Ministering to Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids

The following is an article I researched and wrote a couple years ago … but was a little too specific on such a niche ministry area that the magazines I was submitting it to decided not to run it.  They liked it – but it didn’t have broad enough application, which I understand, but I was also disappointed by.  I’ve run it by other missionary kids who I knew from my days in South America, and the response was always the same – it described what they went through dead on.  So, rather than letting it collect dust on my hard drive … here it is!  Enjoy!


Graduating from high school, an event eagerly anticipated by most teenagers, was one of the single most traumatic and devastating nights of my life.  Looking back through my journals, I find now a repeated theme of dread and fear in the months building up to it.  For me, it marked the moment in time when I would say goodbye forever to the closest friendships and relationships I had ever known, and leave for a country I no longer knew or considered as home.  I was a missionary kid on the verge of retuning to my country of birth.

Third culture kids (TCK’s), whether the children of missionaries, military servicemen, or parents whose employment takes them abroad, lead lives of constant transition.  By the time I had finished high school, at the ripe old age of 17, I had had close to two dozen bedrooms, lived in four states, three countries and two continents.  Many of my friends at the boarding school for missionary kids which I attended had me beat on all counts, though.  Transition and instability is the constant companion for a TCK; frequent moves and transfers characterize life.  And even when settled into a home, the peer group is in constant flux as well; friends returning to their birth countries for furlough, being transferred to other bases and/or countries, and new arrivals every semester.  It is an intense lifestyle involving heavy travel, boarding schools, culture shock on a regular basis and a constant feeling of displacement and instability.  For me, it was a constant struggle of wondering where I belong.  My heart was tied to Bolivia, the country I considered home – and yet, I never truly felt at home there.  Towering a head above the natives with my sun bleached blonde hair and blue eyes, there was never any doubt I was different.  And yet, while the United States was the country of my citizenship, and home to my relatives, it was not my home.

To a lesser degree, many young people participating in short term mission trips, whether abroad or nationally, can experience some of what I am describing.  For most youth workers, interacting with students who have been briefly removed from their normal social context and immersed in another culture will be a more frequent experience.  Students can struggle with feelings of displacement and culture shock, regardless of the length of the trip.  My students from small town Maine struggled to process the transitions encountered during our trips to Uganda, thousands of miles away, and inner city Boston, only a few hours drive away.  The distance is not the key factor, it is being removed from their primary culture.    

Dr. Ruth Useem originally coined the phrase Third Culture Kid.[1]  While a common misconception, it does not refer to living in a third world nation.  Instead, it refers to the child’s perspective on the world.  The reasoning behind the name is as follows; a child’s first culture is the one in which they are born.  A child’s second culture is the one in which they grow up.  However, the end result is a blending of the two cultures, resulting in the child being unsure of who they are and where they are from.  Instead, their perspective on their surroundings and the world becomes a third culture – one unique to them and only truly understood by others with similar backgrounds.

For a TCK, the return to the United States at any stage is traumatic.  The rapidly evolving culture and society is often times confusing and overwhelming for people living in the USA.  For the returning TCK it can be far more so, to say the least.  While some would assume that a global nomad, as TCK’s often call themselves, would be used to adapting to new places it is a different situation all together to return to their country of birth.  When I lived in South America, people understood when I wasn’t familiar with local traditions, terminology, clothing styles, popular musicians, actors and so forth.  It was obvious that I was not from there, and so people were gracious and understanding.  My friends were quick to explain what was expected of me in different situations and forgiving when I unknowingly broke cultural taboos.  However, in America I look and sound like everyone else.  When I act differently or violate social norms, people just think I’m strange.  Some of my MK (missionary kid) friends would fake Latin American accents while in the United States because they actually found it easier to fit in and be accepted by their peers if they sounded like a foreigner.  Suddenly, instead of people reacting as though they are weird, they would patiently explain what was going on and why.

