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 serval 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 have 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 sometimes feel like something is missing. 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 is 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

Further exacerbating the problem, some 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, IMs and the like are unfortunately not an adequate substitute for regular face-to-face contact IRL.

It seems rather 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 <;

The Nomadic Child – Cheryl Achieng Okuthe

With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that growing up in multiple cities and countries and thus being exposed to numerous cultures has equipped me with the capacity to thrive in changing circumstances in spite of the negative effects that are often associated with being raised in such a manner. One of the main consequences of constantly having to relocate as a child is not having full control over the events and experiences in your life. As simple as it may appear, learning to cope in an environment that frequently changes is a challenge for a substantial number of people and there are some who spend their entire lives trying to learn how to adjust to that situation.

During my childhood, I can’t ever recall living in one city for more than three years at a time prior to university. My parents, being academics, transferred back and forth between different universities. When I was much younger there was a thrill to the constant movement, it felt like a permanent family vacation or perpetual family adventure. Aside from acquiring the coping skills that enabled me to handle the constant change, I also developed an inherent desire for continuous change. After living in one place for a few months or a couple of years, I found myself yearning for the next adventure. This hunger for constant change is also said to be one of the many things afflicting Generation Y which is as a consequence of the expanding technological age. This generation was and continues to be  exposed to new dynamics, which is exhilarating but has also had an addictive side effect.

There weren’t any residual consequences to this way of life until the last couple of years of my primary schooling when my family and I relocated and I had to leave my first close-knit group of friends. At this point in my life I had begun to establish a homestead so when I was suddenly uprooted from the comfort of finally getting settled, it was quite traumatic.

These events had a huge impact on future social interactions with my peers. I was unwilling to interact with other children and found myself spending more and more time at home with my parents. There were even times when my teachers showed serious concern. From that point on I began to perfect the art of assimilation; a performance of sorts that I used often because I needed to immerse myself in the culture of the new town or community I entered. However, the relationships and friendships I developed with other people were superficial. I felt as though I were playing a role, smiling and showing concern on cue. As a result, I found my capacity to empathise beginning to fade. I had never been given the opportunity to engage with people on a deeper level. A lot of people, in situations they consider stressful, find ways to detach themselves from those situations. This was mine.

As I entered the later stages of my adolescence, maintaining these superficial friendships began to take its toll. Not only was it exhausting, it became irritating. Getting to know new people over and over again also became burdensome. I often thought, ‘what for? I’m going to be leaving soon anyway.’ Never fully being myself soon spawned feelings of resentment, not only towards my parents, but towards myself and other people. I felt isolated and alone despite the fact that this isolation was primarily my own doing.

As I grew older, those around me began to catch on to my ‘façade’ and registered the superficiality of my interactions with them. I soon stopped socialising all together as the aim of the assimilation was rendered obsolete. I found myself experiencing strong feelings of depression or anger. Nevertheless, my isolation led me to develop a sense of self-awareness and independence. Of course, as a teenage girl I experienced the inevitable self-esteem issues but I came to appreciate the strong personality traits and resilience I had developed. Playing a role for most of my young life allowed to me to simply sit back and observe the behaviour of others. I was the Sir Attenborough of sorts in people’s everyday lives. I soon learned to trust my judgment and my instincts.

I’ve often wondered whether a person could still suffer from an identity crisis even though they have a reasonable sense of self-awareness. When I was younger I had difficulty establishing my cultural identity. I had always considered myself Kenyan but the amalgamation of so-called ‘Western practices or beliefs’ with traditional African values had a significant influence in shaping my own cultural identity. This is something that a lot young Africans experience nowadays but since I had a largely Christian upbringing, the conflict that arises between these two cultures has never really impacted me to the extent that it has other African youths. Undoubtedly, this was one of the reasons why my self-awareness, independence and cultural identity were formed very easily.

After the bouts of loneliness I experienced during my adolescence, I found a few people I could relate to within the vast, diverse student population of my university. Finding common experiences amongst some of my fellow students liberated me from my self-imposed isolation. Although I revelled in the feeling of uniqueness, finding people who could relate to me was worth so much more.

Frequently moving from country to country and city to city was extremely stressful and negatively impacted how I chose to interact with people around me. But there were many benefits to having this kind of childhood as well. I experienced a great sense of global identification, developed an appreciation for the different cultures I’ve been exposed to and was able to immerse myself in them without losing grips on my own culture. I have also established a strong awareness of my unique cultural identity which is a great source of pride for me. There is a lot of truth in the saying that you are shaped by the moments and milestones of your life and the same applies to me. There is no denying that my childhood was tremulous but it moulded me into a resilient and well-rounded person. Looking back, I believe that I coped reasonably well despite the ups and downs I went through during my adolescence, the most pivotal period in my life so far. I cannot say that without all the experiences that I have gone through I would be the person I am today.