2014 Archives

When a parent dies, what helps a child cope?


The following is from the March 14, 2014, edition of HealthDay. Sarah Feuerbacher, director of SMU's Center for Family Counseling, provided expertise for this story.

March 25, 2014

By Barbara Bronson Gray
HealthDay Reporter

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 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."

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