Parental death can have serious effects on children; indeed, in comparison with other forms of family dissolution and disruption, parental death has consistently been found to be the strongest stressor on children (Sandler, Reynolds, Kliewer & Ramirez, 1992). Many of these effects can linger well into adulthood. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on the effects of parental death on children. The review looks at both short-term and long-term effects; it concludes with treatment considerations.
In the first-year period following the death of parent, children can experience diverse emotional and behavioral effects. One of these was examined by Sanchez, Fristad, Weller and Weller (1994) who assessed anxiety symptoms present immediately following parental death and approximately eight weeks later using a sample of 38 prepubertal children. Comparison groups included 38 hospitalized depressed children and 19 normal children.
Bereaved children and parents were administered the Grief Interview and all were administered standard diagnostic interviews. While no bereaved children met DSM criteria for any anxiety disorder, anxiety regarding other family members dying was reported in 55 percent of bereaved children immediately after death and in 63 percent approximately eight weeks later. What these findings show is that fear can actually intensify over the first few weeks following the death. However, it was observed that those bereaved children who had the most anxiety symptoms were also likely to have a depressive disorder. Age and sex of child, sex of surviving parent, anticipation of death, and family history of anxiety or depressive disorders were not significantly associated with increased anxiety.
In another examination of the short-term effects of parental death on anxiety, Tweed, Schoenbach, George, and Blazer (1989) used Duke Epidemiologic Catchment Area data to examine the relationships between: ...