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Parental absence unfavorable to mental health of left-behind children

XUE YAN | 2019-10-17
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
A left-behind girl poses for a photo with her parents painted on the blackboard. The Chinese characters mean “Let’s go home for dinner!” Photo: GMW.CN
 

 

With rapid urbanization in China, a great number of rural children have been growing up without long-term parental company, since their parents have migrated to cities as the main force of urban construction. Usually one or both of their parents leave home for more than six months, while the children remain in the countryside, taken care of by relatives, usually by grandparents or family friends. These kids are known as left-behind children. 
 
In order to examine the impact of parental absence on the mental wellbeing of left-behind children, the school of psychology at Nanjing Normal University carried out a study based on a large sample, surveying 4,513 children in rural areas of Jiangsu Province. Nineteen schools, including 12 elementary schools and seven middle schools, were selected because they had a high proportion of left-behind children. All classes from Grade 3 to 6 in primary education, and from Grade 7 to 9 in junior high, were visited. Research subjects ranged from 9 to 17 years old, at the average age of 12.38, with 2,416 (53.5%) non-left-behind children and 2,097 left-behind ones (46.5%). 
 
Of the surveyed left-behind children, 1,003 lived with their mothers (absence of fathers), 132 lived with their fathers (absence of mothers) and 962 had no care from their parents (absence of both parents). 
 
 
Poor mental condition
The study discovered a statistical correlation between parental absence and suicidal ideation in left-behind children. The investigation into the correlation and the role of affective disorders revealed that negative emotional factors, such as depression and anxiety, have a big bearing on the correlation between parental absence and suicidal ideation in left-behind children. 
 
Compared with non-left-behind children, their left-behind peers who grew up with both parents absent were statistically more likely to commit suicide, according to the research. The three types of parental absence, namely, absence of fathers, mothers and both parents, are significantly correlated with kids’ negative emotions. 
 
Negative emotions of left-behind children, such as depression, anxiety, anger and fear, are prominent. The long-term separation from parents has caused extremely big impacts on children. 
Previous studies prove that children will exhibit negative emotions like depression, anxiety, anger and fear after separating from their parents. With the development of modern society, long-term parental absence has become an important issue of common concern. As rising divorce rates deprive children of sufficient parental company, massive labor migration has left tens of millions of children behind in rural regions without parental care. 
 
Empirical researchers have paid particular attention to the psychological conditions of left-behind children and the association between parental absence and their growth. They found that left-behind children are more vulnerable to affective disorders, such as depression, anxiety and behavioral dysfunction including bullying and internet addiction. 
 
The three types of absence are all associated with depression and anxiety. Specifically, children growing up with fathers and both parents absent were more distressed than non-left-behind children; those without the care of both parents scored much lower than their non-left-behind peers in the damage avoidance scale; and compared with non-left-behind children, left-behind kids in the absence of fathers felt more lonely and anxious, according to this study. 
 
Moreover, left-behind children are potentially at high risk of committing suicide. Surveys conducted in recent years have indicated that suicide is one of the leading causes of death among children and adolescents around the world. Through a random survey of 13,822 children in 13 different Chinese cities, researchers found that the occurrence rate of suicidal ideation among the respondents reached 30.09%. Hence high ratios of suicide and suicidal ideation have become a serious problem threatening the health of children in China. Given latent high risks of suicidal ideation facing an enormous number of left-behind children, it is necessary to probe into what lies behind this. 
 
We started from the perspective of affective disorder to predict suicidal tendencies in left-behind children, delve into the correlation between parental absence and suicidal ideation, and study the role of affective disorder in the correlation, aiming to figure out how to minimize the suicide rate of the disadvantaged group. 
 
The children’s depression inventory, the multidimensional anxiety scale for children and the investigation into suicidal ideation imply that left-behind children in the absence of both parents show stronger suicidal ideation than non-left-behind children. Furthermore, parental absence, in whatever status, is significantly correlated with negative emotions, like depressive disorder, social anxiety and somatic anxiety, which will generate significant negative impacts on the children’s mental health. 
 
When it comes to the higher occurrence rate of suicidal ideation among left-behind children, those with no care of both parents are 1.35 times more likely to commit suicide than non-left-behind children. The significant correlation between the absence of both parents and suicidal ideation means that children in this case were under greater pressure and at higher risk of suffering from affective disorders than those with the absence of one parent. 
 
Affective disorders were the primary cause behind the high risk of suicidal ideation among children in the absence of both parents. Depression, social anxiety and somatic anxiety were key factors influencing suicidal ideation in children without parental care. The three types of parental absence were statistically correlated to at least be indicators of affective disorder. 
 
Traditionally, researchers have cared only about the negative impacts of mother-child, rather than father-child, separation on the mental health and behavior of children. This study shows that children without the long-term company of fathers are more depressed and lonely than their peers living with both parents. Therefore paternal absence is another crucial factor negatively influencing children’s mental wellbeing. 
 
 
Suggestions
To promote the healthy growth of left-behind children in rural areas, the afflicted families, schools and society should work together to build a sound social support system. 
 
First, parents of left-behind children should pay attention to their offspring’s development and try to foster intimate relationships with them. Regarding the phenomenon of left-behind children, their huge number is probably not the most worrying; the most worrying is that it has overturned traditional family values and the sense of family responsibility. 
 
As increasing numbers of migrant workers go to work in cities and leave their children to the care of the elderly, they have increasingly ignored their responsibility as parents. Many of the parents, after leaving home, didn’t leave any message for their children. Nor did they teach their kids basic skills for looking after themselves. Though they were totally capable of expressing their concern by various means, such as making phone and video calls and writing letters, to meet their kids’ psychological needs, many of them didn’t. 
 
Teachers and caretakers should attend to the psychological demand of left-behind children. In particular, they should be aware of the significant correlation between parental absence and the children’s negative emotions. 
 
Studies show that supportive teacher-student relationships play a vital role in the growth of high-risk students. It is suggested that teachers spend more time learning about the specific psychological needs of students with parental absence. For example, they may converse with those students one on one regularly to know about their learning and living status, or visit their families to get better informed of their living conditions and needs. 
 
As an important growth base for children, schools may resort to the social support system to set up organizations dedicated to providing exclusive services for left-behind children and furnishing caring, responsible teachers to master the kids’ mental and learning situation. It is essential to dynamically manage the education of rural left-behind children throughout the course and establish a rural left-behind children archive and contact card system to strengthen communication with their parents and entrusted guardians. 
 
What’s more, the social support system, consisting of civil administration, women’s federations, and  the children’s communities, should play as large a role as it can in care and love education. It is necessary to build social security institutions for left-behind children and fully leverage existing educational, human and social resources to provide welfare organizations that offer more support and call public attention to these children. 
 
In addition, studies have shown that a good neighborhood atmosphere and supportive community services have positive influences on the healthy growth of left-behind children. By optimizing facilities and the environment in rural communities and the model of supplying public services for children, their psychological resilience facing adversity can be enhanced, thus improving their mental condition. 
 
Providing more support for the families of migrant workers and guiding them to return to the countryside to start businesses and get jobs, as suggested by the Opinions of the State Council on Strengthening the Care and Protection of Rural Left-Behind Children released on Feb. 4, 2016, are also effective solutions for tackling the problem at the source. 
 
Xue Yan is an associate professor from the School of Psychology at Nanjing Normal University.