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How does being 'left behind' as a child affect health?

Leaving your children behind to migrate for work is not an easy choice but is very often the case for families living in low- and middle-income countries. Researchers have found that although there may be financial benefits for families of migrant workers, the time spent away is potentially detrimental to their children’s health, especially their mental health.

Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke, Lecturer in Global Mental Health at King’s, Dr Gracia Fellmeth at the University of Oxford, and their colleagues studied the health of children and adolescents (aged 0-19) of migrant workers from low- and middle-income countries.

Although they initially found evidence of negative health outcomes for ‘left-behind children’, follow-up research has helped to identify ways to mitigate poor health and build resilience.

Negative health outcomes for children

Research undertaken in 2018 showed that, compared to children of non-migrants, left-behind children and adolescents had worse overall mental health.

This included having higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, conduct disorder and substance use. The researchers also found that left-behind children and adolescents were more likely to be acutely and chronically malnourished compared to children of non-migrant parents.

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."– Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke

How can we help these children?

Dr Rose-Clarke led subsequent research, published in 2021, which explored how left-behind adolescents in Thailand build resilience when their parents migrate.

As part of the research, adolescents, as well as their caregivers, migrant parents and community leaders were interviewed. The research suggests that adolescents need access to three ‘resources’ to be resilient; warmth (love and understanding), financial support and guidance.

Adolescents who had their own caring responsibilities or had an insecure relationship with their parents or caregivers, struggled to build the resilience they needed to protect their health and wellbeing in the long-term.

Interventions 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.” – Dr Kelly Rose-Clark

Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals

King's College London has a long and proud history of serving the needs and aspirations of society. We are committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a university, and we use them as a framework for reporting on our social impact. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals approved by the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) which aim to transform the world by 2030. This research supports SDGs 3 and 16.

In this story

Kelly Rose-Clarke

Kelly Rose-Clarke

Senior Lecturer in Global Mental Health