Overcoming Childhood Adversity With A Plan

Children left behind in rural areas by their parents seeking work in China’s big cities are emotionally stressed but find strategies to cope.

AsianScientist (Sep. 22, 2015) – A study by researchers at University of Southern California (USC) and Southwest University in China suggests that, contrary to popular belief, children in difficult situations need to do more than dream of a happier and successful future self, they need a strategy for becoming that person. The set of study was published online in the Journal Of Adolescence.

They found that eighth graders performed better in school if they had strategies for becoming their future selves, as well as several options for becoming the self that they envision. Moreover, they showed that the mere thought of an unhappy childhood was enough to dampen the optimism and the ability of children to plan their escapes.

The scientists had focused on a population with profound social and economic challenges: rural Chinese children labeled ‘left behind’ and usually left in the care of grandparents because their parents have left them while seeking higher-paying urban jobs far from home.

These parents do not take their children with them because Chinese law requires that children attend school in the area where they were born, said Daphna Oyserman, Dean’s Professor of Psychology and Co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society. As a result, an estimated 40 percent of all Chinese children in rural areas—as many as 61 million—are left behind, according to the All-China Women’s Federation.

“Their parents, like parents everywhere, sacrifice the present for hopes for the future. I started the studies wondering if calling a child ‘left behind’, would have negative consequences with the implication that ‘no one loves me’,” Oyserman said. “Or are the parents able to instill in their children this narrative?: ‘We are doing this so our family can move forward.’”

Oyserman and Southwest University Professor Bi Chongzeng conducted four studies with four separate groups of children, all around 14 years old, ranging in number from 124 to 176 students, in the Chongqing region of China. Many of the teens reported that their parents had left them when they were young as five years old.

The researchers gauged the students’ feelings about being left behind, their future and fatalism, and sought to determine what helps children rise above difficult circumstances. They performed a combination of experiments examining their final exam results and behavior reports.

They observed that the thought of being ‘left behind’ had a negative effect on the teens’ optimism for the future, and it increased their fatalism. Having feelings that their fate and future were not in their control dampened the number of images students had of their future selves, as well as the number of strategies they had to become their future selves, Oyserman said.

Students with more images of their future possibilities scored higher on the exam. Researchers also found that left-behind students who had more future self images were more likely to have behavior problems in school—unless they had strategies for attainment, Oyserman said.

Researchers found that left-behind students who had more strategies to attain their possible selves scored better on their exams a year later, controlling for their prior test score, and they were less likely to be depressed, Oyserman said.

“Part of why I wanted to look at this particular group is that China is an enormous piece of the world, both in terms of population and in terms of future trends, and Chinese parents, like any parents, are willing to sacrifice an awful lot in the hope that things will turn out better for their kids,” Oyserman said.

“In our studies, even though children who are left by their parents are clearly emotionally stressed, they are not doing worse academically than the others in their classes,” Oyserman said. “They seem to have gotten this message: ‘Life is hard. Pull yourself up.’”

The article can be found at: Bi et al. (2015) Left Behind or Moving Forward? Effects of Possible Selves and Strategies to Attain Them Among Rural Chinese Children.


Source: University of Southern California; Photo: Thomas Galvez/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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