TCKs and transitional trauma: exploring the causes of depression and anxiety in third culture kids

We all go through the occasional bouts of depression. Some people can be depressed for a couple of days, others for several months or even years at a time. Whether it be as a result of having experienced a death in the family, the loss of a job, mental disorder or a terrible accident that leaves you with both emotional and physical scars, depression is something that affects all people regardless of social status, race, background or age. Ordinarily, anxiety and depression can be linked to a specific incident or event that results in long lasting trauma. But sometimes one may suffer from depression for seemingly no reason at all.

In my research on what it means to be a third culture kid (TCK), I came across a Google search result entitled ‘tck depression’ which piqued my curiosity. This appears to be a popular subject in a great deal of the literature on the third culture kid phenomenon. It seems that the nomadic lifestyle of some TCKs during their childhood can cause mild to severe forms of depression in their late teens and early twenties. I was sceptical at first but after reading further and thinking back to my own experiences, these claims may not be completely unfounded.

Although the word ‘depression’ is used infrequently in many of the testimonies I’ve read what came through clearly was the fact that there is some unexplained sadness and/or anxiety underlying what could be a very rich experience of growing up in many different locations throughout one’s childhood. However, like most aspects of the TCK lifestyle, there is not, as yet, much scholarly attention given to this subject matter. There are very few formal research findings, precise statistics or in-depth studies on TCK depression but what has been documented is the fact that it is something that is not an uncommon occurrence for many TCKs.

Why are TCKs such a depressed lot?

First, for readers who don’t know what a TCK is, it’s a term referring to someone who has grown up outside their country of origin and develops a third cultural identity which is an amalgamation of their parent’s culture as well as the culture of the new places they reside in. A number of reasons have been advanced as to why TCKs seem to be susceptible to depression. I’ll explore a few below:

• The constant cycle of unacknowledged and unaddressed grief

One of the main suppositions advanced on the issue is that TCKs, particularly ones who moved very often growing up, constantly suffer loss. This mobility often comes with the sacrifice of opportunities to grieve the continual loss of friends, family, homes, schools, pets, hometowns etc. It also doesn’t help to be confronted with the sometimes mammoth task of trying to adapt to a new environment every so often. These compounded losses can eventually culminate in depression in adolescence and early adulthood. As you get older your subconscious forces you to recollect some of the experiences that your childhood mind could not fully comprehend and you become aware of all the ‘normal’ life experiences you missed out on. Such as, the ability to call one particular place in the world your home.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that this loss often goes unaddressed by TCKs themselves and their loved ones. The lack of attention given to the experience of TCK depression is primarily because the generic and overt triggers of depressive episodes such as a death in the family or some other traumatic event appear to be absent or not as apparent. The cause of depression in a TCK may not be so obvious unless linked to some other trauma they have experienced in their life. Therefore, the psychological effects of the highly mobile lifestyle of TCKs, which comes with a series of constant and abrupt losses receives very little attention and leads many TCKs to believe that their depression isn’t worth seeking help for.

• The desire for a sense of belonging

Another major source of depression for TCKs is their longing for a strong connection to a particular nation or culture. While most TCKs have the ability to adapt easily to different cultural and social settings and some are capable of developing a sense of identity linked to one particular country, many struggle with getting a solid grasp on their identity. It can sometimes feel as if a part of you is missing, a feeling that is often very hard to shake as you become more conscious of the differences between yourself and others. From my own personal experience, I’ve generally come to terms with the fact that I’m many different things, culturally, and none of them all at the same time but I there are times I don’t feel completely whole. Not being able to fill this void can be very disheartening and although it’s something that one can learn to live with, it could be source of sadness and despair without one realising it.

• The tension between the parental culture and the new culture

TCKs have a hybrid cultural identity that could be at odds with their parent’s cultural identity. This is particularly acute in instances where a parent puts pressure on his or her child to adhere, without question, to the cultural norms, beliefs and values of their country of origin but the family resides in a slightly more liberal environment. The resultant tension between the new cultural identity and the parental one can elicit two reactions – either pushing further away from the parent culture or pulling closer to it. In any case, the lack of acceptance of their unique cultural identity can make a TCK feel very alone in their struggle to develop their identity. It’s also difficult for some parents to empathise with the identity crisis that their TCKs might face. They may not understand why their children don’t accept their cultural values outright or don’t take to learning their language as they hope and may see this as a sign of defiance due to being “influenced” by Western values, as is the case for some TCKs of African descent.

This problem can become intensified where for instance, the TCK’s parents come from cultures where candidly expressing yourself or opening up about your feelings is not welcome. Moreover, the stigma attached to mental illness and depression may add to the difficulties of dealing with the problem as many African and apparently some Asian TCKs experience. It may also mean that your parents are more reluctant to acknowledge that you suffer from depression.

Growing up, there were times when I resented my parents for trying to ‘impose’ what I perceived to be repressive cultural values on me or for their failure to make enough effort to teach me their language or about their cultural practices. Although my parents were always willing to try and let my brother and I open up to them about what we were going through, I don’t believe they could ever truly empathise. Sometimes, I deliberately defied them by not learning their language or rejecting their culture as a means of punishing them for the monster they created and failing to be more accepting of the fact that I could never be like them. Now that I’m older and more comfortable with my identity, I don’t blame them for at least trying to pass on some parts of their cultural identity to their children. Plus, getting to know more about them and where they come from has allowed me to get closer to them.

Your ancestral culture will always remain a big part of your identity, even when you’ve grown up outside your country of origin, but it can clash with your own hybrid identity which you develop as you grow. The absence of a support system that enables a TCK to address their identity issues can lead to a very lonely existence which could further result in depression and anxiety.

• The difficulty of establishing meaningful relationships

Another difficulty facing many highly mobile TCKs is establishing genuine and solid friendships with their peers. TCKs often feel closest to those who share their childhood experiences. Therefore, some may struggle to maintain long-term friendships with people who do not necessarily relate to them in same way. Although a TCK may be highly sociable and make friends very easily, their friendships may be superficial or last for short periods of time if they’re constantly on the move. He or she could be surrounded by tons of friends but still feel very much alone in his or her struggle to develop a sense of identity. It may seem as if there is no point in maintaining close friendship ties if moving to a new city or country every so often is always on the cards. Social media has made it a lot easier for TCKs to keep in contact with old childhood friends but this may prevent them from seeking out genuine friendships with new people. Also, video calls, IM’ing and the like are unfortunately not an adequate substitute for regular face-to-face contact IRL.


It may seem strange that a person who has had the privilege of growing up in different towns, cities and countries would feel anything remotely close to depression as a result of it. The stigma that attaches to depression in our society may also make it difficult for anyone to truly understand why a person with seemingly no good reason to feel depressed suffers from this mental disorder. Moreover, it can mean that a lot of third culture teens and adults may not feel they have good enough reason to seek help for the anxiousness, prolonged sadness and despair they may feel. Any person who is suffering from depression deserves to be heard without judgment. More attention needs to be directed towards understanding why highly mobile children may experience anxiety and depression in adulthood and discovering the best possible ways to help them help themselves.


  1. Third Culture ‘Depression and TCKs’ (11 July 2015) <;
  2. Nina Sichel ‘The trouble with third culture kids’ (20 June 2014) Morning Zen <;
  3. Carol Lin ‘Dealing with depression as a TCK student’ (14 June 2011) Denizen <;

One thought on “TCKs and transitional trauma: exploring the causes of depression and anxiety in third culture kids

  1. Pingback: Thoughts On Being A Third Culture Kid – Letters & Thoughts

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