if they will ever see them again.

With every move, the MK has to possibly learn a new language and relearn cultural norms and expectations, in addition to adapting to a new geographical location (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).

There was definitely a culture shock of going from a rural place into a more urban environment. Adjusting to the different norms and behaviors were also part of the process of self-development and character building“- Rohit, adult MK


Global Nomads

MKs are adjusting to two, sometimes three cultures upon repatriation. This can be a period of high stress and confusion. They learn to adapt to their surroundings quite quickly. MKs can be termed ‘hidden immigrants’ or ‘global nomads’ who battle with questions such as What is home? How Australian am I? Where am I from? Where do I belong?. On the outside, they may look like they belong in that culture/community but they think differently from it.

I left the mission field after completing high school. Reintegrating into mainstream (specifically Australian) society was definitely an interesting challenge…deciphering what people were saying as well as things that normal kids have to learn about like taxes. I did have a pretty tough time relating with everyone else who hasn’t grown up the way I have“- Charlie (adult MK)


Adaptation Responses

The book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds describes different ways in which TCKs may respond to the process of adapting to a new cultural environment:

The Chameleon – They try hard to assimilate to their passport culture and find a ‘same as’ identity. They may hide the fact that they have lived abroad and try to conform externally.

I don’t remember much because I was quite young. (The transition) made me a chameleon, and I just tried to blend into every setting I was in, and got good at it“- Rita, adult MK

The Screamer – They try to find a ‘different from’ identity by making it a point to let others know that they are different.

The Wallflower – They find a ‘non-identity’ and sit on the sidelines, quietly watching rather than taking the risk of being exposed.


Coping with Transitions

Each missionary kid is unique, and their needs may vary. A few things that can be considered to support MKs coping with these transitions include:

Promoting stability

Amidst changing environments, fostering stability in family and community relationships and maintaining a strong family unit can serve as a consistent source of comfort and security. “Once you are in a new place, find a church or other community that will support you and provide you with stability. Since I grew up around churches, there is a familiar comfort that made change much more bearable“- Charlie (adult MK)

Building a supportive community

Encourage the formation of strong relationships within the missionary community. Having friends who understand the challenges and share similar experiences can provide a sense of belonging and support. “I went to a missionary school in Year  8, so I was surrounded by other MKs which is why the culture shock wasn’t much, we all shared the same worldview and very similar experiences“- Ana (adult MK)

Encouraging open communication

Many of the MKs who were interviewed did not have safe spaces within which they could express and make sense of what they were experiencing. Give them enough space to express their feelings and concerns about transitions. Creating a safe space for dialogue can help them process their emotions and gain perspective. “I’d just put on a happy phase during the adjustment process and not verbalize the struggles of change because I thought it was normal.”- Ana

Considering connecting with a culturally sensitive mental health practitioner

During these periods of change, having access to counselling services can be beneficial. This may provide MKs with a safe space to express emotions, build resilience, encourage flexibility and develop coping for the unique challenges they face.

Finally, as one of the MKs beautifully put it “Take life one step at a time. I know it sounds super cliche but it’s true


Part I and II of this series and other blogs can be found here.

If you would like to connect with one of our psychologists, you can find more details here.



Pollock, D., & Van Reken, R. (2001). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey.

Rauwerda, A. M. (2012). The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc Publishers.

The Missionary Kid Experience II

In our previous blog in this series, we explored the experience of third culture kids or TCKs, particularly children of missionaries. From the interviews done among missionary kids, the main emerging themes were:

  • Cultural Confusion
  • Self-esteem
  • Transitions and Adjustments
  • Identity and Belonging


Self Esteem

The identity crisis that TCKS may have with regard to their sense of self can impact their self-esteem. High mobility and cross-cultural development can create a sense of rootlessness in these children. This makes it challenging for them to develop their identity, particularly in adolescence (Pollock, Van Reken, & Gould, 2001). When they cannot identify with a particular culture, they may experience insecurities or face certain setbacks in their development. This difficulty in identity formation can lead to problems of self-esteem and self-worth (Collier & Petty, 2006).

Additionally, TCKs can often find themselves being ‘different’ due to their multicultural background. This could set them apart from the norm and lead to a sense of discomfort and low self-esteem.

