On Tuesday, November 15th, the Children’s Bureau Learning and Coordination Center held a webinar titled “Supporting Children and Youth Dealing with the Loss of a Parent or Caregiver” hosted by Nilofer Ashan.

Irwin Sandler, PhD with Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Children discussed that child bereavement is a bigger problem than most people realize. According to data, 6.6% of U.S. children experience the death of a parent, which leads to an increased rate of many risk factors like substance use disorder, mental health concerns, and lower academic performance despite their resilience. The chief of these concerns is depression and related suicidal ideations. Dr. Irwin discussed that kinship caregivers can struggle with this process even more as they are attending to children with whom they may not have had this type of relationship in the past, while also reconciling their own grief of the loss of their loved one.

Dr. Sandler discussed findings in their team’s research in promoting resiliency and protective factors found that there is an ability to strengthen these protective factors and resilience that help both caregivers and children in ways that many may overlook. The research team provided a model of the Family Bereavement Program (FPB) that has power in the very simple, practical tools that can be used at home and reinforced by professionals. An evaluation of the FPB program showed decreased grief thoughts, suicidal attempts, and biological stress response as well as a long-term reduction in use of psychiatric medications, reduced the rate of major depression, as well as reduced need for healthcare visits. Dr. Sandler closed with a summary of findings that the FBP strengthened positive parenting, reduced exposure to stressful events, increased child perceived coping efficacy, and increased child emotion regulation.

Deborah Langosch, PhD, LCSW with GrandFamilies Journal and the Grandparents Outcome Work Group discussed that bereavement for children is often different than for adults. For children, it is not just the emotional loss that death brings, but also the logistics of potentially being displaced, relocating areas, and changing schools or losing friends, and other physical dynamics. Children also approach and avoid dealing with death in small pieces or pediatric dosages as death can typically be too large for children and youth to handle all at one time. Many children may also not know exactly how to voice their feelings and how they are grieving so it may be important to observe their behavior, as they may turn to anger or even cling to those close to them more than they usually do.

Dr. Langosch discussed that many caregivers can be at a loss for how to handle the situation and do not know what to say or how to help the child cope. She suggested that many of the popular metaphors like “they went to sleep” can be problematic and cause other issues for the child. Many families need help during these times to locate resources as many counselors in this area may have long wait lists or prohibitive distance and may need some creative solutions for some of the problems that families may need assistance with but that they also need reminding of their strengths during these difficult times.

The webinar concluded with the following resources:

By Chris Bennett, Policy Intern