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Being 'left behind' as a child negatively affects health

Being separated from your child is unthinkable for most parents but for many migrants across the world, long-term separation from their offspring is an everyday reality.  

More and more migrant parents have to leave their children behind with relatives, often to find work, but, in some instances, also to flee conflict and natural disasters. While the exact number of children ‘left behind’ is unknown, given that one in seven of the World’s population is a migrant, the number of left-behind children is expected to be high.  

But what effect does being separated from parents for long periods have on these children? 

Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke, Lecturer in Global Mental Health at King’s, and colleagues carried out research looking at the health of children from low- and middle-income countries, including China, Thailand, Mexico, Malawi and Romania, who were left behind while their parents migrated abroad for employment.

They found that, compared to children of non-migrants, left-behind children had worse overall mental health with higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, conduct disorder and substance use. They also found that left-behind children were more likely to be acutely and chronically malnourished compared to children of non-migrant parents. 

In contrast, they found no evidence of any benefits of parental migration on children’s health, despite any potential financial gains of migration. 

Dr Rose-Clarke explains, ‘Childhood and adolescence are critical times for lifelong health and development, but there is very little research on the long-term consequences of parental migration for left-behind children.’

‘Our work suggests migration away from children may have negative consequences for their physical and mental health.

‘Interventions, therefore, need to be developed that address mental health and nutritional needs of children who may not have access to parental support. Policy makers and governments need to place more emphasis on supporting families separated by migration, and enable migrants to visit and communicate regularly with their families.’

‘This could help to mitigate future health, social and economic costs, and to support a growing number of vulnerable children.’ 

Read the full research at: