ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.3 - Fall 2010
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas

Temporary Labor Migration and the Children Left Behind at Home


DR. VANDA VAITEKONIENĖ is a medical psychologist and clinical assistant at the Child Development Center, Vilnius University Children’s Hospital. Paper presented at the XIV World Lithuanian Symposium of Arts and Sciences, Lemont, IL., 26–30 November 2008.


Temporary labor migration is a relatively new term to describe shortterm emigration from Lithuania involving one or both parents working abroad while leaving their child or children at home, usually in the care of grandparents or other close relatives. Since most of these transnational migrants are undocumented, family members remaining at home are reluctant to draw attention to their departure and tend to conceal the negative impact it might have on the children, for whom the migration of a parent generally means the dissolution of a nuclear family. There is a growing concern among Lithuanian psychologists about the consequences on the left-behind children, but so far very little research exists on the subject. The author, a medical psychologist, introduces this problem and analyzes twenty-two clinical case histories of children studied and treated at the Vilnius University Child Development Center. She urges psychologists to isolate mechanisms that might help children and parents to cope and establish positive family models regardless of the separation.

Temporary labor migration is a relatively new term to describe a situation when one or both parents work abroad, leaving their child or children at home, usually in the care of grandparents or other close relatives. Since most of these transnational migrants are undocumented, the family members remaining at home are reluctant to draw attention to the departure and absence of a parent or parents and tend to conceal the negative impact it might have on the children. For these reasons, they do not receive or seek professional help for the children to help them cope with the breakup of the nuclear family. Therefore, it is only recently that the problem has become the focus of serious academic research. 

Research done in other countries on the effects of temporary work-related migration on the family is often conflicting and does not provide a clear-cut generalization about positive or negative effects on these so-called “left-behind children.” (In Lithuanian, they are referred to as “palikti vaikai,” a new term coined to describe them.) There exists research on transnational labor migration but insufficient targeted analysis of the impact on the well-being of the children. In most instances, the migrant is the father. However, the number of women migrants is increasing. Current statistics show that from 44 percent to 50 percent of temporary transnational migrants are women. There is a growing concern about the negative consequences on children when mothers emigrate, but so far very little research exists on the subject. 

It has been observed that, as a result of transnational migration, there has developed a new type of transnational family with new forms of interaction and a high level of contact in spite of great physical distances. One survey shows that good communication between absent parents and children is of the greatest importance. Parents stay in touch by mail, phone calls, and gifts. Of course, the level of communication depends on the family’s financial situation, the length of separation and its access to new communication technologies. Mothers more than fathers go to great lengths to be in close contact with the children who are left at home. 

In 2007, several sociological research projects were completed in Lithuania, including psychological research of nonclinical scope at Vilnius University. The Children’s Rights Ombudsman and the Ministry of Education and Science conducted a survey of children who had one or both parents in migration; their teachers were surveyed as well. Information was collected from 195,000 children, a third (32.3%) of whom were attending educational institutions. Among those surveyed, more than half were cared for by one of the parents (64%) and about a third (28%) by one or more grandparents. The results of the survey show that approximately 36 percent of children who stayed behind experience noticeable changes in behavior. 

At the request of the Vilnius office of the International Organization for Migration, a study entitled “Family on Both Sides of the Border” was completed. According to this research, the parents’ decision to emigrate in search of employment is motivated predominantly by economic concerns and little thought is given to the consequences for the rest of the family. The potential economic advantages are sufficient to justify the decision to leave. Parents give little thought to the effects of their absence on the children who stay at home and are unprepared for the consequences and necessary adjustments to family structure. At first, family members perceive the migration as short-term and base their decisions on that premise, but the anticipated short stay abroad often turns into a long one that is both unforeseen and unprepared for. As a rule, the family lacks the expertise to evaluate the consequences and changes to family structure and relationships ahead of time and to plan and adjust accordingly. Out of all the family members, the children suffer the most. For them, the migration of a parent generally means the dissolution of a stable home and family life. It forces them to adjust to their new status, to interpret the changed situation on their own and to find meaningful answers for themselves. The children’s ability to cope with the changes depends on their age, the support they receive from their family, the nature and duration of the migration and, of course, on the efforts of their parents to help them through this difficult period. In some instances, the effects of the separation are mitigated because the children had already been under their grandparents’ care and had developed a strong attachment to them. 

There is little doubt that a substantial majority of the children develop some psychological problems. The results of the study by the International Organization for Migration demonstrate palpable emotional consequences of separation in about 30.4 percent of the children of the families surveyed. About half of the parents who participated in the study and had become the sole caregivers after their spouses had emigrated report that 48.5 percent of their children were downhearted and dispirited. A third of the children demonstrate declining performance in school, increased anger, a tendency to cry and symptoms of withdrawal and fearfulness. A fifth of the children were often tardy, refused to interact with their circle of acquaintances, had difficulties with peer relationships, and showed aggressive behavior. When the mother was the missing parent, children encountered more behavioral changes (75.1%) than the families with an absent father (24.9%). On the other hand, some parents in the study observed that the children left behind had become more affectionate and mature. Such positive changes were observed in 40 percent of the children. In reality, however, these perceived “positive” behavioral changes could well be a coping strategy to conceal their anxiety and/or prevent the other parent from leaving. 

