You Are Not Alone: The Power of Shared Experiences

By Tanya Crossman

Growing up in a business family, attending six schools as we moved four times through three cities on two continents,  I didn’t know there was such a thing as a “third  culture kid.” I felt the stress of acculturation,  re-entry, and the grief of lost relationships  without having words for these experiences. I  assumed I just didn’t fit in, couldn’t cope with life  as well as others did.  

I learned the term TCK when I was twenty-three,  volunteering with a youth group in China. Two  years later I realised this term applied to me,  too—this vocabulary explained my struggles. It  was a relief to learn I wasn’t just a person who  “couldn’t cope,” but that mine were common,  understandable reactions shared by many others  who experience childhood mobility. In my thirties I became a researcher, collecting  the stories and experiences of TCKs from  around the world, sharing their perspectives and  giving voice to their thoughts.1 Now, at forty, I  am delving even deeper into TCK experiences  that have not been brought to light before.  Together with my colleagues at TCK Training, I am  researching the risks of TCK life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are a way of understanding the risks of certain childhood experiences and have been researched for decades. When more than three of ten specific experiences are present, the risk of negative physical, psychological, and behavioral health outcomes increases, often dramatically. In a  survey of 17,000 Americans, 12.5 percent were  at risk. Twenty-one percent of the 1,904 TCKs  we surveyed were at the same risk—significantly  higher than the rate of Americans.2 One in  five TCKs had so many Adverse Childhood  Experiences they were considered at high risk of  negative outcomes in adulthood. One in three  TCKs who experienced extreme mobility were at  the same high risk, suggesting that mobility is in  itself a risk factor. 

There are many reasons we may convince  ourselves to downplay the risks of our globally  mobile childhoods. Many adult TCKs I’ve  interviewed over the past ten years have shared  with me the fear of failure they developed: the  pressure they feel to live up to high expectations.  Some even recognised their pain but did not  share it for fear of upsetting their loving parents.

Where prevention and protection  were absent, or inadequate, we  need restorative care.

Discussing the difficulties we experienced with people who were part of our support network—our parents, caregivers, and friends—can feel very risky. Childhood risks are in the past—why pile additional relational risk on top by addressing past fears now? Engaging with the deeper emotions swirling beneath the shiny exterior often feels like a no-win situation.

There are so many great things that come with  international life, but if we fail to discuss the  potential risks, we aren’t telling the whole story.  “High risk, high reward” still involves high risk.  And when there is high risk, there should be  high levels of protection and preventive care.  Where prevention and protection were absent, or  inadequate, we need restorative care.  

Here is one example from our research. Two  out of every five TCKs we surveyed indicated  they were emotionally neglected as children.3 We didn’t ask if they were neglected. We asked  if as children they felt they were not loved, not  special, not important, or that their family was  not close and supportive. If you felt that way as  a child, you are not alone. Thirty-nine percent  of adult TCKs felt the same way as children.  Lacking this emotional safety as a child is called  emotional neglect, because the deep need we all  have for emotional safety was not met. 

If you had twenty TCK friends growing up,  this research suggests that eight of them were  emotionally neglected—that their need for emotional safety was not met. Maybe you were
one of them. That’s a lot of kids in one group. It means that many TCKs may have considered a lack of emotional safety at home normal. “Maybe some people have that, but we shouldn’t expect it.” Maybe we don’t recognise emotional safety when we see it in another home because it’s a foreign concept to us.

If emotional safety is a foreign concept, if we can’t recognise it from our childhoods, how might that affect our romantic relationships as adults? How do we recognise an emotionally safe relationship when dating? How do we know we deserve to be emotionally safe in a relationship if we don’t see emotional safety as normal?

How might it affect our parenting? Even if we understand and want to provide emotional safety to our own kids, learning to do something that wasn’t modelled well in our homes or communities can be difficult.

Many TCKs may have considered  a lack of emotional safety at home  normal.

This is what happens when we tease out the  implications of just one of the Adverse Childhood  Experience findings from our research.  

Recognising the difficulties of TCK life  doesn’t mean we throw out everything. I can  acknowledge difficult things, uncomfortable  things, and terrible, horrible, no good, very bad  things—without letting go of beautiful things,  joyful things, and wondrous things. I can live  what Lauren Wells describes as “the ampersand  life” by embracing the reality of both.4  

What I really want you to know is this: you are  not alone. Your struggles, then and now, are not  because something is wrong with you. Many  people have been through what you have been  through—even if you haven’t heard those stories  yet. The idea of Adverse Childhood Experiences  and how they are interrelated with the third  culture kid experience may be brand new to  you—you are not alone there, either!

I was twenty-five when I realised that the term  “third culture kid” applied to me. I was thirty four and the author of a TCK book when I truly  internalised that I was a TCK—mostly because  Ruth van Reken herself told me to own it, and it’s  hard to argue with Aunty Ruth! (She is the co author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among  Worlds, Third Edition.)  

Maybe you, unlike me, grew up with the term  “TCK.” But when did you realise that there  were risks associated with TCK life? When  were you able to apply those risks to your own experience? When were you able to internalise  that knowledge? Maybe it hasn’t happened yet.  Maybe it is happening today.  

If so let me be your big sister or your Aunty  Tanya. Let me say to you: you can take this on  board and claim it as your experience. You don’t  need anyone else to justify it for you. You know  the difficulties you have faced, and you deserve  comfort and compassion as you process them.  There are those of us who have been there, who  understand, and who will stand with you. 

You are not alone. 

And you don’t have to go through it alone.  TCK Training has built a foundation of  research showing that others have shared your  experiences.5 We have developed tools for adult  TCKs to process these experiences.6 I particularly  recommend Lauren’s short book, Unstacking Your  Grief Tower. 

Acknowledging the risks we were exposed  to and the difficulties we experienced during  childhood can be painful. Integrating the  wonderful parts of our international lives with  the hard parts—especially when it was all a  result of decisions outside our control—can be  difficult. Processing brings peace, however, and  none of us journey alone. 

You are not alone.


1Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse  Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture  Kids 2022 white paper 
2Crossman, Tanya. Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing  Up Overseas in the 21st Century.  
3Research-Based TCK Care 101  
4Wells, Lauren. Unstacking Your Grief Tower: An interactive  guide to processing grief as an Adult Third Culture Kid. 
5TCK Training Research  
6TCK Training services for adult TCKs 

Tanya Crossman is the Director of Research and  Education Service at TCK Training, and author of  Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas  in the 21st Century. She grew up in Australia and  the US, then lived most of her adult life in China and  Cambodia. Tanya began working with TCKs in 2015  and since then has become an author, researcher, and  trainer focused on understanding and sharing TCK/ ATCK experiences and advocating for preventive  care to improve their long-term outcomes. Learn  more at or https://www. 

Instagram: misunderstoodtck Twitter: TanyaTck

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