The most difficult transition of all, though, is the return to the country of birth after high school graduation.  And for most of these young people, they do it alone.  They have completed their high school studies and said goodbye to all they know in exchange for a completely new lifestyle.  Many TCK’s arrive in the United States to attend colleges they have never visited, live in towns they are unfamiliar with, and feel completely and utterly alone.  After all, most likely their parents are thousands of miles away with limited accessibility.  In addition, the reality is that while these young people have remarkable backgrounds, most Americans are not interested in hearing about them.  In fact, talking about experiences abroad usually results in the TCK being viewed as bragging.  In the end, most young people learn to keep their memories from abroad to themselves; their background is just too different for people to grasp.

This period of transition is usually characterized by self imposed isolation, withdrawal, exaggeration of problems, questions, fears, and grief.  Typically, it can take anywhere from a year to several years for a TCK to struggle through this transition.  It certainly took several years for me to process what I was feeling and to become willing to risk close friendships again.  In South America, I had attended a boarding school for missionary kids.  Not only did I attend all the same classes with my friends, but I lived with them as well.  My departure was overwhelming for me due to the pain of saying goodbye to people who had become closer than siblings that I would most likely never see again.  My classmates were literally from all over the world, and each of us were returning to our countries of origin.  After high school, I took a year off to work and save for college.  I virtually closed myself off from all those around me because I knew I was leaving in a year and it wasn’t worth the effort in my mind to make friends and then lose them again.  A journal entry from my first month in college reveals some of the anxiety I felt as I finally began reaching out.

I’ve been here a quarter of a semester and it seems like I only just arrived.  I dread leaving – I’ve already become friends with everyone.  It’s frustrating, and it scares me – even to the point of nightmares.  After over half a year of not dreaming of Tambo (my high school), I’ve woken up terrified from nightmares involving my close friends from there.  I don’t know why.  I do know that leaving Tambo was the single most devastating event of my life and after being a bit of a recluse for over a year, for fear of saying goodbye, I’m interacting with people close to my own age once again.  But I keep thinking how many will leave in just a few months.  

September 29th, 1994

My response to transition as a Third Culture Kid was not unusual.  While at the time I thought there was something wrong with me, many of my peers have described to me similar reactions.  However, growing up in a different culture is not a bad thing.  While difficult transition is a fact of life, there are many positive things that characterize most Third Culture Kids[2]:

  • TCK’s tend to be politically astute.  They are interested in national and global events, and actively keep track of the news.  They often times are aware of the issues and both sides of the debates.
  • TCK’s usually speak more than one language.  It is not unusual for them to know three or four languages, often times better than they let on.
  • They are much more comfortable communicating with adults than the average American teenager.
  • They tend to possess greater maturity in social skills.  They are able to adapt well and notice details others might not. 
  • TCK’s possess global perspective.  They are able to understand the perspectives other nations have and relate them one to another.  As a result, they are usually less prejudiced than others their age.
  • They are achievers.  A far greater percentage of TCK’s go on to earn Bachelor degrees and advanced degrees than other groups.
  • Because of their own experiences of feeling different, they are much more likely to reach out and accept new people, especially those with different cultural backgrounds.

For a youth worker, the arrival of a Third Culture Kid presents unique challenges.  The temptation is to let his or her needs slide – after all, if they are home on furlough, they will be gone in a year anyway.  And if they have returned to attend college, then they aren’t really a part of the youth program to begin with, right?  However, these young people are an important responsibility for the church.  For the supporting and sending congregation, there is a significant connection and relationship.  The difficulties faced by these missionary kids are a direct result of the calling their parents received and the church partnered with them to achieve.  Part of that partnership should involve the congregation helping to meet the needs of returning missionary kids.  These needs cannot be met by their parents as a result of the realities of their calling.  While at first seemingly intimidating, in many ways a TCK has the same needs as any other adolescent.  They just happen to have a much more unique background.

