Left-behind children in China (留守儿童) is the phenomenon of parents from the country’s rural areas leaving their children when they move to urban areas to seek work. Children are left in the care of relatives such as grandparents, family friends or others. In some cases the carer may be unsuited or unable to give adequate care for physical or financial reasons, leading to developmental issues such as vulnerability to becoming a victim of human trafficking, become involved in criminal activities or suffering depression. A census identified over 60 million left-behind children with 40 percent of these under age 5 and 70 percent seeing their parents less than once a year.


Industrial revolution has taken place in China since the 1980s. Rural population rapidly migrate to urban areas for better salary and employment rate. Under the household registration system, people can only enjoy social welfare in their hometown. Therefore, parents are forced to leave their children in rural area for free education and other social welfare.

The problem of left-behind children was first reported in the national newspapers, such as People’s Daily, Guangming Daily and China Youth Daily in 2004. It aroused attention from the whole country and researchers started to investigate this social problem.

Current situation

According to the 6th Population Census in 2010, there are approximately 61 million of Left-behind children in China, that is 21.88% of children in China. They are not only from economically underdeveloped central-west area, but also economically developed cities like Jiangsu, Guangdong and Shandong. The south-western and north-western part of China are more severe than central or eastern part. However, the common phenomenon for these area is that mother in family with female child (under one-child policy in the past, family were allowed to have a child only, either male or female) tend work in other cities and leave the child. The traditional Chinese patriarchy, that is prevalence towards male children might be the reason why mother tend to leave girls at home as left-behind child but not boy. Mothers may face pressure from extended family or divorced due to having female children. As a result, some of them are forced to leave the child and work outside.

The 60% of left-behind children do not know the occupation of parent. The 30% of them can only meet parent once or twice a year, while 15% of them cannot meet parent once a year. Nearly 25%, which is 1.5 billion of children receive contacts from their parent less than 4 times a year.

Most of the left-behind children receive free education from government in their hometown. They perform similar to normal children on academic result and having similar time for playing. Their time spent on housework is a little higher than other children.

The pocket money of left-behind children are similar to others.

Teachers are not familiar with the left-behind child in the class. They cannot tell how many students are left-behind child and under-estimate the number.


Safety problem and mental-health are the most concerning issues for left-behind child. People nowadays generally treated left-behind child as problematic group of children.

Safety Problem

According to the research in 2014, 49.2 percent of left-behind children was once injured, compare to 42 percent for normal children. The percentage of slash, burn, hit by animal, and fell down are also higher than normal children by 5.3, 1.6, 3.9 and 3.1 percentage point respectively. They also account for 61% of new admitted patient in child hospital, and 55.2% of child sexual harassment in China.

Bijie city in Guizhou province has been hard hit by left-behind children accidents. In 2012, 5 left-behind children were lighting up a fire in rubbish bin for warming. They were then dead because of breathing in exceeding amount of carbon oxide gas. In 2014, 12 girls was threatened and raped by school teacher, where 11 of them are left-behind children. In 2015, 4 left-behind children lived under domestic violence suicided by drinking pesticide.

Other accidents happened are as followed:

In 2010, five 6-grade students from Baoji City, Shanxi Province suicided in the temple of their village. They were recovered after sending to hospital. Four of them are left-behind children.

In June 2011, a 10-year-old boy drunk 500ml of pesticide after telling his elder brother he is going to commit suicide in Xian Lantian province. This is not only an issue of left-behind, but also heavy amount of homework and corporal punishment from teachers in rural school. Their parent brought the elder brother together to the city they working at after that.

In 2013, 3 siblings from Nanchang city, Jiangxi province drowned when playing in pool and dead afterward. Their parent is working outside at that time.

In Jan 2014, a young boy suicide in washroom because his mother contacted him said she cannot come back for Chinese new year holiday this year.

In June 2015, 2 sisters are poisoned by a left-behind girl. The girl keep asking teacher when can she go to school during oral confession in police station. Clearly she do not know the consequence of killing people and do not have the concept about law, life and crime. She did not receive proper education from her parent.

In Oct 2015, 3 boarder commit burglary in a primary school dormitory and killed the female supervisor. They went to cybercafe after stole 2000 RMB and a phone.

In June 2016, 2 left-behind children accidentally drunk pesticide and died after sending to hospital.

Mental health Problem & Behaviours

These are the major psychological performance and behaviours of left-behind child:

Low self-esteem – They have feeling of inferiority, but at the same time very self-centred. They are not confident to their appearance and intelligence.

Emotional – They tend to have psychosomatic disorder, which is caused by emotional problem, anxiety and depression. They are rather hostile and feeling lost. The younger or female left-behind children perform more frequent on the above problems.

Defence mechanism – They tend to attribute their own fault to others by self-defence mechanism such as fantasy, rationalisation or regression.

Hatred – They hate and blindly resist their parents.

Inter-personal relationship – They are more introvert and stubborn. They are the target of bullying school.

Play hooky – Left-behind child, especially boys, tend to skip classes or even leave the school.

Misconduct – They are vulnerable to cigarette, alcohol, or even gambling, shoplifting and robbery.

Bad habit – Their living habits are worse comparing to other children in school dormitory. They have lower satisfaction to livelihood.

*Left-behind child with mother leaving their house perform worse than left-behind child with mother at home in the above behaviours.

The performance on the above behaviours depends on the resilience of children. Some children actually perform better than normal children in academic results or other behaviours. The determining factors could be the age, sex, age of becoming left-behind child, frequency of meeting or contacting parents and communication way with parents.

Left-behind child from north-western and south-western part of China are more pessimistic than child from central or eastern part.


According to a small-scale research, 37% of left-behind children aged 14–16 thought of committing suicide, 12% once planned to commit suicide and 6.3% once committed suicided but fail. Children have more than 60% chance of considering suicide when either father or mother left home for work.

Criminal rate

Criminal rate for juvenile increase 13% yearly in recent years. Left behind children’s criminal rate is 70% higher than other juveniles.




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