When Parents Leave for Extended Time, Kids’ Brain Development Slows


Children who have been left without direct parental care for an extended amount of time show negative changes in the brain’s emotional circuitry. Rick Nauert, Ph.D. of PsychCentral says the new research that supports this discovery was a Chinese study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Worldwide, because of political turmoil, economic upheaval, and other situations, parents must travel away from their families for extended periods of time. In China and Mexico, many workers have had to migrate away from their children to pursue a way to make a living.

The study was designed to evaluate how this migration affected the millions of young people who are left behind with relatives for more than six months without direct contact or care from their biological mothers and fathers. Study author Yuan Xiao, a Ph.D. candidate at the Huaxi MR Research Center and the Department of Radiology at West China Hospital of Sichuan University in Chengdu, Sichuan, China 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.”

MRI exams were given to 38 girls and boys between the ages of seven and 13 who had parents who moved away. The MRI scans were compared to a control group of 30 girls and boys, ages seven to 14, who were living with their mothers and fathers.

The gray matter volume was measured between the two groups, and the intelligence quotient (IQ) of each subject was measured to assess cognitive function. The left-behind children’s group had larger gray matter amounts in multiple regions of the brain, particularly in emotional brain circuitry than the children with parents who lived with them.

As far as mean values of the IQ scores in left-behind kids, it was not significantly different from the control group, but the volume of gray matter in memory encoding and retrieval regions of the brain did negatively correlate with IQ scores. These results suggested to the scientists that growing without parental care could cause delayed brain development.

The UK’s Daily Express quotes Xiao:

“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.”

Xiao explained that young people who were adopted or placed in foster care exhibited a smaller deficit than orphans, according to Susan Scutti reporting for Medical Daily. But, he added, left-behind children may have something in common with orphans and adopted children, such as stress and early adversity.

But left-behind kids have no history of being reared in institutions or of extreme deprivation. Also, children who are left behind usually are taken care of by grandparents. However, grandparents frequently have less education than the child’s parents and often have less time and energy to care for the emotional and psychological needs of the children than the child would probably receive from parents.