One of the greatest ways a youth worker can help a Third Culture Kid in transition is to be a mentor.  It is important to have a trusted friend to go to with embarrassing questions who they know will not ridicule them regardless of how obvious the answer may seem to be.  Re-adapting to their country of birth can result in a wide variety of questions, ranging from dating issues, popular slang, and clothing styles, to questions about how to open a bank account, get a driver’s license, or apply for a job.

A vital need Third Culture Kids have of their mentors is intervention.  If they are breaking social taboos, committing faux pas, appearing to be rude or abnormal, then intervene!  When I lived in South America, the locals were quick to alert me when my comments or gestures were offensive or ridiculous.  They understood that I did not know waving to someone in a certain way implied they were a dog, or calling someone a certain nickname was horribly offensive.  Their intervention saved me much future embarrassment.  And yet, the response was often times different in America.  The assumption, based on the fact that I looked and sounded like most Americans, was that I was knowingly breaking taboos!  When actually, my desire was to simply fit in!  It is perfectly okay, and very much appreciated, to pull aside a TCK and let them know what the appropriate social expectations are.  A Third Culture Kid at times will need to be taught how to interpret others’ behavior signals, and what the correct or expected response is. 

For the TCK’s entering college, a mentor should help them connect with other Third Culture Kids.  Many colleges have recognized that students with such a unique background need special attention which most effectively comes from other students with similar backgrounds.  Christian colleges in particular have been very effective in forming such groups.  Nevertheless, most arriving students have no idea such support networks exist and need guidance on how to seek them out.  The most likely way to find such a group would be through the office of the dean of students.

Part of the mentor’s role is to simply listen.  Most Americans merely want the answer, “it was great!” to the question “what was it like growing up in a third world country?”  Anything more, and they quickly become bored.  Yet these young people are going through a grieving process that necessitates talking about what they have left behind and the impact it has had on their lives.  Their need to share is not some attempt to show off and brag about their globe trotting lifestyle, it is in fact a desperate need for people to understand who they are.  The involved mentor gives these struggling students the opportunity to tell their story and seeks to recognize the impact it has had on their lives.  Ask questions.  Push for depth.  Explore the feelings these memories evoke.  Prove to them that you are not like others, but that you do in fact want to know who they are.

For the young person who has participated on a short term trip, adult intervention is needed as well.  The distance of the trip is not important; experiencing another culture is a shocking transition regardless of whether it is a primitive tribe in the jungles of South America, or rural Appalachia.  For many, the toughest aspect is not the trip itself, but the return to normalcy afterwards.  Their mind is still reeling from the new experiences, memories, and perspective that result from being removed from their cultural context.  They need guidance in processing what they have experienced and in integrating this new level of understanding to their everyday life.  While not as intense a transition as what a Third Culture Kid goes through, it is still a challenging time none the less, a time in which a mentor’s assistance is critical.  It will most likely take several months to process what they have experienced, and even so, their perspective on their nation and world will be forever impacted.

Most importantly, a Third Culture Kid needs spiritual guidance.  Regardless of whether they are a military kid, a TCK because of their parent’s work, or a missionary kid, their spiritual needs have to be addressed.  If they are being met during this time of transition and crisis, they will be much better equipped to endure and press on during the long months of adaptation.  Do not assume a missionary kid a spiritual giant; for many, they are simply along for the ride on their parents’ calling.  Give them the resources they need, and challenge them to become the young men and women God has called them to be.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)


Raising Resilient MKs; Joyce M. Bowers, Editor; 1998, published by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), Colorado Springs, CO


[2] “Third Culture Kids,” article by Lesley Lewis,

32 thoughts on “Ministering to Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids

  1. WOw Matt, Ironically I was jsut in a conversation with some others on this very same topic on SUnday. I am putting together a retreat for full time christian workers (missionaries/pastors) in which they will be able to jsut come and rest. ( We were talking about where the various "guests" might be at when they arrive on June 1. And one of those places was possible struggling with guilt over raising TCK's and the impact the call on their life has had on their children. Fascinating to read this. Is there anyway to get a printable copy of this for me to share with the rest of my team. I think tis will be really insightful for us all as we prepare a place for some tired and weary laborers.


