The Challenges of Growing Up in Two Worlds


Growing up as a missionary kid, I felt more “at home” in my host country than I did in my passport country. I didn’t sense any tension about this until my adolescent years. During our visits to the States, I was introduced as the kid from Italy; when I hung out with my Italian friends, I was introduced as the American kid. I began to wonder, “Which was it? Where did I truly belong?”

My experience is common, certainly among Third-Culture Kids (TCKs). I also recognize that questions about identity are common to most adolescents. But TCKs do face a few unique challenges. (For an article on the unique blessings of growing up as a TCK, click here.)

The Challenge of Establishing a Sense of Belonging

During one of our stateside visits, I went to an American middle school for a day—just for the experience. All I remember from that day is feeling completely out of place. I didn’t understand the rhythms, the lingo, the non-verbal communication. I was lost.

Every kid wants to like what their friends like and do what their friends do, but I felt like an outsider. After spending the most formative years of my life immersed in several different cultures, I struggled to find a sense of belonging to any one culture.

How do we work against this challenge? First, identify it. Once it’s identified, the TCK should seek to establish a sense of belonging in other, more stable aspects of his or her life. For example, TCKs should make sure the family is a happy, healthy subculture where every member feels an innate and abiding sense of belonging.

But that’s not all. TCKs should also enjoy a sense of belonging through their local church. In the truest sense, the people within that community are tied to each other by bonds that are stronger than cultural similarities. Regularly gathering with believers from all sorts of places will stabilize a TCK’s shifting sense of belonging.

The Challenge of Establishing Long-Term Relationships

A second challenge is the lack of long-term, meaningful relationships. This difficulty persisted for several reasons. First, the cultural barriers I mentioned above make deep friendships hard to start and even harder to keep. There were simply aspects of both my American and Italian friends that I just didn’t understand. Second, we changed schools and moved a lot.

The constant movement between cultures forces us to learn how to make friends fast. But we rarely expect the relationship to go much beyond the superficial. After all, we know that we may move away again. So it’s just simpler to enjoy the friendship however long it lasts.

How do we work against this challenge? First, TCKs can learn to affirm the goodness of every friendship—long or short, deep or superficial. At the same time, we shouldn’t grow weary in seeking deeper, more life-giving relationships. Again, one natural place for this to occur is within a local church.

The Challenge of Self-Isolation

These first two challenges can lead to a third challenge: self-isolation. Some TCKs react to their constantly shifting worlds by turning inward. This temptation is understandable. It’s exhausting to constantly evaluate your relationship to your surroundings and your revolving door of friendships. TCKs can feel whiplash as they’re jostled between two cultures. Over time, they may sense a growing detachment from both cultures and begin to observe them from the outside looking in. They feel like they are supposed to belong, but they also feel isolated and cut off.

Of course, self-isolation is never healthy. As bearers of the image of God, we are not meant to live alone but in relationship with our God and our fellow image bearers. TCKs who feel this challenge need to be reminded of the consequences. Avoidance and detachment don’t lead to assimilation and fruitfulness but more alienation. Leaning into difficult relationships won’t always be easy, but patiently pursuing your culture and the people in it will yield a rich harvest.

Many Challenges, One Savior

Personally, when I’ve faced the challenges of my upbringing, I simply consider the life of my Lord Jesus Christ. Hebrews 4:15 reminds me that he understands the experience of our weakness. He sympathizes with our isolation, loneliness, and alienation. He came into the world he created, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to his own people, but they did not receive him (John 1:10–11). In other words, he knows what it feels like, so we can go to him. He cares for us.

Growing up as a TCK has its challenges. Nonetheless, I take comfort knowing that I can look to a great Savior who invites us to find our home in him.

Nate Brock

Nate serves Reaching & Teaching as Training Facilitator for Europe. Nate grew up on the mission field in Northern Italy and currently lives in Louisville, KY, with his wife Rachel, and their four children. He is a graduate of Clarks Summit University as well as The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M. Div. in Christian Ministry). Prior to his role with Reaching & Teaching, Nate served as a pastor in Indianapolis, IN.

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