Children living without their parents for a period may suffer delayed brain development, a new study finds.
The Chinese research looked at children who were left behind with relatives while their parents travelled for work.
Some parents left home for months at a time, others for years.
The shift is particularly acute in China where so many workers migrate for better jobs.
Mr Yuan Xiao, one of the study’s authors, said:
“We wanted to study the brain structure in these left-behind children.
Previous studies support the hypothesis that parental care can directly affect brain development in offspring.
However, most prior work is with rather severe social deprivation, such as orphans.
We looked at children who were left behind with relatives when the parents left to seek employment far from home.”
Brains scans were given to 38 ‘left-behind’ children between 7- and 13-years-of-age.
These were compared with children who lived with their parents.
Left-behind children had more gray matter in areas of the brain related to memory and the emotions.
The researchers think this may be a result of insufficient pruning of synapses, the connections between neurons.
Synaptic pruning is thought to be a vital developmental stage in adolescence.
Children who had higher gray matter volume in these areas tended to have lower IQs, the researchers found.
Mr Xiao said:
“Our study provides the first empirical evidence showing that the lack of direct parental care alters the trajectory of brain development in left-behind children.
Public health efforts are needed to provide additional intellectual and emotional support to children left behind by parents.”
The study was presented at the Radiological Society of North America.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Child image from Shutterstock