How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child (2022)

The death of a parent in childhood is a traumatic experience. An estimated 3.5% of children under age 18 (approximately 2.5 million) in the United States have experienced the death of their parent​1​. So how does the death of a parent affect a child?

What Is The Worst Age To Lose A Parent

Grief and pain are not a competition. The lifelong impacts of losing a parent in childhood depend on the parent-child relationship before and the support the child receives after the death. There is really no such thing as “worst age to lose a parent”.

Most people assume that losing a parent as a child at a younger age is the hardest thing because losing an attachment figure is a painful thing. However, if the child has a strong support system to help them process grief, they can still develop a secure attachment and thrive.

On the other hand, older or even adult children may suffer a great deal because it is a significant loss in that person’s life or they don’t have close friends to pull them through this period. So there is really no need to compare.

How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child (1)

How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child

An early loss of parents usually increases the probability of inadequate child care​2​ and worsens the family’s economic status​3​.

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, The death of their parents will result in the child’s poor psychosocial well-being, changes in behavior, increase in stress and sleep disturbances​4​.

The psychological effects of losing a mother or a father during formative years are 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-esteem​5​, and more sexual risk behaviors​6​.

Given the negative long-term effects associated with parental death, it is imperative that 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.

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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 others​7​. 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 the parent and the child​9​. 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 debate​8​. 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 affect how they help their child deal with the loss.

(Video) Early Loss of a Parent: Its Impact on Attachment

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 successfully​10​.

Also See: What to Say to a Child Who Lost a Parent

How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child (3)

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 the resilience of young children and the surviving parents​11​.

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 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 depressive disorder and promotes better adaptation in the bereaved children​12​.

How Does The Death Of A Parent Affect A Child (4)

3. Reduce Child Exposure to Negative Life Events

Negative life events following parental loss are linked to an increase in child mental health problems​13​. 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 parents​14​. 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 helpless 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 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​.

(Video) Does a Parent's Death Affect Child Support Payments or Judgment?

For example, if 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/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.

References

  1. 1.

    Social Security A. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration; 2000:1.

  2. 2.

    Tremblay GC, Israel AC. Children’s Adjustment to Parental Death. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. Published online December 1998:424-438. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.1998.tb00165.x

  3. 3.

    Cas AG, Frankenberg E, Suriastini W, Thomas D. The Impact of Parental Death on Child Well-being: Evidence From the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Demography. Published online February 27, 2014:437-457. doi:10.1007/s13524-014-0279-8

  4. 4.

    Harris ES. Adolescent bereavement following the death of a parent: An exploratory study. Child Psych Hum Dev. Published online 1991:267-281. doi:10.1007/bf00705931

  5. 5.

    Dowdney L. Annotation: Childhood Bereavement Following Parental Death. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online October 2000:819-830. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00670

    (Video) When a parent has died : young people share their experiences
  6. 6.

    Rotheram-Borus MJ, Weiss R, Alber S, Lester P. Adolescent Adjustment Before and After HIV-Related Parental Death. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 2005:221-228. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.73.2.221

  7. 7.

    Boag S. Repression, suppression, and conscious awareness. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Published online 2010:164-181. doi:10.1037/a0019416

  8. 8.

    Bonanno GA, Keltner D, Holen A, Horowitz MJ. When avoiding unpleasant emotions might not be such a bad thing: Verbal-autonomic response dissociation and midlife conjugal bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online November 1995:975-989. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.975

  9. 10.

    (Video) Out of Order: Dealing with the Death of a Child

    Haine RA, Ayers TS, Sandler IN, Wolchik SA. Evidence-based practices for parentally bereaved children and their families. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Published online 2008:113-121. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.39.2.113

  10. 11.

    Sandler IN, Wolchik SA, Ayers TS, Tein J-Y, Luecken L. Family bereavement program (FBP) approach to promoting resilience following the death of a parent. Family Science. Published online October 2013:87-94. doi:10.1080/19424620.2013.821763

  11. 12.

    Haine RA, Wolchik SA, Sandler IN, Millsap RE, Ayers TS. Positive Parenting as a Protective Resource for Parentally Bereaved Children. Death Studies. Published online January 2006:1-28. doi:10.1080/07481180500348639

  12. 13.

    Sandler IN, Reynolds KD, Kliewer W, Ramirez R. Specificity of the Relation Between Life Events and Psychological Symptomatology. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. Published online September 1992:240-248. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp2103_5

  13. 14.

    Wolchik SA, Tein J-Y, Sandler IN, Ayers TS. Stressors, Quality of the Child–Caregiver Relationship, and Children’s Mental Health Problems After Parental Death: The Mediating Role of Self-System Beliefs. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online February 24, 2006:212-229. doi:10.1007/s10802-005-9016-5

  14. 15.

