Having a mental image of one’s future self and devising a plan to become that person can make all the difference in whether a teen is able to overcome a difficult childhood, say researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and Southwest University in China.
Their findings show that eighth graders performed better in school if they held an “image” of their future selves and devised a strategy to get there. On the other hand, thinking about their unhappy childhood was enough to dampen teens’ optimism and ability to plan their escapes.
For the study, the scientists focused on adolescents in rural China, a population with profound social and economic challenges. These children are often left behind in the care of grandparents while their parents seek higher paying jobs in the city.
Parents are unable to bring their children with them to the city because Chinese law requires that children attend school in the area where they were born, said Dr. Daphna Oyserman, Dean’s Professor of Psychology and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society.
As a result, an estimated 40 percent of all Chinese children in rural areas, as many as 61 million, are left behind, according to the All-China Women’s Federation.
“Their parents, like parents everywhere, sacrifice the present for hopes for the future. I started the studies wondering if calling a child ‘left behind,’ would have negative consequences with the implication that ‘no one loves me.’ Or are the parents able to instill in their children this narrative?: ‘We are doing this so our family can move forward’,” Oyserman said.
“That is what we found: Like their peers, ‘left behind children’ who focus on their possible future selves and especially on strategies to attain these possible future selves, fulfill their parents’ ‘moving forward’ narrative. Their academic performance improves, they have fewer problems at school and feel better.”
This narrative could apply to children anywhere, Oyserman noted. American children, for example, may face homelessness, separation from a parent through divorce, or endure the instability of foster care placement.
Previous research has shown that left-behind children experience a higher rate of injury and illness compared to others, Oyserman said, while they face discrimination by teachers, their communities, and the media.
The researchers conducted four studies with four separate groups of adolescents, all around 14 years old, ranging in number from 124 to 176 students, in the Chongqing region of China. Many of the teens reported being left behind as young as five years old.
The researchers gauged the students’ feelings about being left behind, their future and fatalism, and sought to determine what helps children rise above difficult circumstances.
Their findings reveal that the thought of being “left behind” had a negative effect on the teens’ optimism for the future and increased their fatalism.
Also, believing that their fate and future were not in their control diminished the number of images students had of their future selves, as well as the number of strategies they had to become their future selves, Oyserman said.
Researchers found that left-behind students who had more strategies to attain their possible selves scored better on their exams a year later and were less likely to be depressed, Oyserman said.
“Part of why I wanted to look at this particular group is that China is an enormous piece of the world, both in terms of population and in terms of future trends, and Chinese parents, like any parents, are willing to sacrifice an awful lot in the hope that things will turn out better for their kids,” Oyserman said.
“In our studies, even though children who are left by their parents are clearly emotionally stressed, they are not doing worse academically than the others in their classes,” Oyserman said. “They seem to have gotten this message: ‘Life is hard. Pull yourself up.'”
The research is published online in the Journal Of Adolescence.