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Year after year, there are a lot of people who migrate from their countries of origin to other countries to look for greener pastures or for security reasons. For instance, it is estimated that among every five children in the US, one is a child of immigrant parents. These numbers continue to increase. The most common type of migration is the seasonal migration where parents migrate for up to six months to work in the receiving country. Others migrate on their own or together, intending to pick the rest of their family later. This is called serial migration. Parental migration occurs when both parents migrate together or at intervals but with no intention of carrying their children with them to the host country. In other cases, children move to pursue higher education or jobs, leaving their parents and siblings behind. Nazario (2007) argues that about 48000 children leave Mexico and Central America and move northwards illegally in search of work or to leave abusive families. The consequent disruption to the parent-children bond resulting from migration exposes the child not only to a short term, but also long term risk of psychological adjustment. This paper discusses how separation due to migration affects the relationship between parents and their children.
Children develop a social and emotional relationship with significant people who come into their lives. For an infant the first attachment is with the mother. However, another adult, a father or grandparent for instance, can also become the infant’s attachment figure. Attachment helps the child organize perceptions, develop intellectually, become self-reliant, develop a conscience, think logically, form intimate and healthy relationships, and develop mechanisms for coping with fear, worry, stress and frustration.
Separation is a situation where the child is removed from the caregiver, to whom he or she is attached to. Therefore, separation has negative effects on children development and behaviors. It also interferes with the development of a healthy attachment between the parent and a child. It affects parents’ responsibility towards their children. These parents undergo emotional meltdowns when they think about their children. They are not certain if their children are safe or given utmost care by the surrogate caregivers, or facing insecurity if the parents left as a result of war. For instance, Enrique’s mother quit her baby-sitter job because she kept thinking of her own children back home and always felt guilty of taking care of other child rather than her own. Greenberg and Cicchetti (1993) claim that children’s separation from their parents causes anger and anxiety in them. This means that both the parents and their children undergo trauma, and children growing this way will not trust their parents. They end up engaging in bad activities such as drugs and prostitution to make a living. NDC (2012) reports that children who have ever undergone traumatic separations from their parents also exhibit distrust to others, low self esteem, mood disorders, anxiety, depression, inadequate social skills and social-moral immaturity.
In case of parental migration, the parental-children bond is broken since the kids do not know if their parents are ever coming back. Some children are forced to assume adult responsibility at a premature age. For instance, if they are expected to manage money that their parents send back home, or look after their younger siblings in case the parents do not. This becomes the kids’ way of life. This in turn affects their social life and school work too. Due to the resulting emotional turmoil accompanied by separation, some children acquire a waiting-to-migrate mentality which consequently makes them to lose focus on school work. Others leave their homes and illegally immigrate to the US in search of their parents, just like Enrique.
Though most parents try to adopt a surrogate parenting system to try minimizing the interference of their children’s life once they have migrated, there are still numerous reports indicating that many children who are left behind are not taken care of. For Enrique, his father started mistreating him when he remarried and even chase Enrique out of their home. Enrique became irritable even at school and felt rejected.
Surrogate caregivers give little or no emotional and physical nurturers. Therefore, these children often experience the sense of abandonment by their parents. Research shows that over 80% of maltreated children are those that had disoriented or disorganized attachments. This may expose them to dangers such as rape, harassment, sexual and emotional abuse. Similarly, their parents undergo similar stress wondering if their children are taken care of well.
Moreover, despite their parents’ effort to keep in touch through telephone and other mediums, contact is mainly irregular and sometimes there is no meaningful exchange between parents and their children. This inadequate contact creates a distance between the parent and the child. Though communication is there, across-the-border family links will not substitute for the physical presence of the family members in the household. This explains why Enrique travels all the way to the US to look for his mother. Though his mother sends money and keeps in touch, Enrique lacks her presence.
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Because of migration parents do not catch up with the child’s development, neither do they know the child’s likes and dislikes. In addition, the parent does not has a chance to witness the important events of the child’s life and, therefore, when they meet they just feel like strangers to each other. According to Greenberg and Cicchetti (1993), when separated children reunite with their parents they show ambivalence and anger towards them.
Some children may condemn their parents all their lives especially if financial support from their parents is not enough, if parents do not often communicate with them, or if the children are mistreated by their caregivers. This may make the children feel rejected and develop a sense of guilt. Children often blame their parents for their absence, thus they lose trust for them and for other people and take their life in their own hands. Children may, however, either get more attached to the caregivers or turn to friends which may lead them to bad company and neglect their parents. This is what happens to Enrique when he is rejected by his father, his aunt, and finally his grandmother. He leaves “home” and joins his friend Jose with whom they start doing drugs.
It is also worth noting that some studies show that migration may reduce the stress levels for those left at home country since by sending finances back home, the migrants relieve them from economic strains. Belky’s mother is one of them. Belky says that her mother’s migration is what keeps her in school. Therefore, in some case the family members left start living a better life than before and are more financially stable.
In conclusion, while it is evident that there are several reasons as to why parents may separate with their children, it appears that there is little research that addresses parent-child separation resulting from migration. However, this severely understated situation continues to increase in its global prevalence. The study above shows how the parent-child separation due to migration negatively affects their attachment and, consequently, their relationship. According to the study, children experience a feeling of abandonment, guilt, loneliness, anger, mistrust, neglect and condemnation towards their parents. On the parents’ side, they miss out on the great events of their kids’ life, feel loneliness, insecurity about their kids, unresponsiveness, emotional meltdown, as well as experience a weak bond between them and their children. Whereas the migrating parent feels the need for a surrogate caregiver for the children, the surrogate care givers cannot give utmost care like a parent could. Separation weakens or eliminates the parent-child attachment which is crucial to overall child development both psychological and behavioral. It leads to despair, protest, and detachment. Therefore, the importance of further studies on the effects of parental separation as a result of migration should not be underestimated.