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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.