Jump to:  A   |   B   |   C   |   D   |   E   |   F   |   G   |   H   |   I   |   J   |   K   |   L   |   M   |   N   |   O   |   P   |   Q   |   R   |   S   |   T   |   U   |   V   |   W   |   X   |   Y

When a Parent Dies, What Helps a Child Cope?

When a Parent Dies, What Helps a Child Cope?

FRIDAY, March 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- It's hard to imagine what a child may feel when a mother or father dies. Studies have found this crisis can pose serious psychological and developmental problems for years. Now new research suggests kids' academic performance can also suffer.

The extensive study from Sweden finds that after a parent's death, kids tend to struggle with lower grades and even failure in school. If the tragedy was caused by something external -- such as accidents, violence or suicide -- the impact seems to be even more pronounced.

The problems typically hit the underserved hardest. "External deaths are more often associated with relative poverty, addiction and mental health problems than are natural deaths," said lead study author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor of social epidemiology of children and youth at Stockholm University.

Hjern said that higher social and economic status seems to help shield kids from school failure, possibly because students with more resources generally have better academic performance to start with. "Thus the effects of losing a parent usually do not have the same consequences as for low-income children who have a high risk for school failure even without a parental loss," he said.

In other words, almost all kids will have some trouble in school after the death of a parent. But for those already struggling, the crisis can be devastating to their performance.

Other insight emerged into how children tend to react to the grief of a parent's death. When the researchers adjusted data for socioeconomic status, they found no difference in a child's reaction whether the parent who died was the mother or the father. "Surprisingly not," Hjern said.

The study team also discovered that much of the lower school performance they noted among bereaved children is related to family characteristics that existed before the death.

The study, published online March 10 and in the April print issue of Pediatrics, tapped a national data registry to look for an association between parental death before age 15 and school performance at age 15 to 16. Researchers took into account factors such as the family's social and economic situation, parental substance abuse, mental health problems and criminality.

The investigators included more than 770,000 people born in Sweden from 1973 to 1981. Information on time and cause of parental death, and school performance was available for all the individuals included, thanks to the nature and scope of national records in Sweden.

While the study found an association between the loss of a parent and declining school performance, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Special attention should be given in schools to grieving children to prevent a decline in school performance, the researchers concluded. They also stressed that any health services support for these kids should address not only psychological needs, but also issues related to financial problems and the family environment.

The findings ring true to Sarah Feuerbacher, clinical director of the family counseling clinic at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. "It makes complete sense to say that if a child doesn't have healthy parental support they will struggle," she said.

Feuerbacher encouraged families to allow children who have lost a parent to grieve in their own individual ways. "Tell them it's OK to cry any time they want, and let the child lead," she said. "If the child wants to hide away any pictures of the deceased parent, that's fine. If they want to display pictures around the house, that's fine, too."

Many children feel they don't have a trusted adult to talk with, she said. While some adults think they should try to protect children from the pain of grief, that's not the case. The surviving parent and family should encourage the child to open up "however and whenever they want to," she added.

Kids feel the same emotions that adults do, but because of their lack of maturity, they have trouble understanding what they are experiencing, Feuerbacher said. Their interpretation tends to be more black and white. For example, a child may say something like, "my chest hurts," and not realize that the pain is coming from grief. Some kids release their sense of frustration and lack of control with behaviors such as bedwetting or acting out, she explained.

If a parent is facing a terminal illness, Feuerbacher encouraged parents to seek mental health therapy for their children even before death. At any time, younger children can benefit from play therapy where they are free to express themselves through toys -- while older kids often make progress through group therapy, where others with similar problems share stories, challenges and frustrations.

Should all children who have lost a parent be considered at risk? "Absolutely," Feuerbacher said. "And although they may be a couple rungs on the ladder lower [than kids who haven't lost a parent], they may just need a boost to get up those extra rungs."

More information

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has more about children and grief.

SOURCES: Anders Hjern, M.D., Ph.D., professor, social epidemiology of children and youth, Centre for Health Equity Studies, Stockholm University/Karolinska Institute, Stockholm; Sarah Feuerbacher, Ph.D., clinic director, Southern Methodist University Family Counseling Center, Dallas; April 2014, Pediatrics

Reviewed Date: --

Find a pediatrician
Sports Medicine and Adolescent Medicine
Dr. Joel Brenner
Dr. Aisha Joyce
Dr. David Smith
Health Tips
Abuse of Prescription ADHD Drugs Rising on College Campuses
Cool Tools to Keep Your Kids From Smoking
Do Parents Influence Their Kids’ Health Behaviors?
For Kids, Games Can Build Strong Minds
Guidelines for Raising Smoke-Free Kids
Helping Children Conquer Fear
How Old Is 'Old Enough' for Contacts?
Is It Time for Toilet Training?
Making the Most of Family Moments
Parents-to-Be Must Communicate
Preparing Your Daughter for Changes
Reading to Kids Helps Their Development
Someone's in the Kitchen with Grandma
Sports and Music: Both Good for Kids
Talk With Your Kids About These Issues
Talking Sex with Your Teen
Teens and Talk: What's a Parent to Do?
Treating Teen Acne
We Can Head Off Teen Tragedies
Weight Room No Longer Off-Limits to Kids
When to Call the Doctor for Childhood Illnesses
Child Development Quiz
Teen Health Quiz
Diseases & Conditions
Adolescent (13 to 18 Years)
Adolescent Mental Health Overview
Adolescents and Diabetes Mellitus
AIDS/HIV in Children
Amenorrhea in Teens
Anatomy of a Child's Brain
Anatomy of the Endocrine System in Children
Anticipatory Grief
Anxiety Disorders in Children
Asthma in Children Index
Bone Marrow Transplantation in Children
Brain Tumors in Children
Breast Conditions
Chemotherapy for Children: Side Effects
Diphtheria in Children
Dysmenorrhea in Adolescents
Ewing Sarcoma
Female Growth and Development
Grief and Bereavement
Gynecological and Menstrual Conditions
Hepatitis B (HBV) in Children
High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents
Home Page - Adolescent Medicine
Infectious Mononucleosis in Teens and Young Adults
Inflammatory and Infectious Musculoskeletal Disorders
Inflammatory and Infectious Neurological Disorders
Inguinal Hernia in Children
Insect Bites and Children
Kidney Transplantation in Children
Major Depression in Adolescents
Meningitis in Children
Menstrual Disorders
Mood Disorders in Children and Adolescents
Muscular Dystrophy
Myasthenia Gravis in Children
Oral Health
Osteosarcoma in Children
Overview of Adolescent Health Problems
Pap Test for Adolescents
Pediatric Blood Disorders
Poliomyelitis (Polio) in Children
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children
Preparing the School-Aged Child for Surgery
Schizophrenia in Children
School-Aged Child Nutrition
Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis
Sports Safety for Children
Superficial Injuries Overview
Television and Children
The Growing Child: 1 to 3 Months
The Growing Child: 10 to 12 Months
The Growing Child: 1-Year-Olds
The Growing Child: 2-Year-Olds
The Growing Child: 4 to 6 Months
The Growing Child: 7 to 9 Months
The Growing Child: Adolescent (13 to 18 Years)
The Growing Child: Newborn
The Growing Child: Preschool (4 to 5 Years)
The Growing Child: School-Age (6 to 12 Years)
The Heart
The Kidneys
Vision Overview
Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
Your Child's Asthma
Your Child's Asthma: Flare-ups

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.