During the last few years, the number of people fleeing their home countries has continued to grow. They make one of the most difficult decisions in their lives: to leave their homes in search of a safer, better life. There are many reasons why people worldwide seek to rebuild their lives in different countries. Some people leave to get a job or an education. Others are forced to flee persecution or human rights violations. Many flee from armed conflicts or other crises or violence. The main reasons are violence, war, hunger, extreme poverty, their sexual or gender orientation (UNHCR, 2021).
In many cases, parents are forced to leave their families behind; either because they don’t have the opportunity, money, or the means to leave together or to get to another country and prepare for their new life there. Then, the rest of the family can join them. But how can this separation affect the children left behind?
The parents who fled their country end up feeling alone and isolated because they have lost the support networks that most of us take for granted – our communities, colleagues, relatives and friends. But how can this affect the children who lose the fundamental support in their life and they end up living with another relative or with their siblings?
According to many studies, the left-behind children grow up experiencing prolonged separation from their migrant parents. Despite the original purpose of benefiting children, parental migration challenges the child’s psychosocial well-being due to the emotional impacts of prolonged parent-child separation. Parental absence also leads to inadequate care and support for left-behind children. The negative effects of parental migration may be exacerbated by other vulnerabilities such as parents’ divorce, poverty and grandparent caregivers’ frailty. In the absence of one or both parents, the quality-of-care arrangements in left-behind children are crucial to parental migration’s impact on children. Children’s emotional distress in relation to parental migration, such as loneliness, sadness, and frustration, is usually reported by children themselves, parents, and caregivers. Different patterns of attachment and interactions with parents also reflected children’s perceptions of migration and disrupted family relationships. The parents are usually aware of the effects of migration on their children and attempt to monitor the emotional and behavioural well-being of the children closely. Concerns about child well-being made some migrants decide to return home permanently because of the altered trade-offs of migration (Zhao, 2018). But in the case, the parent can’t return or isn’t even informed about the negative effects of this separation, what else can happen?
Based on other research, the results showed that the left-behind status negatively influenced psychological resilience, compared to children who were never left-behind. The results suggest that separation from parents play a role in children’s mental health. This is echoed in the research on the subject: children who were separated from parents at a younger age had more symptoms of anxiety and depression. The parent-child communication has almost the same effect on psychological resilience under different parental migration status. Communication between parents and children is considered an essential factor, and similar findings have been reported in other studies. Van et al. (Van, Van, Hossman, & Witteman, 2015) said that parent-child communication was a promising factor to focus on in interventions to prevent mental illness. As prior studies have suggested, good and regular communication with parents is essential in maintaining secure attachment between children and absent parents. Children who have secure attachment relationships with their parents may exhibit more psychological resilience.
Nevertheless, there is no consistent correlation between parental migration status and parent-child communication. It is only found that being previously left-behind had a slightly negative correlation to parent-child communication. There is speculation that children who experience being left in their early childhood experience changes in their ability to communicate with their parents (Zhou, Lv, Ynag, & Wang, 2021).
Another aspect that we should consider is the violence the children left behind might experience. For example, in Greece the past few years, considerable numbers of people have fled from many countries at war. The children, already exposed to risks to their mental health, have suffered under added strain in an atmosphere of heightened fear and violence. In Lesbos, an island in Greece, the tension has increased over recent months because of the COVID-19 lockdown in migrant camps, which has been repeatedly extended. The waiting list of people seeking mental health support keeps growing, and the specialists cannot cope with it. The children often have nightmares and cannot fall asleep or wake up very often in the night. There has also been an increasing number of children talking about panic attacks, and in some cases, they have self-harming and suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts. A greater level of aggressivity is also noticed in older children and people. In addition, many children don’t even have access to education or some activities. Almost all children below the age of 5 benefit from early childhood development activities, defined as a caregiver playing with the child three times a week. For children between the ages of five and 17, school enrolment is considered essential. Children from households where a parent has migrated have significantly lower educational well-being. Societies need to embrace them and accept them, help them be a part of the community and excel. Most people wish for safety, education and activity, a future and hope because many recently lost hope and felt trapped (MacGregoc, 2020).
