When Children Suffer Depression After Death of a Parent

Distinguish sadness from depression with these tips

Boy in the car
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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 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. 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 okay to say that you don't know or that you don't have the answer right now.
  • Avoid using euphemisms for death, such as he's 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 sicknesses.
  • Use books and online resources to help them understand death.
  • Encourage 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 he wants 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 okay 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 reckless behavior (promiscuity or substance misuse).
  • 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
  • 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.

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 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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