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How prolonged separation affects the mental health of ‘barrel children’

How prolonged separation affects the mental health of ‘barrel children’

Picture of Melissa  Noel
[Photo by Ian D. Keating via Flickr.]

Left behind. Abandoned. Unwanted. These words are often used to describe children left in the care of relatives or friends when their parents move from the Caribbean to other countries for employment.

These children, who often receive material support in the form of food, clothing and electronics, instead of direct care, are referred to as “barrel children” — a term Jamaican sociologist Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown coined in the ’90s.

Instead of moving overseas as a family, the complicated and expensive immigration process often means parents have to migrate alone with the intent of having their children join them at a later date. This staggered pattern of immigration is known as serial migration.

Typically, “barrel children” are separated from their parents between two and 10 years. And, the majority of these children are separated from their mothers.

It’s how Melissa Elias says she felt at the young age of 6. That was when her mother left Elias and her baby brother in the care of their grandmother when she moved to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago.

For almost a decade, Elias communicated with her mother mainly through phone calls — or she’d hear from her when she received goods sent in a shipping barrel.

Now, 36-years-old and a social worker in Brooklyn, Elias says she does understand the sacrifices her mother made, but the impact of that absence still emotionally affects her three decades later.  

The Caribbean is a region with one of the highest percentages of people immigrating in the world, so Elias’ story of separation from her mother is a common one in these communities.

The mass migration of people from the region to places like the United States, which is now home to four million Caribbean nationals, is typically viewed as a development issue, with positive economic effects.

What is often not taken into account is the negative impact such migrations can have on families, particularly the well-being of children, who are separated from their parents for extended periods.

The children who are left behind can suffer from depression, low self-esteem and feelings of abandonment. Psychologists say these feelings can lead to behavioral problems and poor academic performance.

While some “barrel children” are well taken care of by caregivers and do reunite with parents, others may be left to fend for themselves. Some children can be also vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse and predisposed to risky behaviors, which can affect the overall course of their lives.

There are also those “barrel children” whose family reunions with their parents never happen. These children are particularly vulnerable.

For those who do reunite with their parents in countries including the United States, trauma from the separation and the problems caused by it don’t just disappear. In many cases, both the parents and child’s expectations about the reunion are not met.

Family dynamics may have changed with the addition of a sibling or a stepparent. Sometimes a parent is working more than one job or working and going to school, leaving little or no time to help a child adjust or provide adequate supervision. These children are also likely to experience separation once again, when they leave the surrogate parent and friends they had grown accustomed to over the years.

The issues faced at home can be compounded when children who have experienced parental separation start school in the U.S. They struggle to acclimate, not only at home but also at school. According to an American Counseling Association report on the impact of parental migration on children, lack of knowledge about Caribbean culture, family structure and practices by school counselors can hinder a child’s progress.

After reporting a story on this issue for Voices of NY, I have spent the last year researching as well as interviewing many people about this issue — from those who have gone through the experience themselves — to social workers and even filmmakers who have done projects that focus on the impact of it.

What I learned is that although prolonged parental separation due to migration is a common issue in the Caribbean communities I regularly cover, it is rarely if ever discussed. I also realized how imperative it is that this issue not only be seen as an economic or immigration one, but one that can affect the long-term mental health and well-being of children.

For the 2017 National Fellowship, my multimedia story series will explore the long-term emotional and psychological impact that prolonged parental separation due to migration can have on Caribbean children and adolescents. This series will focus on Caribbean youth who are now a part of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States.

[Photo by Ian D. Keating via Flickr.]

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