When a child experiences the death of a parent, the emotional trauma can be devastating. But until recently, few studies have examined the impact of this type of loss relative to the age of the child and the quality of parenting that the child received after the loss. In her study, Angela Nickerson, of the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology Research and Information Center at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, sought to determine how this dynamic affected these children across their life span. “As the life span progresses and the individual reaches adulthood, the psychological and interpersonal consequences of this disturbance may manifest in long-term mental health problems,” said Nickerson. “There is strong evidence that aspects of the family environment, such as quality of parental care and relationship with the surviving parent, are important in affecting long-term psychological reactions following parental loss.”
For her study, Nickerson and her colleagues analyzed data from 2,823 adults who had all experienced the death of a parent during childhood. They used the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview to assess psychological impairment, parental care, and other factors that could contribute to difficulties later in life. They found that the younger a child was at the time of the loss, the more likely they were to develop mental health problems, including anxiety, mood, or substance abuse issues. The study also revealed that family conditions after the death played a significant role. “While the current study focused on the impact of adverse parenting practices on psychological distress, it is possible that positive family relationships and good parenting practices may act as a protective factor against psychopathology following the loss of a parent,” said Nickerson. She added, “These findings have important implications for theoretical conceptualizations of psychological reactions following the loss of a parent across the life span.”
Nickerson, A., Bryant, R. A., Aderka, I. M., Hinton, D. E., & Hofmann, S. G. (2011, October 17). The Impacts of Parental Loss and Adverse Parenting on Mental Health: Findings From the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025695
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