Some might want to tackle these statements and findings by saying that many people who grew up without parents turned out ok. Research in Romania tested adults with psychological measures assessing anxiety, depression, clarity of Self-Concept, generalized self-efficacy and school difficulties. There is a significant difference in low school performance between left behind and non-left behind participants. In addition to the low performance, absenteeism and school dropouts are higher. The lack of control, external monitoring of learning at an age where they lack intrinsic motivation and self-regulation of cognitive effort, might explain the lower school performance (Tripa, Sava, Palos, Magurean, & Macsinga, 2020).
The age of separation seems to be an important factor in all the mentioned issues. Early separation has a higher impact on the children’s psychological well-being. There is a higher frequency of school conduct and performance difficulties in children separated from their parents in childhood. Self-harm, aggression, substance abuse and mental health difficulties were reported more frequently by people separated from their parents in adolescence. The lack of direct parental supervision at such a challenging age might account for these negative outcomes. Although a teenager is more likely to spend a lot of time outside the home, the characteristics of the parental environment are still strongly associated with emotional and behavioural problems in youths (Harland, 2002). Another explanation could be related to the fact that children whose parents left at an earlier age either had already developed earlier effective coping mechanisms or have benefited from a different form of support in the absence of their parents. Additionally, the duration of the separation between children and their migrating parents is associated with the prevalence of difficulties in left-behind children (Ling, Fu, & Zhang, 2015), similarly if one of both parents left have a different effect on the children, since a parental figure remains in the household.
In conclusion, the prolonged separation following migration often disrupts parent-child relationships. It results in psychosocial difficulties in left-behind children, especially among those who live with multiple adversities in the family. Community-based interventions may help migrant parents and co-resident caregivers better engage children and promote their resilience. These children have been through a lot. It affects their resilience, communication with their parents, school performance (if they get into the educational system), and even the way they get into adulthood.
In many cases, the mental scarring of the war creates several psychological issues (anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks, depression etc.). As societies that welcome migrants, our role is to nurture them and help them become the best version of themselves. With less bureaucracy, we can make it easier for parents who leave their countries to bring with them their family. We should try to help them excel and become valuable members of our communities that feel welcome by ensuring the children are not left behind and get into the educational system.
Since this requires many steps (policy reform, financial support and many other steps), with this Erasmus+ project (No Left Behind Children), we aim to support the parents by strengthening their bond with the left-behind children, teaching them how to support them and use our platform as a tool.
- Ling, H., Fu, E., & Zhang, L. (2015). Effects of separation age and separation duration among left-behind children in China. Social behaviour and personality, pp. 241-254.
- MacGregoc, M. (2020, 07 08). Greece: Nightmares and violence for the children left behind. Retrieved from Infomigrants: https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/25904/greece-nightmares-and-violence-for-the-children-left-behind
- Tripa, L., Sava, F., Palos, R., Magurean, S., & Macsinga, I. (2020, December). Adult psychological outcomes of former left-behind children in Romania. Romanian Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 51-58.
- UNHCR. (2021). Amnesty International. Retrieved from Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants: https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/
- Van, L., Van, K., Hossman, C., & Witteman, C. (2015). Factors promoting mental health of adolescents who have a parent with mental illness: A longitudinal study. . Child Youth Care Forum., pp. 777-799.
- Zhao, C. W. (2018). Impact of parental migration on psychosocial well-being of children left behind: a qualitative study in rural China. Int J Equity Health, p. 80.
- Zhou, C., Lv, Q., Ynag, N., & Wang, F. (2021, May). Left-Behind Children, Parent-Child Communication and Psychological Resilience: A Structural Equation Modeling Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health, p. 10.