There is no easy answer when it comes to the question of what is the worst age to lose a parent. While grief and pain are not a competition, the lifelong impacts of losing a parent in childhood depend on the parent-child relationship and the support the child receives after the death.
Many people assume that losing a parent as a child at a younger age is the hardest thing because losing an attachment figure is a painful experience. However, if the child has a strong support system in place to help them process grief, they can still develop a secure attachment and thrive.
How the Death of a Parent Affects a Child
Losing a parent at an early age often leads to an increased probability of inadequate child care and worsens the family’s economic status.
In some families, that means added pressures for the grieving child to take on the responsibilities of the dead parent and to isolate themself from friends. In others, The death of parents results in poor psychosocial well-being for the child, changed behavior, increased stress, and sleep disturbances.
Losing a parent during formative years can have significant psychological effects on children. Children who experience parental loss are at a higher risk of negative outcomes, including mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, post-traumatic stress symptoms), shorter schooling, less academic success, lower self-esteem5, and more sexual risk behaviors6.
The long-term effects of parental death can be devastating for children, so it’s crucial that society provides them with the support they need to grieve in a healthy way. Unfortunately, cultural beliefs and misunderstandings often prevent children from getting the appropriate care and support they need, causing them even more harm.
How does the surviving parent’s reaction affect a child?
Children look to their parents for guidance on how to navigate the world. When a parent dies, life for the child often becomes scary and uncertain. The child is left wondering what’s next.
This understandably places a large burden on the remaining parent and other family members who want to help the child grieve. They are also managing their own pain following the death of a loved one.
It is important for the surviving parent to be mindful of their reaction in order to help the child through this difficult time.
While some cultures see bereavement as a positive experience, others encourage adults to suppress their emotions around grieving children. The rationale behind this is that children often look to adults to remain strong and stable during times of uncertainty.
This can lead to adults having suppressed emotions or repressed emotions.
Suppressing emotions is the act of purposely hiding emotions from others. A parent or guardian may feel sadness, but instead of expressing it, they decide to hide it while in the presence of their child.
Repressed emotions are often unconscious. Having repressed emotions is a body’s attempt to get rid of negative thoughts. Repressed individuals may not be consciously aware of their emotions at the moment. These pent-up emotions may eventually come out over time.
There is debate over whether or not suppressing or repressing emotions is a healthy coping mechanism for parents who are grieving.
Some research has found that it hinders the healing process for both the parent and the child, while other studies have found that repressed emotions serve an adaptive role in the grieving process.
What’s more important than whether or not a parent’s emotional suppression or repression is healthy for them, is how their beliefs about emotion negation affect their ability to help their child deal with loss.
If a parent believes that suppressing or repressing emotions is helpful, they may be more likely to teach their child to do the same. This could ultimately hinder the child’s ability to heal and cope with the loss in a healthy way.
The surviving parents’ belief that children are not capable of understanding death or successfully dealing with the emotions and fears it brings often leads them to avoid the topic at home and act “normal” around the child.
But the truth is, children’s ability to positively cope with death can be increased by the actions taken by influential adults in the days, weeks, and months following the loss.