The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Putting Children at Risk—Chinese Labor Bosses, American Divorce Lawyers


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Progressives always style themselves as champions of children. Yet these defenders of children often evince a curious insouciance about a social circumstance—namely, parental absence—known to put children at risk.  A new study establishing that children suffer when they lose contact with parents comes out of China, where many hard-pressed rural parents have in recent years been leaving their children behind while they seek urban employment. But the authors of this study recognize the pattern they limn as one reflecting not only the effect of 21st-century employment patterns in China but also the likely effect of 21st-century divorce in Western lands. 

Researchers in China have recently expressed concern about the emotional well-being of “a considerable number of children in rural areas in China [who] have been experiencing long-term parental absence, given their parents have migrated to urban area [sic] as rural laborers for city building.” Affiliated with a number of Chinese universities (including Nanjing Normal University, the University of Hong Kong, Nantong University, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University) and Old Dominion University in the United States, these researchers recently set out to examine the psychological health of “left-behind children,” explaining that this term is one “referring specifically to the children who live at their original residence with one or both parent(s) having left home and migrated to other places for more than 6 months” for employment, typically in some distant urban center. Acknowledging that recent empirical research on “the psychological status of left-behind children in China . . . [has] contributed greatly to the literature on the relationship between parental absence and child development,” the researchers cite earlier studies concluding that, “compared with non-left-behind children, left-behind children . . . [are] more likely to have emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety” and are likewise more likely to manifest “behavior dysfunctions such as bullying behaviors and internet addiction” while also “performing poorer in cognitive tests.”  

To deepen psychological understanding of the effects of parental absence, the authors of the new study examine whether absence renders children prone to thoughts of suicide by making them more vulnerable to emotional disorders. To assess this question, the researchers parse data collected from 4,513 children from rural areas in Jiangsu Province, China, 2,416 of whom were living with both parents and 1,997 of whom were “left-behind children” who were “living with the absence of at least one parent” who had sought long-term urban employment.  

The data collected reveal a significantly elevated risk of suicidal thoughts only among those “left-behind children” who had been left behind by both parents. However, further scrutiny establishes that “depression, social anxiety, and physical anxiety were shown to be significant mediators in the relationship of parental absence and suicide ideation of children.” And such emotional problems show up significantly less among children living with both parents than among peers who experience separation from even just one parent. The researchers sum up their statistical findings succinctly: “all the three types [of] parental absence—father absence, mother absence, and both-parents absence were significantly associated with negative emotional outcomes.”

More particularly, the data show that left-behind children experiencing mother absence—like peers experiencing both-parent absence—evinced a “statistically higher level of physical anxiety” than did peers living with both parents. Left-behind children experiencing father absence—like peers experiencing both-parent absence—“showed statistically higher level of social anxiety” and “suffered from higher level of isolation anxiety” than did peers living with both parents.

The researchers are hardly surprised to find children separated from their parents suffering psychological harm. Their predecessors have long recognized that “being separated from parents” means “a significant distress for children,” with the relevant professional literature reporting that “children would show negative emotions like anxiety, [anger], and fear as responses of being separated from parents.”

But the researchers aptly comment that “traditionally, researchers tended to focus exclusively on the negative impact of child-mother separation on children’s mental health and behaviors, while rarely pa[ying] attention to the negative influence of father-child separation on children.”  But their findings compel the authors of this new study to underscore “evidence . . . that children with long-term absence of father had significantly higher level of depression, social anxiety, and isolation anxiety as compared with their peers living with both parents.” These authors thus conclude that, just like the findings of research on the absence of a mother in children’s lives, “findings of the current study implied that the absence of father could also be a salient detrimental factor for children’s mental health.”

Recognition of the harm children experience when they lose their father lends force to the researchers’ identification of a fundamental similarity between the long-term parental absence consequent to “large-scale labor migration” recently witnessed in China and the parental absence caused by “increased divorce rates” of the sort seen in the United States.  After all, it is usually their father that children lose when the divorce lawyer shows up.  

“In the modern society,” remark the researchers, “parental absence is a worldwide pervasive issue concerning child development, no matter if it is caused by broken marriage or labor migration.”  

Chinese labor-bosses and American divorce lawyers could swap horror stories. Tragically, it is children—Chinese and American—who must actually live out the horror.

(Mingchen Fu et al., “Parental Absence Predicts Suicide Ideation Through Emotional Disorders,” PLoS ONE 12.12 [2017]: e0188823, Web.)