Family Breakdown

The breakdown of families now occurs more regularly, leaving children to cope with the consequences of these changes in their family life. Sometimes parents remain friendly after breakdowns, but they can be acrimonious, leading to children feeling depressed, guilty, withdraw and alienated. Children will therefore require support to help them cope with the relationship breakdown. The child may feel upset and left out. Parents may wish to help children cope with the breakdown. However, sometimes parents may not recognise that their children are grieving, focussing too much on their own needs.

Various factors affect how children cope with the breakdown of families, these include –

  • How the child is treated.
  • How adaptable the child is.
  • Divorce makes children feel insecure.
  • The reasons for the divorce.
  • The parents’ relationship before the divorce.


Bereavement in Families

When a family member dies children react differently from adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that "die" and "come to life" again. Children may not understand the meaning of death until they are around three or four years old. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. However, they will still feel the loss and shock of close relatives in the same way as adults. Infants and children can grieve and feel great distress.

However, they may have a different experience of time to that of adults, so may go through their stages of mourning more rapidly. In their early school years, children may feel responsible for the death of a close relative and may need to be reassured. They may not speak of their grief because they think they might be adding an extra burden to the adults around them. The grief of children and adolescents should not be overlooked when a member of the family dies. They should, if appropriate, be included in the funeral arrangements.

Adding to a child's shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal responsibility of child care. However, death is not the only loss of a family member is not the only loss that children may face today. There may also be the death of friends of the same age, divorce, jail. Children will see on the television and via the internet, all the violent and terrible things that go on in the world. This will make them aware of death in a way that may not have been experienced by previous generations.

Children naturally assume that the world is safe and full of kindness. They will try to answer questions, such as who am I? Why am I here? This safety can disappear if a child begins to feel that the world is not a nice place. Children may feel that adults may not be able to protect them. This may cause them to “act out” inappropriate behaviour, and older children might engage in self-destructive behaviours with drugs, sex or drinking etc. Not all children will respond in this way.

Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as signs when a child is having difficulty coping with grief. According to child and adolescent psychiatrists, it is normal during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. However, long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems. Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.

The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child's world, and anger is a natural reaction.

The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviours. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members. Children may also temporarily revert to a previous stage of their development when they felt safer. After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile; demand food, attention and cuddling; and talk "baby talk."

Younger children frequently believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister died because he or she had once "wished" the person dead when they were angry. The child feels guilty or blames him or herself because the wish "came true."

When families breakdown due to divorce, separation or bereavement, it can have a range of effects on the children. Amato (1994) found that adults who had experienced a divorce in their childhood had more behavioural problems, less education, a lower standard of living, lower job status, lower psychological well being and a greater risk of being a single parent.



The Death of a Parent – The Impact on the Family

The death of a parent is a shattering and powerful experience for anyone, child or adult. For a child, it can make the world we knew suddenly seem like a terrifying place.

"The death of a parent is a shattering experience, wounding us and flooding us with powerful forces. The boundaries of our world are torn away, and suddenly life seems bigger than we might have imagined, terrifyingly bigger. A parent's death can shatter us, leaving lifetime scars, or it can shatter our limits sense of our selves, opening up our world into new dimensions. For the latter to happen we must be willing to take a journey through grief, following what may often seem like a long, dark passage that will, in its own time, open out into vast new worlds."
From Losing a Parent by Alexandra Kennedy

The death of a parent can leave deep wounds that can last the rest of our life. This is particularly the case if the child does not grieve in the appropriate way at the time. For example, they may feel that the other parent needs support, so do not fully attend to their own grief, repressing it.

For example, there is a lot of evidence that suggests the death of a parent during a woman’s childhood can affect her emotional status and adult psychological health. Bifulco et al (1992) found that if a girl lost her mother in childhood, there was double the rate of anxiety disorders and depression than girls who did not have the same experience of bereavement in childhood.

They also found there was a higher rate of adult depression if the mother had died before the child was six years of age. The same rate of adult depression is not shown; however, if it was losing the mother through separation, the rate is only shown when it is through death. McLeod (1991) also found there was a strong link between childhood depression in men and women and the loss of a parent in childhood.

Experiencing a death of a parent is traumatic at any age, as we said earlier, but for young children, it is particularly so. They are suddenly deprived of the love and guidance that a parent can give them. But they also lose their sense of security. They will very vulnerable, particularly if the loss of a parent is also associated with other changes, such as – moving house, a new step-parent, leaving the other parent and so on.

The child may cling to the remaining parent. They may become very concerned about the parent’s heath and be afraid that they will also go, and then the child would be alone (in their eyes). These feelings of vulnerability may never truly go away, but they can be alleviated by the amount the child is able to share the grieving process with their parent and siblings.

If the remaining parent struggles to cope with their own loss and being a parent, the child may almost take over the parenting role. This role reversal puts a lot of pressure on the child, which can stifle their own attempt at grieving.

As a child ages, the child has to integrate this loss into their developing personality and becoming an adult. As the child goes through different rites of passage, such as – reaching 16, 18 and 21, bar mitzvah, getting a driving licence, leaving school, getting married etc, they do so without a parent. So with each event, they may have to revisit their grief. The same will occur through adulthood, when they marry, have children and so on.

Another difficult milestone is when the person reaches the age at which their parent died. For many people, this can be a difficult birthday. It brings with it reminiscing for the lost parent, but also some soul searching about their own future.



New Parents

When a relationship breaks down or a parent dies, the child may eventually be introduced to a new adult who takes on a parental role. In some situations, a new adult may come along and everyone just gets on. This can happen. But in some families, the new adult can lead to differences that are hard for everyone to cope with. Building a relationship with a step-parent is different to building relationships with new friends. With a new friend, WE decide if we want to be their friend, with a new step-parent, the parent decides and the child almost has to accept that and develop the relationship whether they want to. It can take some time for the new step-parent and the child to decide how they feel about each other and how they all fit together within the new family structure. It can be a very intense situation. There are lots of emotions involved in joining a new family and having a new person fit into an existing family. It is important for all parties to realise that they have to try, that all parties are experiencing difficulties and so on. And just because a situation is new and different, does not mean it is necessarily worse than the previous situation.



New Siblings

When a parent starts a new relationship or remarries, the child may find themselves with a new family of step-siblings. The parents can find themselves with new step-children. The new couple may even have another baby, creating a new family consisting of step-parents, step-siblings, but also half-brothers/sisters. It can be a complex arrangement for all concerned and can be hard to deal with.


New Grandparents and Family

Along with a new step-parent or step-siblings, there are also other family members that may become involved. For example, a child may have new step-grandparents. The couple will have new in-laws or parents of their partner to become used to. In some cases, after a marriage breakdown or bereavement, a child may have –

  • Grandparents from their father
  • Grandparents from their mother
  • Step-grandparents from their new step-parent

Depending on the family situation, all of these may want to be involved.