The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic events that can occur in childhood. An estimated 3.5% of children under age 18 (approximately 2.5 million) in the United States have experienced the death of their parent1. So how does the death of a parent affect a child?
What Is The Worst Age To Lose A Parent
Grief and pain is not a competition. There is no “worst age to lose a parent”. The lifelong impact of losing a parent depends on their relationship before and the support they receive after.
How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child
The death of a parent usually increases the probability of inadequate care2 and worsens the family economic status3.
In some families, that means increased pressures for the grieving child to take on responsibilities of the dead parent and to isolate from friends. In others, parental absence is often accompanied by symptoms of poor psychosocial well-being, changes in behavior, and increase in stress and sleep disturbances4.
The psychological effects of losing a mother or a father is also significant. Children who experience parental loss are at a higher risk for many negative outcomes, including mental issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, post-traumatic stress symptoms), shorter schooling, less academic success, lower self-esteem5, and more sexual risk behaviors6.
Given the negative long-term effects associated with parental death, it is imperative that the society helps children grieve in a healthy way. However, cultural beliefs and persistent misunderstandings are often standing in the way of appropriate support for children and doing them a disservice.
How Does The Surviving Parent’s Reaction Affect A Child
Children look towards their parents to love them unconditionally while protecting them from the uncomfortable realities of life. When a parent dies, life for the child often becomes infinitely scarier and uncertain, leaving the child to wonder what’s next.
This understandably places a large burden on the remaining parent, and other family members who want to help the child grieve, while they are also managing their own pain following the death of a loved one.
While some cultures approach bereavement in a positive way, others encourage the adults around grieving children to place their emotions on hold. These cultures often rationalize the practice by citing that children look towards their grownups to remain strong in times of uncertainty.
These adults then have suppressed emotions or repressed emotions.
Suppressing emotions is making a conscious and deliberate attempt to hide emotions from others7. A parent or guardian may feel sadness, but instead of expressing it, they decide to hide it while in the presence of their child.
Repressed emotions are often unconscious. Having repressed emotions is a body’s attempt to do away with bad thoughts. Repressed individuals may not be consciously aware of their emotions at the moment. These pent-up emotions may eventually spill out over time.
On one hand, research has found that it hinders the healing process for parent and the child9. But on the other hand, a study finds that repressed emotions serve an adaptive role in the grieving process.
Whether a parent’s emotion suppression or repression is a good coping mechanism is still in debate8. A parent’s suppressing or repressing may or may not be healthy to their own mental well-being. But what’s more important is how their beliefs in emotion negation affects how they help their child deal with the loss.
When the surviving parents believe children are not capable of understanding death or successfully dealing with the emotions and fears it brings, they tend to avoid the topic at home and act “normal” around the child.
But the truth is, children’s ability to positively cope with death can be increased by the actions taken by influential adults in the days, weeks, and months following the loss.
Rather than sweeping the issue under the rug and pretending everything is fine, caretakers of the grieving children can use the following strategies to help them cope successfully10.
How to Help a Grieving Child
The Family Bereavement Program (FBP) developed by Arizona State University (ASU) is an evidence-based intervention that is directed at parentally bereaved families. It aims to promote resilience of young children and the surviving parents11.
Here are the strategies.
1. Normalize the Grieving Process
How the death of a parent in childhood affects a child depends on how the influential adults around them react to their grief. A child who has lost a parent needs to know that it is acceptable to show emotions and talk about the person who died. Normalizing the grieving process is important. It allows kids to reduce anxieties about the future.
Children can feel a variety of emotions following a parent’s death, including anger and guilt. They need to know that the death is never the child’s fault. It is also normal that the child may think they see or dream about their deceased parent. They don’t have to forget about the parents who died.
2. Use Positive Parenting
Quite often, children may communicate their difficulty adjusting to the changes following the death by misbehaving. By using positive parenting, parents create a positive parent-child relationship and an environment that allows for open communication.
Parents who practice positive parenting are warm and supportive. They use effective positive discipline in which the parent is kind and firm. Effective positive parenting can help children’s adjustment after their parent’s death. It reduces the likelihood of child mental illness like major depression disorder and promotes better adaptation in the bereaved children12.
3. Reduce Child Exposure to Negative Life Events
Negative life events following the parental loss are linked to increase in child mental health problems13. For example, holidays can be difficult for bereaved families in the first two years, especially the children. Parents can use good listening skills to provide children with a safe environment to talk about their feelings about the holiday.
One area that is often of concern to bereaved children is their parent’s beginning to date and develop new long-term love interests. Parents can introduce a new partner or family member slowly. Talk with their children openly and in an age appropriate manner about the relationship.
4. Improve Child Coping Skills
Active coping strategies are associated with more positive adaptation following the death of one or both parents14. These strategies include:
- reframe negative self-statements into more positive self talk and include optimism
- give up the belief that one can control uncontrollable events and identify events one can control
- focus on problem solving
- seeking out emotional support to help manage stressful situations.
To help bereaved children gain a sense of efficacy, parents can ask their children to set goals in practicing these skills. They can provide specific positive feedback when the kids make use of these strategies. Parents should also express an ongoing belief in their children’s ability to deal with their problems.
Bereaved children can feel more helplessness and believe that they have less control over events happening to them than their non-bereaved peers.
Helping children manage this anxiety after losing a parent at a young age can be done by by focusing on teaching children where their responsibilities lie. Promote “an adaptive sense of control by focusing on distinguishing the problems that are the child’s ‘job to fix’ versus the problems that are adult’s responsibility”15.
For example, the remaining parent finds it difficult for themselves to cope with the loss, they should first be honest with the child about their struggles. The parent can then let them know they do not expect the child to help them and will instead go to a trained professional.
Children benefit from hearing that the parent will be able to manage his/or her distress better over time and that their job involves focusing on tasks such as completing homework assignments and spending time with friends.
Final Thoughts on How The Death of a Parent Affects a Child
When working with FBP practices, be mindful that some strategies will work right away and some won’t. Allow for grace. Understand that this journey must be taken one day at a time. The pain associated with the loss of a parent will likely never go away completely but the surviving parent and their children will find happiness again.
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