When I moved from the mission field to an international boarding school, I was surrounded by some of the richest kids in the country. I faced challenges with my self-esteem because I had misplaced values. In middle school, I wanted to appear ‘cool’ like the rich kids. I faced self-esteem issues because I had placed my value in speaking as they did, wearing the same clothes they did and having the same connections“- Laura, 21 yrs

Laura’s journey resonates closely with my own, aligning with numerous sentiments expressed during the interview process. The ongoing reassessment of personal values, coupled with frequent comparisons to peers from diverse backgrounds, often gives rise to a pervasive sense of discontent. It requires a considerable amount of time to reconcile with the realization that one’s unique experiences have imparted valuable life lessons, intricately woven into the tapestry of being a Third Culture Kid (TCK)


Navigating self-esteem challenges

A question posed to the adults TCKs in the interviews was ‘What would you tell your younger third culture self?”. Some of the responses are helpful in understanding how these individuals coped with self-esteem challenges:

  • Your greatest insecurities will not stem from an insufficiency in material or social resources, but in your own self-limiting beliefs. So reflect on your weaknesses and insecurities, take responsibility for any mistakes and work on them.
  • This experience will give you a richness in terms of life experience. The things that make you different and ‘weird’ to other people can also be used for good. There are many people like you- make friends with those who appreciate your uniqueness (promoting self acceptance)

Having a flexible self-concept can prove to be a healthy and adaptive trait as it has been shaped by a diverse array of experiences and opportunities that afford a nuanced perspective on the world. Embrace it!


You can find Part 1 of this series and other blogs here.



Collier, A. M., & Petty, K. (2006). Characteristics and Repatriation Issues of Third Culture Kids: A Review of the Literature. Journal of College Orientation, Transition, and Retention14(1). Link here.

Pollock, D., & Van Reken, R. (2001). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey.

Pollock, D., Van Reken, R., & Gould, J. (2001). Always saying goodbye. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 6, 75-81

The Missionary Kid Experience

Missionary children, or “MKs,” as they are sometimes referred to, grow up in an international, highly intercultural environment. The journey of a missionary kid is distinctive and filled with a variety of unparalleled opportunities, challenges, and experiences. We will examine the lives of these “third culture kids” in this series of blogs, shedding light on their upbringing, unique experiences, struggles, identity, and mental health. Excerpts from interviews with people who grew up on mission fields will be included in these blogs (names have been changed to protect confidentiality) and redacted transcripts of these interviews will be provided with the upcoming blog posts for those who are interested.


Who is a TCK?

A Missionary Kid (MK) falls under the category of ‘Third Culture Kid’. This term is used to describe a person who has spent a significant part of their formative years outside their parents’ culture. According to the book ‘Third Culture Kids’ by Pollock and Van Reken, TCKs develop links with all of the cultures but do not fully identify with any of them.


A Truly Global Upbringing

The MK, raised in foreign countries, experiences exposure to diverse cultures, languages, and ways of life. Traveling between their home and host countries and growing up in a genuinely cross-cultural world can cultivate an appreciation for diversity, adaptability, and flexibility

Jonathan, 18yrs- “I recall being able to adjust in whatever situation I was put into (at least externally). I think a lot of that comes from constantly evolving circumstances and being accustomed to change.”

This global upbringing also involves frequent relocations, language barriers, and cultural adjustments. This might contribute to a sense of rootlessness, which we will explore in another blog. Rich diversity exists alongside the underlying dilemma of where one fits within that diversity.

Rachel, 25yrs- When we moved from one mission field to another, I needed quite a bit of time to adapt. Integrating what I had learned from the previous place and starting from scratch was difficult. I still find it difficult to identify one of these places as ‘home’.

Some of the themes that arose from the interviews were:

  • Cultural Confusion
  • Self-esteem
  • Transitions and Adjustments
  • Identity and Belonging


Cultural Confusion

Exposure to and the blending of various cultural norms, values, and expectations can result in cultural confusion. MKs often learn multiple languages and adapt to various communication styles. This can lead to challenges in identifying with a single language or communication pattern.

Sam, 24yrs- “As a five year old, I used to switch between 3 languages in different contexts- one with local friends, one with my parents, and one with my babysitter. I even recall switching languages within the same conversation, and sometimes still do that. It came so naturally to me but I did not identify with any of the three languages.”


Managing Cultural Confusion

There is no one-size-fits-all approach as each MK has their own unique experience but navigating this confusion may involve:

  • Embracing Uniqueness– Not everyone gets the opportunities MKs do. Embracing the diverse cultural backgrounds as a unique aspect of your identity can help you use it as a source of strength.
  • Self reflection– Engaging in introspection to understand and clarify your own values, beliefs, and cultural influences.
  • Cultivating flexibility– You might still be navigating various cultural contexts. Embracing a flexible mindset can enable you to adapt, welcoming change and uncertainty as opportunities for growth.
  • Seeking Support– Connecting with other TCKs who share similar experiences can provide a sense of validation and belonging.


This research article provides an in-depth understanding of adjustment within internationally mobile families.

You can find more Centre For Effective Serving blogs here.



Pollock, D. C., Van Reken, R. E., & Pollock, M. V. (2017). Third culture kids : growing up among worlds. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.