How does family migration affect children’s wellbeing as they grow up?

Dr Rachel Bennett, Dr Tatiana Eremenko

How does being separated from parents affect migrant children’s wellbeing in later life?

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that more than one in every ten of the world’s international migrants (people living outside their country of birth) are children. Children’s migration is often family-related – but they do not necessarily migrate at the same time as their parents. Financial, legal and other factors may mean parents ‘go ahead’ while children stay with relatives in their origin country.

Over the last couple of decades in particular, academics have studied the wellbeing of children ‘left behind’ by migrant parents. Their findings show that this situation can have positive, negative or neutral effects on children’s wellbeing depending on factors such as the circumstances in which the parents migrated, the children’s contact with their migrant parent(s), the care they receive while separated, and whether and when they are reunited.

Recently, small-scale studies have investigated the wellbeing of children who reunify with parents in the destination country after a period of separation. They have also stressed the importance of family circumstances and relationships for understanding the impact of this experience on children. However, to date, studies have not explored whether the experience of family migration during childhood influences wellbeing into adulthood.

What did our study do?

We sought to investigate whether certain characteristics of migration during childhood were associated with wellbeing outcomes among young adults. We focused our analyses on individuals who had migrated as children to the UK and France and continued to live in these countries. Both countries have experienced significant immigration flows in recent decades, but these differ in terms of origins and patterns of family migration – which meant we could look at different groups of young adults who had migrated as children.

We used data from the first wave of Understanding Society (collected 2009-10) for the UK analysis. It was possible to conduct the analysis because of the ethnic minority boost sample – which increased the number of participants from key ethnic groups. Participants included in the ethnic minority boost sample were asked extra questions including questions on migration trajectories. For the French analysis, we used their Trajectories and Origins (TeO) survey which had a similar design to Understanding Society (such as oversampling people with a migratory background).

We examined the wellbeing of young adult survey respondents (18-25 years) who had migrated to the UK/France as children, and used information from retrospective survey questions to characterise their family migration experience (particularly the relative timing of their migration and their parents’ migration). The wellbeing measures used were: self-rated health, in both countries, mental wellbeing in the UK and level of conflict with parents around age 18 in France. Although the two surveys have different measures of psychosocial wellbeing, each measure tells us something about psychosocial wellbeing in young adulthood.

What did we find?

We found that family migration characteristics during childhood are associated with psychosocial wellbeing in young adulthood, but not with self-rated health. (The lack of association with self-rated health in our sample may be because young adults are generally in good physical health, making it more difficult to detect differentiating factors). In terms of psychosocial wellbeing, young adults who were separated for longer periods from parents during the migration process in childhood experienced poorer outcomes in both destination countries (measured as mental wellbeing in the UK and conflict with parents in France).

Separation from parents, especially for a long period, can disrupt the parent-child relationship. It may later be difficult to recover it, even if they are reunited. Studies of attachment security among the general (not specifically migrant) population have shown us that experience of adverse life events related to attachment in childhood (which separation from parents through migration could conceivably be) can increase the chance of having poorer psychosocial wellbeing in early adulthood.

The experience of migration may increase uncertainty around the transition to adulthood for these young adults, especially those with fewer social, economic and legal resources. This may make them particularly susceptible to potential adverse effects if their relationship with their parents. This may help explain our finding that, on average, young adults who have experienced longer-term separation from parents during migration in childhood do seem to experience poorer psychosocial wellbeing.

How does this help our understanding of the role of the family in the migration process?

Our study shows that, as we try to understand the experiences of children engaged in family-related migration and its consequences, we should consider not only the period immediately after migration, but also later life. Equally, when we analyse the wellbeing of (adult) immigrants, it is important to take their experiences of migration into account and pay close attention to the situation of those who migrated as children.

Our study, Linking the family context of migration during childhood to the well‐being of young adults: Evidence from the UK and France, formed part of a special issue in the journal Population, Space and Place entitled Transnational Families: Cross-Country Comparative Perspectives edited by Prof. Valentina Mazzucato and Dr Bilisuma B. Dito (Maastricht University). The special issue aimed to ‘fill the gap’ in migration research on the similarities and differences in the patterns and effects of family migration and transnational family life. As comparable large-scale cross-national data on these subjects are rare, the authors used original datasets and methodologies to describe transnational family configurations across world regions (Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe) and diverse outcomes (parenting, wellbeing, life satisfaction, family reunification). The inclusion of the ethnic minority boost from the very beginning of Understanding Society, and more recently the immigrant and ethnic minority boost (from 2016), along with questions on migration experiences, make it a valuable dataset for contributing to this international evidence base from the UK perspective.


Dr Rachel Bennett

Rachel is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, specialising in family migration and population health and ageing.

Dr Tatiana Eremenko

is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED) specialising in international migration and migration policies, with an interest in children’s migration and outcomes.