Sociocultural adaptation of adolescent third culture kids: A mixed-methods study of individual, familial, and social influences

Amber L. Lowi, Jeffrey T. Cookston, Linda P. Juang, Moin Syed

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Adolescence is marked by biological, cognitive, and social transitions that often result in challenges to be negotiated (Berry, Phinney, Sam & Vedder, 2006). Adolescent Third Culture Kids (ATCK)-youth from one culture, living temporarily in a second culture, combining both to create a unique third (Useem & Downie, 1976)-face additional challenges as they transition between childhood and adulthood across cultures. The ATCK population is substantial and growing; however, research on this group is limited, derived from adult populations, and focused on outcomes rather than the process of sociocultural adaptation, i.e., an individual's behavior and ability to function day-to-day within a specific culture (Ward & Kennedy, 1999). Applying Bronfrenbrenner's (1986) Ecological Systems Theory, this mixed-methods study provides evidence that ATCK sociocultural adaptation is associated with a combination of personal attributes, social experiences, and family interactions. Thirty ATCK between 14 and 18 years of age completed an online survey containing both quantitative measures and open-ended questions. The results highlighted the importance of individual and societal factors for ATCK sociocultural adaptation. Among other findings, the quantitative data indicated that higher levels of internal locus of control were associated with better sociocultural adaptation, whereas familial factors were not. ATCK with greater internal locus of control expressed greater sociocultural adaptation across all levels of parent-adolescent communication. However, among ATCK who expressed greater parent-adolescent communication, those who also expressed greater family warmth reported greater sociocultural adaptation than ATCK who expressed lower family warmth. Findings from the qualitative data provided deeper insights into the challenges that ATCK face and the resources they draw upon. Our analysis indicated that risks for ATCK include differences in the rates of parent versus child acculturation and a tendency for the ATCK to-blame parents for the overseas move and associated stress. ATCK advised pursuing social interactions as a resource in their own, as well as their parents', cultural adjustment. Consequently, the primary resources they discussed were individual and societal-based, rather than familial. Triangulating between the quantitative and qualitative findings, sociocultural adaptation of ATCK appears to be more strongly associated with individual qualities (locus of control, preparation for the transition) and societal factors (interactions with others, cultural exposure) than familial factors. Increased family conflict associated with an overseas move, combined with the natural tendency for adolescents to strive for autonomy, (Deeds, et al., 1998; Schwartz & Pantin, 2006; Steinberg & Silk, 2002) may weaken family support, rendering individual factors and social support (peers) more influential for ATCK sociocultural adaptation than family relations. Implications are discussed to emphasize how adolescents might best prepare themselves for a third culture transition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDevelopmental Psychology
EditorsJ. Hakansson
Place of PublicationHauppauge, NJ
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages38
ISBN (Print)9781616683429
StatePublished - Feb 2011


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