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What is Expat Psychology? Let's start a Conversation.

Index (clickable) 1. Definitions

1. Definitions. Migrants, Internationals, Globally Mobile, Third Culture Kids, Cross-Cultural Kids, Global Nomads and Expats

Imagine your average 18-year-old walking into my office and then casually say “Yeah, so I was born in Bangladesh, we moved to Nigeria when I was 5, then Washington, Shanghai, and now I’m here in The Netherlands.” Stories similar to these I come across every week, working in my private practice as a psychologist for internationals. I provide psychotherapy in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Dutch. I get to meet and support people who have been immersed in many places, cultures, languages and histories. Many of the wonderful people I have worked with, whether young or adult, are real internationals, having moved between a lot of countries and cultures, not necessarily feeling particularly close to a particular place they call "home". Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are understood as:

"[...] a person who spends a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parent(s) into a country or countries that are different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training" (Pollock, Van Reken & Pollock, 2017, p. 27).

The definition of TCKs has been varied across time (Pollock, Van Reken, Pollock, 2017) but it always invokes the notion of a child growing up between several cultures often leading a separate new one (the third culture) by trying to integrate the different experienced cultures. In order to have a better understanding of this global phenomenon and research to be possible a clear-cut definition as the one provided above is crucial. It should be noted that it is not self-evident that all TCKs have experienced a privileged lifestyle, growing up in mansions, gated communities and hopping from one International School to the next. However, there are many children and adults which had a multicultural or multi-ethnic upbringing which has parallels with the TCK experience while not quite fully being the same. These are for example people I meet that have not necessarily lived in many countries but have a multi-ethnic and/or multicultural upbringing where questions of identity and belonging can also arise. In order to accommodate for the nuance of people living with a third culture yet not being a typical TCK the concept of Cross Cultural Kids (CCKs) is useful:

"A cross-cultural kid (CCK) is a person who is living/has lived in - or meaningfully interacted with - two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during the first eighteen years of life. An adult CCK (ACCK) is a person who has grown up as a CCK." (Pollock, Van Reken & Pollock, 2017, p. 43).

This distinction thus includes TCKs as a subtype of the myriad of possible cultural amalgamations that many young people grow up with. The figure below gives an overview of the subgroups a CCK can be identified with:

Figure: The Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) Model Expanded; Pollock, Van Reken & Pollock, 2017, p. 45.

There are stark differences between an international adoptee, a refugee having to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety, and a child whose parents work for a big organization that expects the family to move every few years to a new country. Another clear difference between the definition of a CCK and TCK (which is a subset of CCKs) is that TCKs are defined by the places where they grow up whereas the CCK definition does not set that conceptual requirement. The CCK is a broader concept, encompassing more people who integrate various cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic layers whilst also acknowledging the commonality many CCKs experience - such as questions about one’s identity and the intersection of several cultures.

So, what is an expat? Expatriates, commonly referred to as expats, are individuals who live in a country other than their native one. They can be living abroad for any number of reasons, such as work, study or retirement. Though not part of the official definition, the informal usage of the term expats differentiates them from other migrants by suggesting they migrate on a temporary basis, and it often implies expats being highly skilled migrants. Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell gave the following differentiation between expats and other migrants: "Migrants make a permanent move from a home country to new home country. They expect to stay and are expected to assimilate (at least by 2nd generation). There is general agreement on status and expectations. Expatriates move abroad temporarily and expect to return to their home country. They don’t intend to and are not expected to stay or assimilate. The problem for expat children abroad for many child/teen years is that they are expected to feel at home in their parental home country and don’t. Third Culture adults and kids 1 (classic definition) are a specific kind of expat. Their move is sponsored; the parent is a representative of and doing the work of: Home nation: diplomats, military, AID workers" ( Expats often face a range of new challenges that come with being separated from their home and family, while having to adjust to a new country, culture and language. Repats are expats that return (repatriate) to their country of origin, often leading to reverse culture shock, which is said to be more impactful than the original culture shock. As such, expat psychology focuses on the mental health and wellbeing of expatriates, helping them to cope with the stresses and strains that come with living abroad.

