Satellite Children: The Plight of Childhood Separation

Feb 2, 2020 | 360, China, Culture, KariA

Grandmother and Child ©Gauthier Delecroix

Immigrant children sent to their homelands and away from their families, a mutually heart-breaking situation that causes long-term struggles.

Distance between parents and their children is rough for both parties, especially during the formative years of a child. Satellite children, a term coined by psychologist Yvonne Bohr, have to undergo a cruel fate that ultimately ends in dissociation and depression, among other mental issues.

Satellite children are immigrant youths born in Western and European countries that get sent to their (usually) Asian homelands under the care of a relative for a couple of years until they are returned to their parents. The children range from infants to toddlers, though it is common for adolescents to get in the mix. 

Bohr, who has been studying separations since 2006, reported that babies form strong emotional connections and require consistent care with the assurance of protection. These constants tremendously help in the well-being and overall emotional health of the baby. Satellite children are often sent away when they have developed a close bond to the parents, making the distance more difficult and painful. According to Bohr, when they return home, the parents expect the children to be happy, not understanding that to them, it is no longer home.

There are many factors as to why parents resort to this practice; sometimes it is under the guise of immersing the children in their cultural roots. In reality, it is financial struggles and lack of affordable childcare that often leads them to send their children away. The Economic Policy Institute states that infant care costs exceed the average salary of working immigrants in the United States. In New York, a full-time minimum wage salary is $18,720 yearly while the standard annual cost of child care is $14,114 for only one infant. 

Mutual Suffering: The Effects of Parent-Child Separation

There are currently no long-term studies about satellite children, but many researchers and analysts have reported that these youths typically suffer from many mental and behavioral disorders. Because of this, parents are urged to keep their children during these formative years, or at the very least, to bring them back sooner. 

According to school officials, many students who were satellite children act out in class and encourage other students to misbehave to get attention from authority figures.

David Chen, a 26-year old Chinese man from New York, explained what it was like to be a satellite baby. His parents sent him to his grandparents in Fujian when he was one. At the age of five, Chen was sent back to his parents for schooling. He recounts the moment as a painfully confusing time. He said, “I didn’t know who they were – they were strangers to me.” By the time Chen started the third grade, he had already been having suicidal thoughts due to bullying in school and hostility towards his parents.

The reunion is just as painful for parents. To make sure Chen returned safely, his parents worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. To support his education, family time was often sacrificed. Parents lose many years with their children so they fail to build parenting skills. Furthermore, the parent will not have a grasp of the child’s personality and hobbies. All that mixed with the child not recognizing the parent creates a big disconnect— one that may possibly not ever be fixed.

​Fighting the Unfortunate Trend:

A narrative must be put in place between children and their parents. It is essential to both parties being happy with each other and their personal lives. Lois Lee, director of the Chinese-American Planning Council, created a non-profit organization centered on immigrant child care. She has been working with immigrant families for 40 years, helping satellite children adjust and understand their environment in America. It is located in Queens, New York and has one of the largest communities of Chinese immigrants in the United States.

Sending young children back and forth is a cultural trend that creates emotional distance and long-term behavioral difficulties. Lee’s goal is to create a conversation about satellite babies in a safe space while also bringing awareness to the struggles both parent and child must go through. The ultimate mission would be to bring up the need for affordable health and child care in the United States, but before getting into that deeply entrenched issue, it is fundamental to aid the children who have been suffering for years at the hands of this practice.