When Children Experience Depression After Death of a Parent

Distinguish sadness from depression with these tips

Depressed boy looking out the window of the car

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While there is no way to predict how your child will react to the death of a parent, or how this loss will affect them, 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 they need to heal.

Helping Yourself Helps Your Child

The way that you and other caregivers react to 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 teach a child to be ashamed of their feelings. Keeping feelings inside is a common behavior among people with depression.

Tell Important People in Your Child's Life

Collaborative healing efforts will provide your child with the extra support and love they need 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 the available support.

Make an appointment with your child's pediatrician to discuss how your child 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 them that you will not leave.

Talking with your child on an age-appropriate level and encouraging questions provides a supportive environment. Here are some more suggestions for supporting your preschool and school-age children through the grieving process:

  • Answer any questions they have honestly, but try to keep your answers simple and brief. It's also OK to say that you don't know or that you don't have the answer right now.
  • Avoid using euphemisms for death, such as "resting" or "sleeping forever," as this can be confusing for a child. Instead, explain that when someone dies, their body stops working. They can no longer breathe, talk, move, eat, etc.
  • Reinforce the fact that death is part of life—not a form of punishment.
  • Share any religious or spiritual believes your family has about death and dying.
  • Make sure the child understands that it is not their fault and they are not to blame.
  • Help them understand that their parent is not going to “come back,” even if they are "good."
  • Be careful about associating death with sickness as this can cause them to become fearful about their own illnesses.
  • Use books and online resources to help them understand death.
  • Encourage them to express their emotions and feelings by writing or drawing a picture.
  • Explain what to expect at the memorial services and allow your child to decide if they want to attend. If your child decides to attend, ask a trusted friend or family member to be available in case they can't handle it and want to leave early.
  • Allow older children and teens to play a role in planning the memorial if they want; this can include gathering pictures to display or picking a favorite poem or reading for the memorial service.
  • Encourage your child to spend time with friends and participate in hobbies and social activities; remind them that having fun is OK and it doesn't mean you don't miss or love your deceased parent.
  • Let them know that it will take time to feel better and that it's normal to experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, shame, and anxiety. Teens, in particular, may deal with sadness with displays of anger or risky behavior (such as unprotected sex or substance use).
  • Remind children how much the deceased parent loved them and do your best to talk about them, show them pictures, and share memories.

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
  • Feelings of accountability 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 their sadness or fear continues for an extended period of time, worsens or significantly interferes with their normal functioning, it's 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 use, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

If you or your child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Recognizing Depression

Children who are depressed may feel hopeless, guilty, angry, or misunderstood. Here are a few more signs to watch for:

  • Changes in sleeping habits and appetite
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and hobbies that they used to enjoy
  • A significant drop in school performance
  • Avoidance of school or social activities
  • Vague, unexplained physical complaints, like a headache or bellyache
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

You cannot prevent your child's loss, but you can support them through this difficult time by allowing them 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 them heal.

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  1. Brent D, Melhem N, Donohoe MB, 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. Am J Psychiatry. 2009;166(7):786-94. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.08081244

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