  2. Hi Matt. My name is Charis. Like you, I was an MK in Bolivia (and other places, but mostly Bolivia). Although I lived in La Paz as a kid, many of the kids from our mission attended Tambo too and I've been there myself.

    You ARE dead on in your article and I've come across a lot of people who grew up like we did and have the exact same perceptions and complaints (I went to ACS in La Paz – most of my friends were embassy or military kids too).

    I struggled with this issue my entire life and made a great many mistakes along the way. I never really have felt I'm American and not really Bolivian but somewhere along the way deciding where to live and where I feel best became my own choice and no longer an obligation (when you're tagging along on your parent's trips you feel you have no control over the situation) – when young it felt more like a sentence.

    I think it helped a lot in my adjustment that I did NOT go to Tambo. My mom was really pressured by other missionary families to send me there, but she decided it would probably cause more trauma than I already felt and I'm extremely thankful that I wasn't sent there. Still, I was always sort of the odd one at any other school I attended (a total of 8 altogether).

    Back in the US I never had any support either. I was one of those people who graduated, like you, at 17 and left my family and closest friends thousands of miles away to go to college in a completely (foreign) country to me. I was basically forced to grow up.

    Years later, during college days, when I attempted to bring these points of view (the same ones you've just expressed) to the board of my parent's mission (as well as some suggestions as to what MKs need, some the same as yours) I was boo-hooed and received an AWFUL 10 page letter from the mission director who basically told me I was ungrateful and faithless and by the way, the only MK that feels these things. In other words, I was told my feelings were un-Christian and not an important issue among MKs and how dare I say such things. I think I never fully recovered from that.

    One of the things that helped me A LOT and probably made my adjustment a little easier was the fact that my mom was especially attentive to ensuring I always saw the beauty and greatness in people, no matter what religion they are from, or what country or race. Although mission life was difficult and demanding for me (you know, everyone always expects you to grow up to be a missionary too) it helped that she really supported some of my own interests, especially photography.

    She made sure I understood that I was FORTUNATE to have the opportunity to live overseas, and she made sure I knew I could have any profession I wanted when I grew up. Basically, she helped me to enjoy myself despite the pain and pay attention to details around me, to feel lucky to be given the chance to travel and learn about new cultures. It didn't solve the problem, but it helped.

    Eventually Matt I came to the conclusion that I am lucky NOT to be close-minded and devoid of interest in the world. I feel grateful now that I grew up as I did and can even see how the suffering made me a stronger, more independent and self-reliant person. I'm beginning to see that even through all of that God had a plan for the pain.

    Today I relish being multi-cultured and I WANT my child to grow up to have the international opportunities and experiences I did. I consider it an asset. The difference is, because I already went through the moves and transitions and changing homes and friends, I can give him the best of both. A great international view of life and an open mind, and the correct support and guidance.

    Our parents come from a generation that wasn't as open as ours is. Even the technology we have today (see your blog) makes us a much more open generation – open to global perspectives, open and accepting of others, open to new points of view, open to trying new things, open open open. It's now our turn and probably our responsibility in some way to be the FIRST to help our kids (the next generation) cope with being global and
    actually enjoy and relish it!

    I now live in Bolivia again. I came back on my own in 1997, spent 7 years here, then went back to the US for three years, and have returned again this year. My moves are now my decision and the consequences are my consequences and what I learn from it depends on me and whether or not I use my past to strengthen my future depends on me too.

    I have a website called I live in Santa Cruz. I've used my experience to start my own business (in 1998) and the website recently as well. I'm working actively on seeing the positive all around me. Maybe I love and promote Bolivia so much, and emphasize the positive aspects of this country so much because it seems like such an "underdog" country and I know what it's like to be an underdog – you just wanna go save the poor thing like you wish someone would have done for you when you were misunderstood…

    I have a section on my site about churches and missionaries. I'd love to publish your article on it. May I have your permission?



