TCK Characteristics

The following information came from Sheryl O’Bryan, World Venture TCK Care & Education, at an MK Joint Consultation April 2016.


The life of a TCK generally involves a lot of international traveling. As a result they develop a competency in travel and dealing with the unexpected. They become flexible and adaptable. The many experiences that they have develop extensive memory and relationship banks. They become very familiar with the urgency of the stable moment because there are fewer and fewer of these in their lives and they develop an attitude of “Seize the day” so that they make the most of what is happening. They also have developed heightened anxiety, coupled with hyper vigilance, resulting in a responsibility of control. They have become very geographically rootless, being rooted in people rather than places. They have a strong migratory instinct, with a desire for change. They have difficulty planning their future, wanting to take advantage of all that comes their way. Their families have increased the time spent in the passport country/countries which has lead to less of an attachment to the passport country. Because they have spent more time in the passport country they can now see the down side of that country. There are many more families doing short-term commitments in ministry, thus there are more hidden immigrants in the kids coming back to the passport country.

Expanded Worldview

With the experiences of living in another culture, it is a given that TCKs would have an expanded worldview. This starts as cognitive, but then leads to emotive and active. Adult caregivers need to understand this and help TCKs to understand it themselves. Oftentimes they have grown up in a less sheltered environment and they don’t always have the tools to cope with this. They may have difficulty engaging locally in the passport country due to reticence, hostility, arrogance, or thinking that familiarity could impede them in some way. They carry a burden for the underserved and so they might provide advocacy, but they often engage with distant people rather than those found around them in the passport country. They have multiple loyalties to different people and different communities. They have learned how to witness suffering, so they have developed a different view of suffering; it is more pure instead of shallow.


TCKs/MKs have witnessed a great deal of suffering, mostly in person, but also virtually through global connectivity. They distinguish between “Pure Suffering” and “Shallow Suffering” (a.k.a. First World problems like slow internet or electrical outage).

Cross-Cultural Skills

Most TCKs have a high cultural intelligence, especially if their cross-cultural skills were acquired developmentally. They can be good center-points between cultures. They are able to code switch (switching between one or more language, or language variety, in the context of a single conversation) without giving it any thought. They are less likely to prejudge except if it pertains to something in their passport country. They are usually linguistically adept. They have a heightened respect for authentic culture. They can be cultural educators for others. But, with all their cultural sensitivity to other cultures, they don’t apply this to their own passport culture(s).

Cultural Balance

TCKs come from families that tend to be more culturally blended. They have a global cultural collection — partial ownership in multiple cultures. They have multiple views of self and multiple thought processes. They value hidden diversity over surface aspects. They are more comfortable living internationally, in the “I don’t belong” world.


Among TCKs you will see a greater intentionality at multilingualism. Multilingualism is imperative, not just advantageous. Research has found that 45% of 14-21 year olds attend school in a language not spoken at home. For a TCK, to speak multiple languages is a status symbol (the more languages you speak the higher status you have). They tend to learn languages easily, but they can also confuse these languages easily. They have gaps in idioms and slang which may lead to accidental vulgarity. They are often good at non-verbals.


When TCKs think/speak about their relationships, they are contextualized by geography rather than time (they give examples of of “When I was in…(Rome, Singapore, Nairobi)” rather than “When I was…(two, in middle school, in summer school).” They will often define themselves as “not” something, focusing on what’s missing, thus categorizing themselves as “other,” which isolates them rather than being a means to join the group. They identify with what is absent…. when they are in Africa, they are from America… when in America… they are from Africa.

In TCK relationships there is a juxtaposition of guardedness and excessive vulnerability which results in not much gradual self-disclosure. They feel great pressure to explain themselves which leads to emotional exhaustion because of the risk of offending someone. They have little motivation to engage in a stable community because they feel that if they invest into a stable community then they’ll get trapped. They enter relationships differently than mono-culturals. They use a different discourse such as below.

TCKs enter relationships at a different level. The following information is from Libby Stephens at MKCC (MK Caregivers’ Consultation March 2012).


When a TCK is involved in the mono-cultural discourse as shown above, because of the time it takes to get to Step 3, they often feel lonely on a heart level.

TCKs also relate easier to those older or younger than themselves than with their peers in the passport country. They are more concerned with “Who are you from?” than with “Where are you from?” Family connections and where those people are from are important to them (my father is German and my mother is Swedish.) TCKs also tend to be much more family oriented than most of their peers, probably resulting from the fact that the family is what has remained stable through all of their transitions. When entering into new relationships they feel a great pressure to tell their story. This has the potential for being both emotionally exhausting for the TCK as well as risking offense in the listener who may perceive them to be bragging about their upbringing.

Leave Taking

More and more families are taking shorter terms overseas (furloughs every 2-3 years rather than every four years.) This is resulting in more transitions for their children. With more and more technology appearing in these families, there is a reduced perceived sense of loss which is resulting in a perception that there is less need to use transition tools to better facilitate a smooth transition (see Creating Smooth Transitions — RAFT.) TCKs are experiencing more trauma because of bad good-byes. This might be due to more abrupt endings (evacuations) or that they don’t have a felt need to do a good job of leave-taking. For some, there is more initial resistance to creating roots, whether geographic or relational, due to the many transitions they have made. Some have more unresolved grief in spite of the opportunities available for better closure.

TCK Specific Findings

There are more short-term service opportunities for missionaries leading to more transition for families and kids. Technology has reduced the perception of the need to do good closure (RAFT from Dave Pollock). This has lead to more trauma, bad good-byes due to the traumas and unresolved grief (part of the original TCK profile). While TCKs may be more informed about opportunities for closure, they are not utilizing those opportunities. TCKs expect to experience grief and loss, almost like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

For more information: TCK Advantages/Challenges

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