    Worden JW, Silverman PR. Parental Death and the Adjustment of School-Age Children. Omega (Westport). Published online January 1996:91-102. doi:10.2190/p77l-f6f6-5w06-nhbx

    (Video) How Does Losing a Parent Affect a Kid's Mental Health? | Loss of a Parent Series | Week 2

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FAQs

How does the death of a parent affect you? ›

Studies show that losing a parent can lead to increased risks for long-term issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The death of a parent can revive past hurts or resentments or alter family relationships and dynamics.

How does the death of a family member affect a child physically? ›

Bereavement in childhood has been shown to link to:

Increase in physical health complaints. Increase in risk-taking behaviours. Higher levels of anxiety and depression into adulthood. Increased risk of school exclusion.

Is a parent dying considered trauma? ›

And although we may understand that the loss of a parent is inevitable in the abstract sense, that knowledge doesn't lessen the grief when a mother or father dies. Losing a parent is grief-filled and traumatic, and it permanently alters children of any age, both biologically and psychologically.

How do you support a child who has lost a parent? ›

How can I support my child?
  1. Encourage your child to find ways of expressing their feelings. ...
  2. Support your child to say goodbye. ...
  3. Talk with them about other ways they can celebrate the person. ...
  4. Spend quality time with your child doing things they enjoy. ...
  5. Encourage them to keep doing their activities and hobbies.

At what age do most people lose their parents? ›

Among people between the ages of 35 and 44, only one-third of them (34%) have experienced the death of one or both parents. For people between 45 and 54, though, closer to two-thirds have (63%). Among people who have reached the age of 64, a very high percentage 88% — have lost one or both parents.

How do children react to death? ›

Common Responses to Death at Different Ages

It is common for all children to feel a wide range of emotions in response to the death of a loved one, including shock, sadness, anxiety, or anger. How they express these feelings depends on their age and development.

Do you ever get over losing your mother? ›

When loss is fresh, it feels like you will feel that way forever—but you won't. “If you allow yourself to grieve, and if others allow you to grieve,” says Schmitz-Binnall, “you will probably notice that the really intense feelings will lessen during the first few months after the death of your mother.”

What we call a child whose parents are dead? ›

An orphan is a child whose parents have died.

How do you accept the death of a parent? ›

If you've lost a parent, here are some of the things that might help you cope:
  1. Recognize Grief Shows Up as Many Different Emotions. ...
  2. Let Yourself Feel All the Emotions That Do Show Up. ...
  3. Establish a Support System. ...
  4. Write Your Parent a Letter. ...
  5. Allow Yourself to Grieve in Small Doses (and Keep Doing So as Needed)
3 May 2022

What should you not say to a grieving child? ›

I lost both my parents when I was your age.” Avoid comparing your losses with those of students or their families. These types of statements may leave children feeling that their loss is not as profound or important. “Tell me more about what this has been like for you.” “You'll need to be strong now for your family.

Should children go to funerals? ›

Firstly, there is no “rule” when it comes to children attending a funeral. Some grieving family members prefer children not to attend as they worry they'll be a distraction from the ceremony, but in most cases kids are allowed to attend.

How do you cope with losing your last parent? ›

The Grief of Losing a Parent Is Complex — Here's How to Start Navigating It
  1. Validate your feelings.
  2. Fully experience it.
  3. Care for yourself.
  4. Share memories.
  5. Honor their memory.
  6. Forgive them.
  7. Accept help.
  8. Embrace family.

What is fatherless daughter syndrome? ›

“Fatherless Daughter Syndrome" (colloquially known as "daddy issues") is an emotional disorder that stems from issues with trust and lack of self-esteem that leads to a cycle of repeated dysfunctional decisions in relationships with men.”

What are the 7 stages of grief after a death? ›

The 7 stages of grief
  • Shock. Feelings of shock are unavoidable in nearly every situation, even if we feel we have had time to prepare for the loss of a loved one. ...
  • Denial. ...
  • Anger. ...
  • Bargaining. ...
  • Depression. ...
  • Acceptance and hope. ...
  • Processing grief.

How long do you mourn a parent? ›

You feel the most of your grief within the first 6 months after a loss. It's normal to have a tough time for the first year, Schiff says. After then, you often accept your parent's death and move on. But the grief may bubble up, especially on holidays and birthdays.

Videos

1. Requiem - Coping With the Loss of a Parent | Adeline Woltkamp | TEDxValenciaHighSchool
(TEDx Talks)
2. How A Loved One’s Death Can Influence You Physically – Sadhguru
(Sadhguru)
3. Losing A Parent: Understood
(BBC Three)
4. Children's understanding of death at different ages
(Child Bereavement UK)
5. Dearly Loved: Dealing with the Death of A Parent
(Alberta Health Services)
6. The death of a narcissistic parent - What to expect
(Courage Coaching)

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