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Absent Parent Doubles Child Suicide Risk

Experts Offer Tips on How You Can Reduce the Risk in Your Kids
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 23, 2003 -- In recent years, the number of kids living with one parent has continued to rise. Now, a new study shows that children of single-parent homes are more than twice as likely to commit suicide. But experts have some tips on how you can help your child cope.

In the latest study, reported in the Jan. 25 issue of The Lancet, European researchers reveal that the risks facing children living with one parent may be even more widespread and immediate. They found the risk of suicide was more than twice as high among children in one-parent households compared with those living with both parents. This conclusion came after first identifying some 65,000 children of single-parent homes and 920,000 living with both parents beginning in the mid-1980s, and examining their death rates and hospital admissions throughout the 1990s.

Children in single-parent homes were also twice as likely to have a psychiatric disease, have alcohol-related problems, and were up to four times more likely to abuse drugs, says study researcher Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft, MD, of the Centre for Epidemiology at the National Board of Health and Welfare in Stockholm, Sweden.

"We are convinced that most single parents do what they can to provide a good upbringing for their children -- and many succeed very well," she tells WebMD. "It is easier, however, to share a job than to do it on your own. We attribute the findings to the greater time pressure and lesser economic resources that pertain to the single-parent household."

While lack of money certainly adds to misery, her data show that a healthy bankbook is no guarantee of a healthy child. The death rate of children living with single parents was actually slightly higher among those whose parents held skilled or higher-grade jobs.

So how can single parents help identify the warning signs and reduce the potential risks to their children -- especially when faced with their own emotional, financial, and time problems?

  • Beware of actions, not mouthing. "All kids feel angry and stressed when their parents divorce, but it's how they respond to it that's important," says Irwin Sandler, PhD, professor of psychology at Arizona State University. "If a child says, 'I hate you' or mouths off in other ways, that is not a warning sign -- as long as he is accepting limits and discipline. The real warning sign is when the child acts out by being overly aggressive, getting involved with antisocial peers, or withdrawing from old friends."
  • Don't overcompensate ... The key to normalcy is just that -- so focus your energies on positive "routine" activities, such as continuing to attend Saturday soccer practice, instead of trips to Disneyland or jam-packed weekends. "Instead, make sure you set time aside -- even if it's less frequently -- to maintain those regular activities."

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