This morning, yet more evidence that early trauma in children’s lives can ripple out for years: A new PLOS-Medicine study finds children and teenagers whose mom or dad died were 50 percent more likely to die themselves by early adulthood.
Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark analyzed birth and death data from three relatively high-income countries: Denmark from 1968-2008, Sweden from 1973-2006, and Finland from 1987-2006. They found that 2.6 percent of children who lost either parent between the ages of 6 months and 18 years were 50 percent more likely to die themselves by the end of the study period, well into the child’s early adulthood.
Why does this matter to schools? The researchers focused on wealthier countries where the orphaned children were less likely to be left without medical care or resources themselves if their parent died, but there were still “social-behavioral consequences of parental death, such as the loss of a care giver, misbehaviors, and functioning impairment [which] can increase the risk of death from injuries or other external causes.” If the parent died of “unnatural causes,” such as murder or suicide, the child was 84 percent more likely to die. Parent suicide, for example, led to higher rates of both unnatural and accidental deaths.
The findings also come on the heels of an April study in the journal Pediatrics that found longterm academic struggle for children after the death of a parent. There’s a long-established and rapidly building body of evidence that early severe trauma—not just the death of a parent, but ongoing violence, neglect, and the chronic deprivation that stems from poverty—can cause “toxic stress” that makes it harder for students to learn and develop. For a good look at how problems can build up for students in the aftermath of a parent’s death, check out my colleague Ben Herold’s story of Philadelphia student Monica Reyes.
But many of those same studies also show that even severe trauma doesn’t have to turn toxic; children can be remarkably resilient if they are surrounded by a network of support from other adults in their school and community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 120,000 Americans died in 2011 in prime parenting age, between 20 and 50. The death rate was higher for young black and Hispanic adults than for whites of the same age, and those groups were also more likely to be parents. How much support, and for how long, do schools give to students after trauma? While many school districts have “crisis counselors” and plans in place to support students in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, there are generally fewer resources available for ongoing support, and sometimes teachers and administrators aren’t even aware of earlier trauma if a child changes schools.
As the Denmark researchers concluded: “Parental death in childhood was associated with a long-lasting increased mortality risk from both external causes and diseases, regardless of age and sex of the child and the deceased parent, cause of parental death, as well as population characteristics like socioeconomic background. The findings warrant the need for health and social support to the bereaved children and such support may need to cover an extended time period.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.