Absent Parent Doubles Child Suicide Risk

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

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."

Another thing not to change: Discipline. "Set rules. Maintain rules. Be consistent with rules."

  • ... But pay special attention. "It's not that parents lose interest, but often they are so caught up in their own emotions that in order to get attention, the child may engage in acting-out behavior," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Douglas Jacobs, MD, spokesman for the American Psychiatric Association and founder of the National Depression Screening Program. "Clearly, there's a burden on single parents to sometimes make an extra effort to pay attention to their child."
  • Get friendly with their friends. "If a child is having suicidal thoughts, they tend to share them with their friends -- and generally not their parents," Jacobs tells WebMD. "It may be wise for parents to talk to their friends." If you find the buddies are staying mum, you may want to borrow Jacobs' pet phrase when he lectures high school students on suicide prevention: "It's better to have a mad friend than a dead one."
  • Relax. A single-parent household is a risk factor in child and teen suicide, but it's not the only one. "Factors that play a more crucial role in suicide risk include depression or other changes in mood, acting out, and substance abuse -- which is the major risk factor," says Madelyn Gould PhD, MPH, professor of child psychiatry and public health at Columbia University. "Be vigilant to how your kids are behaving."

Jacobs offers this advice: "Be mindful of any family history of suicide and mental illness, and be aware how family relationships impact the child's developing self-esteem. Mostly, just pay attention to your kids and do the best job you can."

Show Sources

SOURCES: The Lancet, Jan. 25, 2003 • Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft, MD, Centre for Epidemiology, the National Board of Health and Welfare, Stockholm, Sweden • Irwin Sandler, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Prevention Research Center, Arizona State University, Tempe • Douglas G. Jacobs, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; and founder and director, The National Depression Screening Program • Madelyn Gould, PhD, MPH, professor of child psychiatry and public health, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University; and research scientist, New York State Psychiatric Institute.
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