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MedicalXpress: When a parent dies, what helps a child cope?

whenaparentdHealthday reporter Barbara Bronson Gray tapped the expertise of psychologist Sarah Feuerbacher, clinical director of the family counseling clinic at SMU.

The article by Bronson Gray, “When a parent dies, what helps a child cope?,” published March 14 online.

Families should allow children who have lost a parent to grieve in their own individual ways

Healthday reporter Barbara Bronson Gray tapped the expertise of social worker and educational psychologist Sarah Feuerbacher, clinical director of the family counseling clinic at SMU.

The article by Bronson Gray, “When a parent dies, what helps a child cope?,” published March 14 online.

Feuerbacher’s clinical focus is on holistic approaches to working with diverse individuals in their intrapersonal and environmental systems, as well as multifaceted themes of family abuse and healthy relationships. Her current research endeavor is a mixed method cross-case study analysis focusing on increasing self esteem and social skills among young adults on the Autism spectrum using team building interventions through multi-tiered psycho-educational processing groups.

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By Barbara Bronson Gray

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.

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs