When Children Suffer Depression After Death of a Parent

Distinguish sadness from depression with these tips

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You may be concerned about your children's reaction to the death of a parent and the possibility that their grief will lead to depression. While there is no way to predict how your child will react, or how this loss will affect him, some circumstances may increase the likelihood that a child will experience depression after a parent dies. 

Surviving parents and family members can take steps to ensure that your child receives the support or treatment he needs to heal.

Helping Yourself Helps Your Child

The way that you and other caregivers react to the death will affect how your child reacts. As a parent or caregiver, you will need to address your own grief through outside support or counseling for the benefit of the whole family. Getting the support you need will show your child that healing is important.

Parents and caregivers who express and discuss their feelings are likely to have children who do the same, whereas families who hide their emotions may be teaching a child to be ashamed of his feelings. Keeping feelings inside is a common behavior found among depressed people.

Tell Important People in Your Child's Life

Collaborative healing efforts will provide your child with the extra support and love he needs during this difficult time. Your child's pediatrician, teachers, and friends' parents need to know about the parent's death. Reaching out to those who have daily contact with your child will increase available support.

Make an appointment with your child's pediatrician to discuss how he is coping.

Supporting Your Child

Grief is a normal process and typically does not require medication or therapy. However, you may initially need to spend more time with your child and assure him that you will not leave.

Talking with your child on an age-appropriate level and encouraging questions provides a supportive environment.

Explaining what to expect at the funeral and allowing your child to decide if he wants to attend may relieve some of his anxiety.

Factors That May Contribute to Depression

While a loss of a parent or caregiver is traumatic for any child, the likelihood of this turning into depression depends on four factors, according to a report in the Journal of American Psychiatry.

Researchers found that children whose parents died by suicide or an accident were at higher risk for depression than children whose parents died after developing a sudden and natural illness. Additionally, they found that children in the following situations were more likely to experience depression within two years of the loss when compared to their peers:

  • Past mental health illness, like depression
  • Feel accountable for the parent's death
  • Lost a mother

While these findings suggest that certain circumstances surrounding a parent's death may increase the likelihood of depression in some children, it is important to understand that not all children in these circumstances will become depressed as a result.

When It's More than Sadness

It is normal for a child to feel sad or scared when a parent dies. But if her sadness or fear continues for an extended period of time, worsens or significantly interferes with her functioning, it is important to consult your child's physician for evaluation. Seek immediate attention if your child has thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Early identification and treatment of depression in children are important, as there is potential for short- and long-term consequences such as low self-esteem, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Children who are depressed may feel hopeless, guilty, angry or misunderstood; have changes in sleeping habits and appetite; withdraw from family, friends, and hobbies that they used to enjoy; show a significant drop in school performance; avoid school or social activities; have vague unexplained physical complaints, like a headache or bellyache; and have difficulty concentrating and making decisions.

You cannot prevent your child's loss, but you can support her through this difficult time by allowing her to grieve and by creating a safe and loving environment. Part of that support is recognizing when your child has become depressed and seeking treatment to help her heal.

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Article Sources

  • A Child's Reaction to Death. American Academy of Pediatrics. 
  • How Do Children and Adolescents Experience Depression? National Institute on Mental Health. 
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000.
  • Brent, D., Melhem, D., Bertille, M.B., Donohoe, D., Walker, M. "The Incidence and Course of Depression in Bereaved Youth 21 Months After the Loss of a Parent to Suicide, Accident, or Sudden Natural Death." American Journal of Psychiatry July 2009 166(7):786-794.
  • Feelings Need Check Ups Too. American Academy of Pediatrics. ​