Psychological Effects of Parental Death

The death of a parent is one of the most stressful and significant events a child can experience. The psychological effects of a parent's death can affect the child for the rest of her life. Supporting the child and helping her grieve is crucial for her adjustment and overall well-being.

Psychological Distress

It's not surprising that psychological distress is one of the main effects of parental death. Psychological distress can manifest in several ways, ranging from feelings of extreme sadness and grief to anxious feelings or increased stress. But the surviving parent's response to the loss can play an important mediating role for psychological distress in children. A study by Victoria H. Raveis of the Columbia University School of Public Health and fellow researchers, published in the April 1999 issue of the "Journal of Youth and Adolescence," examined the effects of premature parental death due to cancer on school-age children. The study found that openness in the surviving parent's communication was correlated with decreased levels of psychological distress in the bereaved children.

Grief in Primary School-age Children

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Grief is a normal, healthy psychological effect of the loss of a parent -- children undergo their own mourning process just as adults do. But they process their feelings in different ways that can vary by the child's age. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, school-age children might express a range of feelings and emotions, including emotional shock and detachment, which helps them deal with immediate pain of the loss, regressive behaviors, such as:

  • anger
  • or repeating the same questions because they don't fully understand what has happened

Grief in Adolescents

Unlike primary school-age children, adolescents usually understand the meaning of death. They realize that the loss is permanent. Adolescents might express and manage feelings of grief in different ways than younger children. Some of the psychological effects of parental loss on adolescents include withdrawal, relying on friends more than family or difficulty separating from the surviving parent. Adolescents might withdraw from others and process their feelings on their own, but they also often seek out friends or family members for comfort, says the NASP. Sometimes, adolescents who are having extreme difficulty with their feelings of grief might act out in unhealthy ways, such as by experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

Long-term Effects

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Factors Affecting Early Childhood Development

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The psychological effects of a parent's death often continue long after a child has processed her feelings of grief and seems to have adjusted to life following the loss of her parent. On some level, they can continue for the rest of her life. Deep down, she might always feel a sense of loss or pain or experience trouble with self-esteem or bonding in relationships. But some research has found that the child's sex might also play a role in later adjustment and well-being. A study by researchers E. Hailey Maier and Margie E. Lachman of Brandeis University, published in 2000 in the "International Journal of Behavioral Development," examined the effects of parental death before the age of 17 on physical and mental well-being in middle-aged adults. The results of this study found that parental death was positively correlated with increased autonomy in men but with increased depression in women. But every child's reactions, level of resilience and emotional responses are different, and not all children will experience these effects later in life.