  3. Charis – thank you for sharing your story! I know where you're coming from. There was a lot of peer pressure regarding sending kids off to boarding school; I think some of those attitudes are changing with the newer generation of missionaries, but it doesn't change that it happened. Good for your parents for resisting and sticking with their convictions on the issue!

    I love Bolivia and want to return some day – I can't believe it's been almost fifteen years since I left. It's crazy how fast time goes by! You can certainly include my article on your website; just include a link to my site or this post or something like that. Thanks for asking!


  4. Hey,
    Thank you sooo much for putting this on the web… Again, I am another person who feels really hit by it. I am an mk who is still on the field. I am aussie/ british but when ever I return to those "home" countries its pointless because they tell me I am really american… because all my friends are "americans" but they aren't really american cultured because they are tcks…
    So, my life is kind of mixed up… I am moving again in eight days, and I don't know to which country yet…
    But thank you so much for putting it here… its really great! I wish the pastors at our home churches could read this so they knew how we feel. We go "home", and they expect us to be little holy things and stand up and give lovely holy speeches to the people. What they don't get is that we are just kids… and yes maybe our relationships with the Lord are unusual for our ages but it doesn't make us like our parents….
    Anyways… it hits the spot for me, so THANK YOU!


  5. Dear Matt,
    I just stumbled on this your article and it really fascinated me. I have been an African Missionary in Africa all my life until 2005 when I had to bring the children to join my wife here in the States to start as full time Missionary to the United States. I am currently tendering a young Church Plant in a City in Southern California and I am excited about it. I registered for an online graduate course in Psychology and I needed an article on Tests and Measurement. I needed to write a paper on measuring a particular Construct and I decided to work on Adaptation ability of the MKs. (Your article has made me change it to TCK). You seem to have given me more than I needed on this. Thanks and may the Lord bless you. I have a 23 year old (just joined us from Africa this last April), a 17 year old daughter and a 10 year baby boy who came with me to join Janet in 2005. I took a lot for granted about their ability to adapt to this third culture. I hope to speak more to you on this for personal help on how to help them.


  6. Revd. Elias Yinka Eniade – thanks for your feedback! I'm glad you could use the article! Sometimes kids don't realize they're having a difficult time until they are returning to their home culture, sometimes it's sooner, and sometimes not at all. That's great that you are serving in California! I hope that your ministry is a blessing!


  7. Hi Matt, thank you so much for writing this article. It is an accurate portrayal of the struggles of MK's and TCK's. I grew up in the Philippines, and I'm both English and American, and rather confused. I just started my own private practice as a licensed therapist in Orange County, CA, hoping to attract TCK clients, but unsure how to reach out to them. I've done a lot of my own work to deal with my issues relating to being a TCK, and feel ready to help others experiencing the same thing. If you have any thoughts about how to reach out to them, please let me know.


  8. I want to respond to Anita since I live in Orange County. If you ever want to e-mail with an older former MK/TCK, I would be happy to correspond with you.



  9. Hi,
    I've just read through this article… I'm working in Britain, and my mission has become concerned about the 'issues' surrounding MKs. I too am an MK, from Africa, and so may begin to work with my mission to start an outreach to our MKs… I'm especially interested in helping MKs/TCK's realize what a gift it is to be a TCK, and how God can use it in mighty ways.

    I was wondering if I could use your article, but put 'Britain' in place of 'America', and send it to my mission – with your name and website attached and acknowledging any changes … it'll just help to make it more applicable to the UK situation… No prob if I can't… but thought I'd ask. 🙂

    Thanks for writing up the article… It is quite true of what many MKs go through… Of course there are variations with all of us, but the general experience seems to be similar among all of us.

