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A Child Who Feels 'Left Behind' Can Still Get Ahead

A kid with big problems isn't doomed to a dark future.

That's the message from a new study in China, looking at the so-called "left behind" children, whose moms and/or dads have moved from rural communities to faraway cities to find work. But the lesson applies to any child living in less-than-ideal circumstances.

There are more than 61 million left-behind kids in the poorest parts of China. One or both parents have moved to toil in factories, hoping to make enough money to pull the family out of poverty and into a better life. Many send money back to the villages where they've left their kids in the hands of the other parent or grandparents. If the kids get to see their absentee parent more than once or twice a year, that's a luxury.

Bearing the brunt of what's considered the largest migration in human history are the children themselves. Earlier this year, the tragic death of four left-behind children left the nation in shock. They were siblings ranging from age 5 to 13, in southwestern China, and it's believed they committed suicide. The tragedy also brought attention to what studies have suggested: that compared to peers living with both parents, left-behind children are more vulnerable to injuries and crime, due to lack of parental supervision, as well as to emotional and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

But their fates aren't sealed, says Daphna Oyserman, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. Oyserman led a set of studies in Chongqing, China, looking at how left-behind children can overcome adversity. The results, published this summer in the Journal of Adolescence, found that the children needed to have not only a positive outlook on their future but also a plan to become what the study calls their "ideal selves." In simpler terms, that means setting goals and figuring out how to reach them.

Oyserman and a colleague at Southwest University in China conducted four studies with eighth graders. In the first two studies, researchers asked students to rate their optimism about passing an upcoming exam or finding a job in the future as well as their belief that their fate is predetermined and inevitable.

Some of the students were first asked if they had been left behind, while others didn't get that question until the end.

Researchers found that regardless of whether a student is a left-behind kid or not, the mere thought of being left behind made them less optimistic.

"In rural areas, [being left behind] is such a common thing that all the kids know what it is and when they think about it, it colors their own vision," Oyserman says. "Having thought about that makes [children who live with parents] feel qualms that it could happen to them, too."

Previous research found that nearly half of all left-behind children suffer depression and anxiety. Oyserman wondered whether this would change if these kids believed they could overcome such feelings by doing well in school. So in the next two studies she looked at the impact of setting personal goals like "I can get a good final exam result" or "I can make progress in each discipline" — and strategies to attain those goals.

Overall, kids who listed more goals did better on their exams. But Oyserman also found that kids with lots of goals tended to act out in class — unless they had strategies to accomplish those goals, such as "communicate more with teachers" or "review every day." Students with a plan were less likely to report feeling depressed.

Oyserman's view is that "once you had strategies, your head wasn't in the clouds and you're actually thinking about what you have to do right now."

That's a lesson that can apply to all kids living in difficult situations, says Oyserman says: for example, children who live in poverty or in families with little parental guidance.

For left-behind kids, she suggests that parents should frame their situation like this: "'Our fate is not good but we're taking steps toward the future. We'll all suffer and it'll be hard but you might have chances that we don't have,'" she suggests.

She continues: "It's possible for even young children to understand a family working together toward a brighter future. And the way you are doing it may not feel good but it's getting you somewhere."

That kind of approach could mean that the dream of a better life for troubled children doesn't get left behind.

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