Family Migration in China Linked to Mental Health Problems for Children, Rutgers Study Finds

Family Migration in China Linked to Mental Health Problems for Children, Rutgers Study Finds

Researchers at university's Huamin Research Center advocate policy reforms and more support to migrant schools
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Beth Salamon
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Millions of migrant children and those left behind in China’s poor rural provinces by parents hoping to earn more money working in factory towns and cities face greater psychological and behavioral problems, according to a new Rutgers study.

“Our findings suggest that family migration negatively affects children, leaving them with more social skills problems and mental health issues, says Chien-Chung Huang, professor and director of Huamin Research Center at the Rutgers School of Social Work. “In particular, we found that parent-only migration, which leaves children living with only one or neither parents, results in more challenges and worse child outcomes.”

Children play at a migrant school in China.
Photo: Courtesy of Chien-Chung Huang
Over the past few decades, millions of people have left China’s poorer rural provinces to earn a living in more urbanized regions. By 2012, 61 million “left behind” children, or one in five nationally, were growing up without one or both parents, according to Huang and doctoral research fellow, Shuang Lu who co-published their research recently in Children and Youth Services Review. At the same time, the number of children who followed their parents to the cities, called migrant children, rose to almost 36 million.

These findings provide important implications for improving psychological and behavioral outcomes of migrant and left-behind children through family intervention and education policy reform.

The 2011 survey was conducted by the China Communist Youth League Wuhan Municipal Committee and the Wuhan Mental Health Research Institute. It gathered data from 30 randomly selected elementary and middle schools in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China, which has a population of more than 10 million and includes both an urban center and surrounding rural areas.

Although the study indicates that migrant children show better psychological and behavioral outcomes than those left behind, they still have higher levels of problems than their local peers. Migrant and left-behind boys were found to have higher levels of conduct problems including hyperactivity and inattentiveness and had a more difficult time building social relationships with their peers.  Girls showed higher levels of emotional symptoms and younger children were found to have higher levels of psychological and behavioral problems than older children.

A harmonious family relationship was an important factor in helping to protect these children. Those whose parents were married were less likely to have peer relationship problems than children whose parents were unmarried or remarried. They also had fewer emotional symptoms and behavior problems.

The study also indicated that mothers who possess a higher education level are better equipped to assist children with their schoolwork and maintain positive parent-child communication. A good school environment, rather than what is experienced at the subpar schools attended by migrants where there is no government funding and teachers are not licensed, was also associated with better psychological and behavioral outcomes of children.

“If the Chinese government can change its policy and provide more support to migrant schools, the children will benefit,” says Chien who accompanied a group of students from the Huamin Research Center’s Service Learning Abroad trip last summer and visited a migrant school.

Media Contact
Beth Salamon
848-932-5340