2. What is expat psychology? Expat psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior of expatriates. It is a recent, growing subfield of cross-cultural psychology with ancient roots as migration is as old as humanity itself. Expat psychology looks at the typical issues that expats face, such as culture shock, language barriers, loss of identity and difficulty integrating into their new environment. It takes a holistic approach to addressing these challenges by looking at the entire person and their context– their physical, psychological, emotional, sociocultural, spiritual and environmental needs and opportunities. Counselling and other types of therapy can be used to help expats work through their issues and gain insight into the psychological aspects of living abroad. For example, a counsellor might work with an expat to develop coping strategies that help them adjust to life in their new environment.

Expat psychology can also be beneficial to those who are returning home after a period of time away. Many expats experience reverse culture shock when they return home, as they may struggle to readjust to their native environment and the expectations of friends and family. Expat psychology can help expats bridge the gap between their life abroad and at home, assisting them in transitioning back into familiar routines.

Unofficially the term is often used for more affluent internationals, highly skilled migrants, migrants that move for work or education, that often end up living in an “expat bubble”. Danau Tanu, PhD, notes that there is some privilege embedded not just in the expat term, but also the international school environment. She mentions that oftentimes the more affluent, white, Anglosaxon narrative is the one that can be easily adopted by the international community. Tanu’s research indicates that Third Culture Kids which attend English-speaking International schools, albeit being globally mobile are mainly educated in Western norms, allows for a hierarchy of race, culture and class. This goes beyond what might happen in international schools and gated expat communities, but can have deeper sociocultural implications.

A few weeks ago, when walking through the multicultural library of Rotterdam I noticed graffiti which also stated "expats not welcome". The photo might feed into the narrative of rich migrants (”expats”) taking away housing and funding from poorer migrants or locals, amongst other things. In times of social and economic unrest it is important to connect and bridge gaps between people and cultures.

How we define expats can be quite arbitrary. And probably that is another reason why terms such as Globally mobile, (Adult)TCK and CCK are preferred*. Though often different in their presentation the refugee, international student, highly skilled migrant, third-culture kid, and repat (returning expat to their country of origin) all share things in common: moving/migrating, exposed to and ideally integrating various cultures and languages, and similar questions around belonging, attachment, and identity. In a way, when done well, international mental health services could and should benefit them all.

*Ruth van Reken’s, author of Third Culture Kids, recent post explains how she and others started researching and sketching the initial terminological landscape, and how there still is some unclarity with the definitions used, specifically for research and for groups to identify themselves.

3. So technically, one could just use the term cross-cultural psychology or international psychology, right? Maybe. I’m curious what others have to say on this.

4. Does it matter?

Probably. In 2017, I audaciously wrote an article called Working as an expat psychologist for the British Psychological Society’s magazine The Psychologist, which got some traction. The term expat psychologist is quite widespread here in the Netherlands and elsewhere, often used by niche psychologists who work in private practice. Expat psychologists tend to support expats in their language and often are expats themselves. Bringing their own lived expat experience can be helpful yet also misconstrue/project their own experience onto their clients, and something therapists ought to be aware of. Interestingly, and somewhat worrisome, psychologists that support internationals are usually not formally trained in this population (and how should they as it is still an emerging field?).

5. Do we need a new field of study? Slowly more blogposts, podcasts, articles (also ours on attachment, migration and belonging), books, PhD theses and online groups are appearing on this subject, each contributing a piece to the puzzle. Yes, I believe there is still loads to uncover, especially as to what clinical interventions might be best suited.