    Many blessings to you…


  10. Hi Matt! I am currently seeing a guy who happens to be a TCK. I knew that he lived overseas with family missionary work for most of his childhood, but I was not aware that a "condition" existed such as this.
    Many of his ideas and thoughts are indecisive, and he has an adventurous outlook on life like you said that many TCK's are familiar with.
    But, he is unique and his uniqueness is what I fell in love with.
    He approached me recently to tell me that he found information on "himself". He was not aware, either, that there was such a condition as being a "Third Culture Kid".
    Many times I had trouble understanding him and his views, although I try my best to grasp his thoughts. Now I can better understand his personality, and why he thinks the things that he does.
    I have been doing some research to better understand him, and your article is very informative, and it is great to receive some firsthand accounts of being a TCK. Thanks!


  11. Hi Matt!!! I'm an MK in the Philippines and I found ur website on google..I had typed in Missionary Kids and ur site came up!!! and the cool thing about seeing ur site was I WATCHED YOU ON BIGGEST LOOSER!! yeah over here in the Philippines!!! I would stay up real late watching it!!! Anyway YOUR article was awesome!! I have been here since I was 6…I love the PHILIPPINES sooo much next year I will be going to schOOl i dread it because I hate CHANGE…but your article was so awesOme!! Thanks!!!!!


  12. Stumbled upon your article and really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for putting this out there for others to read. It's important for others to know and think about the kids of missionaries and their struggles. My husband and I serve at boarding school in Germany that is primarily for MK's. We love it and love MK's! Many blessings…


  13. Thanks so much for all the comments! I'm so thankful for all the feedback! : ) Being a missionary kid is a special gift in many ways, but there are so many unique challenges that go along with it!


  14. I'm so thankful to have read your article. I am doing a research for causes why many MKs are under achievers when it comes to education, and I got lots of information from it.


  15. Matt: I've put a link to your page here (and on the two subsequent pages) where I've posted a 3-section article on 20 THINGS PARENTS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MOVING INTERNATIONALLY WITH THEIR KIDS and how to help them through transition. Sort a TCK-pointers-for-parents thing.

    Maybe it'll help parents take note (mission administrators too). I was just talking to some ladies from a US baptist mission here in Bolivia a couple of days ago and they told me their mission had just now (2009) decided to provide their outgoing missionary families some culture transition coaching.

    (Well, it IS the 21st century after all). Guess we're finally getting through to some of them 😉
    Saludos desde tu querida Bolivia


  16. Hey Matt – ironically, my husband and I are about to make mk's and tck's out of our kids by moving to Cbba, Bolivia. I've been doing research on how to help them transition and have been reading Third Culture Kids. I was looking for a book to actually read TO them that will help prep them for the major life transition. Haven't found anything yet that is written directly for the kids. Can you recommend anything? They are 3 boys: 12 (13 in May), 11, and 9 (10 in July) and one girl: 4. We are moving in just a few weeks (once we can figure out the crazy visa process…).


  17. Hey, Matt, I go to BVBC but I don't think we've ever actually met :). Didn't know you're an MK, I'm an MK from Argentina. Love your article and it's spot on.


  18. Dear Matt,

    What a great post! I am director of a ministry that provides inexpensive housing, educational guidance, friendship, social support, etc. for MKs returning to live in the US. Compass House is a division of D & D Missionary Homes and is located in St. Petersburg, FL. I am constantly trying to educate US churches and Christians as to the need for such a ministry, as I raise support to fund Compass House. Would it be ok for me to post your blog entry on the facebook page for Compass House, and to quote you as I try to raise funds for this ministry?

    In His Service with you,

    Cindy Duff

    Director of Compass Ministries


  19. @Matthew McNutt

    Dear Matt,

    I posted a link to your article on the Facebook group page for Compass House. Below is the link to that group on FB. It is an open group, so if you want to know about what is happening at Compass House, feel free to join the group. Once a person joins, they will find an information sheet, and an application for housing at Compass House.

    In His Service with you,

    Cindy Duff


  20. Hey Matt!

    What a amazing post! My wife and I are looking to get involved in supporting MKs and this was such a well written account of what we hear over and over again.

    Do you mind if I post your blog post on our website/facebook and print a few copies to give to some churches?



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