Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: When A Child Has Lost A Parent

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Signs that a child may need extra help after a parent’s death

Depression and complicated grief in children can look different from an adult’s. For instance, a common sign of depression in a child is a change in behavior, like sudden changes in grades, withdrawal, or losing friends. Some children seem more angry and irritable than depressed.

Complicated grief is different from the usual grieving process. It’s marked by how long it lasts, how much it interferes with the child’s life, or by how severe it is. Sometimes, a child will seem to be stuck in the process of grieving. Grief reactions or mourning processes like this are not only unusual, but are also unhealthy. If it’s severe and lingers, the child might need professional help to get through the grieving process.

These problems can show up months or even years after the parent’s death. If a child seems to be having trouble, it may mean a more serious problem than the usual grief response to losing a parent. Extra help is needed if a child:

  • Is unable to handle the feelings of sadness
  • Feels sad all the time
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Admits to thinking of suicide or of hurting himself or herself
  • Feels extra irritable
  • Becomes very angry very quickly
  • Has changing grades
  • Withdraws or isolates himself or herself
  • Acts very different from usual
  • Has appetite changes
  • Has low energy
  • Shows less interest in activities
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Cries a lot
  • Has trouble sleeping

When a child shows 1 or 2 of these symptoms, it may help to offer more support. But if the usual ways of handling these problems are not working, or if the problem goes on for more than 1 or 2 weeks, the child may need extra help. (For more serious problems, like if the child is thinking about hurting himself or herself, urgent help is needed.)

It may help to talk to the child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or with the social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the parent was treated. These experts know how other children have responded to situations like this, so they may be able to offer ways to help with the problem. They can evaluate the child and make sure that any needed help is given. They may also be able to suggest books, videos, and children’s support groups that may help. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling.


Last Medical Review: 08/07/2012
Last Revised: 08/07/2012