Parents who stay abroad for a longer period than anticipated cling to the tenacious myth that once their children join them, the family will become as was before and all difficulties and troubles would disappear. Moreover, they are convinced that the children will benefit from the family’s improved economic condition and take advantage of the services available to children in their new country of residence. This may work out in some instances, but in general, difficulties that began in Lithuania become exacerbated in the new environment if the child already had emotional, educational or behavioral problems. 

To gain a better insight into the psychological effects on the left-behind children, this writer analyzed twenty-two clinical case histories of children studied and treated over the last three years at the Child Development Center of the Vilnius University Children’s Hospital. Of course, it is hard to determine to what extent this sample can be viewed as representative because we may assume that the Center receives only cases that have reached a clinical level, and many less acute problems have been treated locally as outpatients. Moreover, many children treated at the Center had already experienced a divorce before one of the parents left to work abroad, while other families broke up soon after departure. The children had lived through a divorce and in many cases had also changed residences and schools. Thus this was not the first time that some of the children experienced loss and felt forsaken. In some families, after a divorce, the fathers did not associate with them and neglected them emotionally. In other families, the fathers had emigrated and the children were cared for by their mothers only. In most instances, the children were left with grandparents or relatives. Two had to be placed in orphanages because of escalating difficulties with caregivers. There is little doubt that the left-behind children at the Center had suffered many grievances. 

Based on their diagnoses, it was possible to separate the children into groups, although only conditionally, because many children have had more than one diagnosis. Within each main group, similarities predominated. The differences, based on each child’s background and experiences, are distinctive and unique. 

The largest group of children used in this study, nine boys and two girls, ages ten to fourteen, was diagnosed with emotional and behavioral problems. A smaller group, six girls and one boy between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, was diagnosed with depression. All had experienced the divorce of their parents, the remarriage of one parent, new additions to the family or, in many cases, multiple attempts to adapt to their new family and, in some instances, a new country. They were conflicted about their parents and angry with them for leaving and not returning. Outwardly, they tended to dominate and control their situation. At the same time they were defensive and suspicious and had difficulty initiating and maintaining emotional bonds. They easily surrendered to negative influences in their environment. 

The third and smallest group of children, three boys and one girl between the ages of eleven and fourteen, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Three children in this group not only experienced their parents’ divorce but were also victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Such children frequently draw attention to themselves by contradictory, antagonistic or evasive behavior and negative responses. They often exhibit symptoms of verbal, physical or passive aggression. Feeling unwanted, they show distinct signs of anxiety, feelings of insecurity and fear of abandonment. They have no friends and show noticeable signs of emotional and social isolation. Very often they retreat within themselves, develop a general lack of interest in anything, suffer sleep disorders and have suicidal thoughts. They find it difficult to maintain order and accept rules. They skip school and refuse to study. Eventually, they may leave home, find others like themselves and join antisocial street gangs. 

Below are four case studies that to some extent reflect the groups mentioned above. 

First Case Study 

An eleven-year old boy came to the Child Development Center accompanied by his grandmother. Complaints were the following: the child was uncontrollable, used bad language, did not listen to his grandparents, did not help with household chores, did not do his homework, fought, broke things, manipulated, and left home whenever he chose to. 

The boy was the firstborn in the family. The father left the family when he was two years old and did not associate with his son. Mother and son lived with her parents. After a year, the mother emigrated for work abroad and the child was left in care of the grandparents. At first she returned often, spending time at home, but then remarried and visited only once a year. 

The boy was raised by his grandparents. He did not attend kindergarten. The grandparents tried hard to make sure he lacked for nothing, and provided an exaggerated level of care. The boy attended first grade and did reasonably well at school. After he finished first grade, his mother decided to include him in her new family. When he arrived at his mother’s, he found a younger brother and sister whom he had previously met only once. Another brother was born while he was staying there. He did quite well in school and after one year was promoted to first and then to second grade. But he was not able to adjust to the new family even after three years. At the end of fourth grade, for reasons that are not quite clear, the mother placed him in a temporary foster home, where he spent two months. Later, she sent him back to his grandparents in Lithuania. There the boy was angry and sad, but he succeeded in his studies reasonably well, and there were no major complaints from his teachers. At home, however, his behavior became worse, and his grandparents were unable to control him. He arrived at our Center when his grandparents were reaching the point of not being able to deal with him. 

The child quickly adapted to the Center and was outwardly lively, active, and inclined to stand out. At the same time, he was observed to be anxious, lonely and lacking in confidence. He hid these feelings with conflicting or antagonistic behavior. He overreacted to restrictions on what he wanted to do but also exhibited a need for security and stability. Among his peers, he aspired to a leadership role, especially with younger children, but was easily drawn into conflict situations. It was evident that he had developed a negative attitude toward younger children. In therapy, he exhibited a positive emotional and behavioral dynamic, learned to better control his emotions and behavior, and was successful in keeping promises. Nevertheless, this boy and his family needed ongoing and extensive psychological help. 

