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The Teen's Guide to Grounded Cultural Identity

How to Stay True to Yourself and Your Diverse Cultural Perspective when Adapting to Familiar Environments

This month, I’m excited to introduce you to Dr. Constantina Kass, a licensed school psychologist who has been working with third culture kids adapting to life abroad and at home.

I met Dr. Kass at the TCK conference in D.C. in late February 2020 and was excited about her work with students, a topic about which I’m frequently asked. Dr. Kass is embarking upon a new program to develop cohort groups of teens to support their transition journeys - as they discover and solidify their identities and values while acclimating to new environments, which could be familiar in some significant ways like language and cultural norms but radically different in many others. This is a topic that we also discuss in our workshops and one-on-one sessions, so I wanted to bring in her expertise on this collaboration.


Today we’ll be discussing identity formation and adaptation. As you know, maintaining our identities as we grow even in something as mundane as a romantic relationship can be daunting. For expats and returnees, moving into new cultural contexts means understanding and adapting to these environments, a situation that can stunt identity development or result in such vast changes that navigating “home” can feel like a challenge.


Children who move from place to place are exposed to new, diverse contexts, often resulting in open-minds and a great deal of curiosity. This willingness to learn and adapt while a great strength can also impact our sense of self and identity as we grow. We may not see ourselves as belonging to any one place or group. Or we may consistently see ourselves as apart from other groups - the feeling of being an outsider or loneliness that we might be at a loss to explain.

For children and teens this developmental stage is particularly important, and even more complex for kids in new environments and cultures. As Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock put it in “Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds, ”TCKs often experience either early maturity or prolonged adolescence under the strains of environments where developmental tasks can be interrupted or expedited amid changing cultural rules."


Our identities are always evolving and different facets of our identity take center stage at different times in our lives as well as in varying scenarios. This is natural for all of us and in a cultural context is called “code-switching” - you have probably found yourself using different language with co-workers than with family, similar to teens using a different language at school than at home. TCKs may find themselves adjusting between many “channels” and perhaps finding that a challenge to rooting their identity. The question “Who am I” comes to mind when you are able to assimilate and adapt to various environments.

What can we do to support this critical stage of identity formation while supporting the many facets that identify our diverse personalities? A few options are below:

  1. Develop an identity map. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down your name in the center or however you’d like to identify yourself. Then start brainstorming identities that matter to you - continue to branch out and brainstorm until you create a word cloud or identity map- it might look something like this:

Use this identity map to tell yourself a story about a day - about the different identities you take on and roles you play as you move through your day. What binds these together? Are there any common themes?

Alternatively, circle identity clusters in your identity map - describe the ways in which you manifest that identity in your various homes - that could be at school, work, home, in a different country, etc. What is consistent amongst those manifestations? How important is this to your identity - is it a larger bubble or smaller bubble?

For example, as a scientist or engineer Owen may seek to understand how things work at home in the kitchen when helping his parents cook, while also asking a lot of questions at school that make him come off as a jokester who is trying to distract the teacher. He might try different games and experiment with new music as a musician. Throughout all of these runs the common thread of curiosity. This is a personality trait that might manifest as learning or experimenting and help to define his outlook or perspective. Then his interest in other cultures and adaptation becomes about fulfilling his curiosity, not being unable to pin down an identity.

2. Identify your Values. A second exercise, perhaps more suited to older teens, might include a conversation about your emerging values, what you prioritize and how that directs your actions in life. For teens, this type of activity can be particularly enlightening as they make decisions regarding their future, including school and jobs, in social environments that may expect actions that don’t best align with the teen or their perspective.

3. Visualize a tree. Lastly, given that this is a conversation about roots and grounding. Especially for younger teens, you might visualize a tree. The easiest place to start is what interests them, what communities are they a part of, or what activities they participate in and visualize these as sitting on the branches. Second, consider what the roots might look like - what anchors the teen, what has been consistent throughout their lives even through moves. The teen’s identity is really the trunk, what connects the roots and branches and is multi-layered.

I would love to chat about these ideas and exercises and how you might use them as you navigate your identity, please get in contact if you’d like to discuss further. Dr. Kass also uses similar exercises in her cohorts. All of our contact information is below.


Adapting to diverse cultural contexts is critical in a more globalized world and a true strength in the business sense. Just as important to our lives and fulfillment is our sense of identity, which is closely tied to self-esteem and finding purpose. Therefore learning to navigate how to adapt our diverse identities while maintaining a core is critical to our fulfillment and happiness in every context.

For children and teens, an important aspect of a successful transition is a sense of belonging. Ideally, the TCK should strive for a balance between assimilating to new social networks while maintaining old friendships, learning about their own interests, and continuing to do the things they are passionate about.

Social support, including teachers, close friends, and parents, are beneficial in shielding the individual from the stress and burnout associated with emotional exhaustion and other issues, which can arise in the face of “culture shock” variables associated with TCK. Pollock, Van Rebek, and Pollock observe that insecurity in a new environment can make TCKs withdraw even on subjects where they should feel comfortable. Support networks are key to combating that.

The following are some ideas designed to help teens develop positive support networks that will help them adapt to new cultural environments while staying rooted in their sense of self:

1. Finding social networks at the new school. Attending a new school can often be stressful for a teen, generating anxiety and a sense of isolation. One way a parent can help

prepare a teen for a new school would be to work together to research the school, contact a teacher in one of the teen’s favorite subjects, and ask a counselor and even students at the school (mentors) about the school’s culture. The parent and teen should look into clubs, sports or any other extracurricular activities the teen finds interesting, or even consider starting a club geared to a particular activity the teen likes if one does not already exist. Starting the school year with peers who share similar interests that can help them achieve that sense of belonging and avoid that sense of isolation.

2. Developing social skills to improve confidence. Fostering the teen’s ability to read the social signals of others is a key to successful assimilation into a new culture, and will be important for them throughout their adult lives. Improving social skills can boost the teen’s social confidence to initiate, maintain and deepen friendships. For teenagers who struggle socially, a social skills group is a good idea.

3. Maintaining their current friendships. For a teen focusing on immersion into a new environment, it is important that some time and effort be devoted to maintaining old friendships to avoid the sense of alienation that can arise, particularly in the face of a dramatic and complete cut off of all preexisting social and other ties. Setting aside time to maintain that contact virtually (if distances are too great for more direct association) is a good way to help a teen gradually turn the corner and accept and adapt to the new environment--and to see their new surroundings as not inevitably threatening previous emotional and other social commitments.

4. Seeking out other TCKs. Developing relationships with other TCKs will help teenagers understand that they are not alone--that others share their journey--feel understood and facilitate the ability to learn from others’ experiences.

Developing and grounding your identity is an evolution that can be sped up by virtue of our diverse cultural experiences. Coupled with moves and trying to find a support network and sense of belonging it might feel overwhelming, particularly as teens explore their independence but remain beholden to the decisions of their parents. The exercises and suggestions discussed might help your family begin the conversation and journey towards a more grounded identity that leads to greater confidence and engagement. As always, Dr. Kass and I are both available to support your journey as well!

Dr. Kass is taking admissions to the teen cohort on a rolling basis through an initial consultation call that you can schedule through InStep and Priya Jindal is available via for conversations to support adults through their transition and supporting their teens and spouses on the journey home.

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