Attachment and separation experiences of the left-behind children in rural China
The left-behind children (LBC) refer to children living in rural China, who have been left behind by parents going to work in urban regions. The population of LBC is a social by-product of labour migration in society. LBC grow up experiencing prolonged parent-child separations. Research has shown that LBC suffered from emotional distress and were at risk of reduced psycho-social development. While assessing the existing literature on the impact of the parental migration on LBC’s attachment, a meta-analysis was conducted and showed that LBC’s parental attachment security was significantly lower than that of non-left-behind children (NLBC). In the current literature, the children are often perceived as passive victims of adverse life experiences and whose own voices are neglected. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand the key processes of the LBC’s personal experiences of parental migration from their own perspectives. The current research draws on the theoretical framework of attachment theory to explore the LBC’s experiences of the parent-child attachment and the migratory separations from parents. This research used a mixed-method research design, with a quantitative study using an interview- based measure to investigate the distribution of attachment styles of the LBC, a qualitative study using the grounded theory to explore the children’s experiences and a triangulation analysis integrating the findings from the quantitative study and the qualitative study. Thirty-nine LBC participated in the study. All the children experienced lengthy separation from both their migrant parents. Findings revealed that the LBC had high rates of the dismissing attachment styles towards their fathers and mothers, similar to children experiencing other types of separation, such as children in foster care. However, findings also showed that it was possible for some LBC to maintain secure attachment with their parents despite the prolonged separations. The grounded theory focused on the LBC’s agency in doing rural migrant families. During the pre-migration stage, children were placed in a position in their families that lacked agency. They were largely ignored during the decision-making of the migration. The rural migrant families as perceived by the LBC was conceptualised as ‘doing rural migrant families’ that foregrounds the active and ongoing essential family practices of ‘building family collaboration’, ‘maintaining an intact family’ and ‘negotiating support and constraints’. Though starting with a passive position of little agency, the LBC manged to exercise both of their self- focused agency (i.e., making meaning and self-regulation) and other-focused agency (i.e., constructive compliance, resistance, support seeking and giving) in all these family practices. Self-agency was vital to the LBC’s resilience when facing parental migration, and their resilience was part of their whole rural family’s resilience. The processes in the grounded theory suggested key resilience processes in the successful adaptation to the migration for the LBC and their families. The triangulation of the results from the quantitative and qualitative studies suggested that children’s attachment styles might be associated with different parent-child communications, children’s emotional responses and cognitive perceptions. The finding of the current research had implications for the future practices and policies for the LBC and the rural migrant families. The support and care provided for the children should consider the children’s personal agencies and be designed according to the children’s own needs.