Second Case Study 

A fourteen-year-old girl, who was vacationing at her grandparents at the time, came to the Child Development Center accompanied by her grandmother. She complained of anxiety and sadness, loss of appetite and sleep disorders. She had been living in England with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend for two years. 

The girl’s parents separated when she was eight years old, and she had not been in contact with her father since that time. Two years after the divorce, her mother emigrated for work abroad and the girl was left with her grandparents. The girl had great difficulty adjusting to her mother’s departure and was seen by a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication. She stayed with her grandparents for a couple of years and then moved abroad to join her mother. She was able to adjust to the new school and was a good student. However, about half a year before coming to the Center, her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend began to drink and conflicts developed. 

The girl was anxious, tense, sad, depressed, and inclined to suppress her emotions and needs. Among her peers, she tried to appear happy and somewhat effusively tried to draw attention to herself. In her mind, she felt guilty for the situation at home. She refused to talk to anyone about her mother, her mother’s live-in boyfriend and their alcohol abuse. She felt insecure, vulnerable and pessimistic about her future. During therapy sessions at the Center, she calmed down, became more relaxed and free-spirited and opened up with warm emotions. The Center kept in touch with the mother, who voluntarily agreed to seek medical help to cure her addiction. The entire family was urged to seek psychological guidance. 

Third Case Study 

An eleven-year-old boy was brought to the Child Development Center by his mother. According to the mother, her son was irritable and angry, developed sleep disorders and had involuntary facial tics. About half a year ago, the child was sexually molested by a man who was an acquaintance of the family. 

The boy was the second of five children. There was no divorce, but the father had emigrated for work and rarely returned. The boy was a sufficiently good student, participated in several school clubs, and played basketball and soccer. According to the testimony of the boy, he was “accosted” on several occasions by a young man who had previously worked with his father. He did not tell his parents about it right away. When he did, the parents did not notify the authorities until they learned that this man was under investigation for abusing another child. The boy was timid, stressed out, shy, moody, depressed and low on energy. His feelings and needs were suppressed. He had difficulty talking about the abuse and when he did, the facial tics appeared. Therapy sessions centered on how to overcome his traumatic experiences. 

What kind of general conclusions can be drawn from the situations reviewed above? 

Many of our patients have had to deal more than once with the traumatic experience of being left and already know a feeling of loss even before their parents emigrate. Boys develop emotional and behavioral disorders, while girls are more likely to show symptoms of depression. However, it is possible to conclude that the absence of the mother or both parents is a risk factor that may lead from psychological difficulties to a clinical level of disorder. 

Children have adjustment problems not only when one or both parents emigrate without them but also when they join the parents later. In some cases, their mothers had married again and created new families abroad with new siblings, now living with the mother. A couple of the children had the “good fortune” to emigrate and join the new family. The children who join their mother after a long absence are often faced with a new family, a mother whom they haven’t seen for a long time, and brothers and sisters they are meeting for the first time. The long-awaited meeting turns into a serious ordeal for all members of the new family. The newly arrived children do not fit into the family. Such situations require counseling, which in a foreign country may not be easy to obtain. In the above examples, the children were sent back after a short stay because they were not able to adapt to the new family or because of a second divorce. 

It is likely that labor migration will continue and we will need more studies to isolate safeguards and stress factors as well as develop preventive techniques that can be made available to parents and caregivers before their departure. What are the safeguards that may help these children to adjust? It has been shown that the adverse effects of the parents’ emigration are mitigated by more frequent visits by either the father, the mother or both, however brief, as well as the overall length of the separation. In many cases, the grandparents provide a safe and secure environment, and the child forms a strong new attachment to them. 

I would like to add a personal observation. Children of absentee parents often learn how to make their parents feel guilty and make excessive demands on them and other caregivers. Grandparents or other relatives who act as caregivers feel sorry for them, pity them, call them orphans, become overprotective, and do not provide appropriate discipline or set limits. Parents try to compensate for their absence by showering their children with gifts and money. Parents and caregivers should be aware of these pitfalls, learn how to cope with their own guilt feelings and provide proper guidance without overindulgence. 

In conclusion, in spite of efforts to remedy the situation, there remains considerable unease among psychologists about long-term consequences and the overall future of the family. Children usually establish a family model based on their own personal childhood experiences. Questions arise as to whether the left-behind children of today will be able to establish stable and cohesive families when they grow up, or will the price of such separations be too high? 

Translated by Daiva Barzdukas 

Apibendrinimas dėl vaikų, kurių tėvai išvykę į užsienį, teisių ir teisėtų interesų užtikrinimo, sprendžiant jų gyvenimo ir mokymosi klausimus (General Guidelines Concerning the Rights of Children whose Parents Reside Abroad). Vilnius: Lietuvos Respublikos Vaikų teisių apsaugos kontrolieriaus tarnyba, Lietuvos Respublikos švietimo ir mokslo ministerija, 2006. YBTRWOIU.DOC

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