6. Does this merit a new therapeutic approach?

No, please no. Psychology is filled with 1000s of subfields, and clinical psychology has 1000s of psychotherapies, with new one’s being added regulary. We don’t need more people trying to bring out shiny therapeutic submodalities, with accreditation courses, to make extra money. We need compassionate, dedicated people, willing to serve a growing phenomenon and a community. Let’s cooperate and share best practices.

From a clinical perspective, what might help is that, similarly to having trauma-informed practices, one can have expat-informed psychotherapy. This means paying extra attention during the intake to the client’s migrations history & its effects, cultural influences and languages spoken. It means looking at relevant literature and research (please share your literature & research overviews with me! Would love to compile more info on what’s out there).

It means looking at important topics such as: belonging, identity, attachment style, migratory grief, possible avoidance as coping, staying vs leaving, the possible trauma of frequent moving, the strengths and developed coping mechanisms, cultural misunderstandings (also in therapy), phases of transitioning, the “homey” feeling of being foreign or in a foreign space, ways to connect to others, family issues (e.g. TCKs, trailing spouses, what does frequent migration do to a relationship, distance between family members and friends, the lack of external oversight in cases of neglect and abuse), healthcare providers spread across several countries, ways to integate into local culture and ways to pay it forward and be of service to others if one happens to be in a more privileged expat position - which is not always the case as people might think. This list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure others will contribute more insightful topics to this list, that ought to be studied.

It means looking and sharing possible interventions that have helped with another. It means putting out more research, so that we can add to the personal anecdotal evidence (which is important and fosters connection) more thoroughly acquired evidence. [On July 12th 2023, I wrote another blogpost specifically focusing on Expat-Informed Psychotherapy.]

Next to Third Culture Kids, two seminal books of experienced therapists come to mind:

Lois Bushong’s trailblazing book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere - Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile is one I can highly recommend. Each chapter deals with an important (A)TCK topic, such as adjustment disorders, mood disorders and PTSD.

And Doug Ota’s book Safe Passage: How Mobility affects People and what International Schools should do about it is also essential. It theoretically, using attachment theory, and practically addresses how to help children that constantly move (or stay behind) during their developing years.

7. Are we asking the right questions?

What is interesting is that the terms used (CCK, TCK, expats, globally mobile, migrants, etc), don’t matter as much.. or at least - How come defining the field is harder than understanding the underlying issues that present itself in clinical settings? Is it because the underlying issues and needs addressed are common irrespective of how we define the group of people who experience them? We all need to belong. We all are positively and negatively affected by moving/migrating.

Maslow's expanded hierarchy of needs. Maslow was onto something. What are other important questions we are missing?

8. So let's start a conversation.

What are the more relevant questions? What am I missing in this conversation? Are there specific factors that impact or improve the mental wellbeing of internationals?

Are there specific interventions and best practices to be used in international mental health services? 9. References: Bushong, L. (2013). Belonging Everywhere & Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. Mango Tree Intercultural Services.

Cottrell, A. B. (n.d.). TCK Researcher. Retrieved from

Esters, P. (2017, May 12). Working as an expat psychologist. British Psychological Society. Retrieved from

Tanu, D. (n.d.). Growing up in transit. Retrieved from

Van Reken, R., Pollock, D., & Pollock, M. (2017). Third Culture Kids (3rd ed.). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

10. Further reading

Download PDF • 1.28MB
  • Families in Global Transition. FIGT is an organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families moving across cultures. It provides resources, research, and forums to share experiences, advice, and facilitate discussions on the challenges and opportunities associated with global mobility.

  • The International therapist directory managed by Josh Sandoz. This directory connects individuals with therapists experienced in expatriate and cross-cultural issues, aiding those living abroad in finding suitable psychological support.

  • Academic Journals

    1. Migration journals

    2. Cross cultural psychology journals

    3. Journal of Cross-cultural Family Studies

    4. Management journals have several articles on expats/TCKs.

Nota bene:

  • This post is still a work-in-progress. More information to be added soon here.

  • Your feedback is welcome.


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