When a Child Loses a Parent
Can loss of a parent at an early age affect later relationships?
Posted Feb 04, 2018
As children grow and mature into healthy adults, a crucial part of their development is learning how to form intimate relationships. Despite the often-awkward first experiences that are a normal part of adolescence and young adulthood, these experiences lay the groundwork that will, in many cases, eventually lead to long-term sexual relationships, marriage, or starting a family.
Still, the roots of a child's ability to form interpersonal relationships begins early in life and often depends on the quality of the relationship that children have with their parents. According to attachment theory, young children need to form a strong attachment to at least one primary caregiver who can provide the unconditional love and support that allows them to form develop necessary relationship skills as they grow older. Though this caregiver is most typically the mother, researchers have long recognized that both parents play a critical role in helping children develop healthy personalities and the ability to become intimate with others.
But what happens when a child loses one or both parents before reaching adulthood? Along with the inevitable problems dealing with grief and loss, can being deprived of a parent at an early age affect the kind of intimate relationships children form after becoming adults?
Based on attachment theory, researchers suggest that children dealing with prolonged grief from losing a parent are vulnerable to long-term emotional problems due to their failure to resolve their sense of loss. This can include being prone to symptoms of depression, being more anxious and withdrawn, showing more problems in school, and demonstrating poorer academic performance than non-bereaved children.
Also, for many of these children, this can mean later difficulty in the developmental experiences necessary for successful intimate relationships. Still, while prior studies have examined single-parent households and the impact it has on later relationship problems in children, they often focus on parental loss through divorce or separation rather than death. Actual research looking at the impact of parental death on later relationship problems has been relatively limited up to now.
To address this gap, Beverly Lim Hoeg of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center and a team of Danish researchers recently published the results of a comprehensive research study in the journal Developmental Psychology. Using Denmark's Central Population Register as well as the National Fertility Database, Hoeg and her colleagues collected data on more than 1.5 million individuals to identify a final sample of 35,682 men and 33,691 women who had all lost a parent before the age of 18.
They also collected information on later relationship status, educational background, relationship issues, and medical history over a 14-year period to study changes over time. Data from the non-bereaved individuals were also collected to provide a control group for the study.
Results showed that men and women who had lost a parent before the age of eighteen were at a significantly higher risk of marital separation than non-bereaved men and women. They also appear more likely to enter common-law relationships rather than marriages.
The researchers also found some surprising results when looking at gender of the deceased parent (whether children were more affected by the death of a mother than a father) and age at which the child lost a parent (whether younger children were more affected by death than older children). With both factors, no significant difference in later problems turned up, which contradicted what the researchers had been expecting based on previous research and on attachment theory itself.
One factor that did seem to play a role in later relationships involved the cause of a parent's death. Children who lost a parent to suicide seemed significantly more likely to experience relationship problems later in life than children who lost a parent for other reasons. This is consistent with previous research showing that losing a parent to suicide can leave children especially vulnerable to later emotional problems due to the stigma surrounding suicide.
In addition, as Hoeg and her co-authors point out, whether or not children develop later problems often depends on the surviving parent and how well they can help their children overcome grief and learn to move on with their lives. With time and emotional support from the surviving parent, children are often able to adapt to the loss of a parent and develop new attachments to other people in their lives. Psychologist John Bowlby referred to this process as "attachment reorganization"; children who are unable to form new attachments typically develop later problems as result.
As we can see from studies such as this one, losing a parent at an early age can have long term consequences that cannot be ignored. This is why family counseling can be so important after a parent's death, especially if the loss is unexpected or traumatic, such as with suicide or violent death. Given that an estimated five percent of all children in Western countries experience parental loss before the end of their teenage years, the need for effective treatment programs to help bereaved children and their parents cannot be underestimated.
Along with focusing on how children cope with death, such counseling also needs to provide support for the surviving parent. Given that the parent is often left devastated by the loss of a partner, both emotionally and financially, the process of recovering after this kind of loss can also disrupt efforts to help their children cope effectively.
One successful example is the Family Bereavement Program (FBP), which is specially designed for families of children aged 8 to 16 who have lost a parent. Through a series of group treatment sessions, children and their caregivers can learn a wide range of coping skills that can help them deal with many of the issues surrounding a parent's death. Numerous studies have shown that the FBP can be extremely successful in helping children and their surviving parent improve their relationship skills and learn to move on with their lives together.
Unfortunately, financial realities and lack of available programming nearby often means that many bereaved families are left to cope on their own, with only their families or friends providing support. As the work of Hoeg's team and other research studies show, the long-term consequences of losing a parent at a young age can persist well into adulthood—which is why it is essential that bereaved children and their surviving parents get the help they need to deal with this loss.
Høeg, B. L., Johansen, C., Christensen, J., Frederiksen, K., Dalton, S. O., Dyregrov, A., Bøge, P., Dencker, A., & Bidstrup, P. E. (2018, January 25). Early Parental Loss and Intimate Relationships in Adulthood: A Nationwide Study. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000483