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Children's Health

Most Kids Adjust to Sudden Death of a Parent

But Study Shows 10% of Children Who Lose a Parent Are at Risk for Depression
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Preventing Prolonged Grief in Children

Amanda L. Thompson, PhD, a child psychologist at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., has worked with many children who have lost parents. "Not all children and adolescents experience grief in same way," she says.

Understanding why certain children may be at more risk for prolonged grief or depression after losing a parent is important, Thompson says. But it is equally important to look at why some children are more resilient in the face of such profound loss.

A strong social support system including other family members, friends, and members of community or religious groups may help protect children from debilitating grief and depression, she says. "This is particularly important considering that the surviving parent is also in distress," Thompson says. "Sometimes parents aren't in a place where they can provide the type of support that children need after a loss."

New York City-based child psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, agrees.

When a child loses a parent, he or she almost always loses two parents -- the one who passed away and the one who is mourning the loss of their spouse, Hoffman says. Hoffman co-directs the New York Psychoanalytic Society's Pacella Parent Child Center.

"The importance of the psychological state of the surviving parent is crucial to help children and adolescents cope with the death, especially with younger children," he tells WebMD.

"The surviving parent may not realize what is so painful to a child," says Louis Kraus, MD, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Therapy may allow a child to share feelings they can't express to their parents.

It can't be a two-way street. "Parents can't rely on their children for emotional support," he says.

He likens it to putting on oxygen mask while on an airplane in the event of an emergency. Parents need to have their mask on before tending to their child.

The same holds with grief.

"They have to get themselves straight to be able to be there for the children," Kraus says.

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