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03-08 Parental absence affects children’s brain development

Posted in Mental Health

Parental absence affects children’s brain development

For the most part, American children are raised by at least one of their parents unless extenuating circumstances occur such as the death of a parent or if a child is taken away from their parent, both of which are uncommon in first-world countries. Children in third-world countries are often forced to live away from their parents for long time periods.

Children in India are often sent off to live with distant relatives in cities so they can attend school, as it is difficult to attend school while living in a small village. In other Southeast Asian countries such as China, parents often migrate to work leaving their offspring behind for months or even years at a time.

Then there are those who immigrate to first-world countries such as the United States to seek a better life for themselves, often separating parents and children for a long time. Some children cross the border accompanied by their parents, but their parents get deported once they settle in across the border. Although this phenomenon is not new, parental absence and its effects on children’s brain development is an up-and-coming topic that is now being studied.

Parental absence impairs cognition

Most of the previous studies focused on orphans who are left in orphanages. In fact, a famous study on infants who live in Romania’s orphanages showed that over time these orphans have decreased white matter in their brains compared to children who live with local families. The white matter portions of the brain are responsible for cognitive function, emotional processing and attention. It is undetermined whether white matter changes can be reversed and lead to a positive change in behavior.

A more recent study released in November 2015 in China revealed that children of migrant workers had an increase in gray brain matter compared to children who were not born from migrant workers. Migrant workers in China are increasing throughout the years due to economic hardships, forcing parents to leave their children for months and even years at a time to work for sustainable wages.

MRI studies were used to compare children in China who grew up around their parents to children who were away from their parents for long time periods. Those children who were left without their parents showed an increase in brain gray matter, which leads to immature brain function. The brain is derived of white matter, gray matter and cerebrospinal fluid. White matter is not necessarily better than gray matter and vice versa, but the ratios are important as each one is responsible for different functions in the brain. When the ratio is disproportionate, either when white matter is decreased or gray matter is increased, cognitive impairments usually occur.

Because larger gray matter volume might indicate insufficient pruning and maturity of the brain, the negative correlation between gray matter volume and IQ scores could mean that growing up in the absence of parental care could delay the development of the brain. “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,” according to the authors from the Chinese study.

Confirmed by nature

It is not surprising that these results have shown a decrease in cognitive and behavioral function in children who are not raised by their parents. With every species, including humans, there is a certain period when the young must stay with their parents to develop and learn certain behaviors. For example, penguins stay with their mothers until they are about 5 months old to master the skill of hunting. It only makes sense that human young must stay with parents to have full cognitive and behavioral development.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading treatment group with locations across the United States. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego specializes in treating adolescents with addiction, mental health disorders, behavioral problems, and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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