Study reveals high prevalence of bereavement in childhood

More than half of Scottish children have experienced bereavement of a close family member by the age of eight, according to a new study by the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) and the University of Strathclyde.

The research also found the risk of children from deprived households experiencing the death of a parent was five times more likely.

‘The prevalence of childhood bereavement in Scotland and its relationship with disadvantage’ study, which was jointly produced by researchers Nina Vaswani (CYCJ) and Dr Sally Paul (University of Strathclyde’s School of Social Work and Social Policy), used data from the Scottish Government funded Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) research.

GUS is tracking the lives around 14,000 children and their families. The Strathclyde and CYCJ study used eight separate data ‘sweeps’ from a sample of 2,815 children within this group who were usually visited annually, from ten months old to the start of primary six.

It found that by the age of 7.8, 50.8% of the children had experienced bereavement. By the age of ten, that figure had risen to 62%, with the death of one or more grandparents the most common bereavement.

Nina Vaswani said:

“A lack of social support – including from schools – has been documented by some previous research as potentially contributing to feelings of isolation, loneliness and social exclusion with some children reporting bullying and difficulties with friendships.

“But children are really resilient and with just a bit of support from somebody in their social environment they can and do cope with most things. The rates of bereavement are so high in childhood that it would be impossible, and unnecessary, to support all those people by specialist services.

“Grief, in whatever form it presents, is a very understandable reaction to what is a common childhood experience, and should not necessarily be viewed as problematic.

“Instead it’s about making sure that the people in the child’s environment, whether it’s family or friends or teachers, are confident, able and willing to talk about difficult subjects like death and that those conversations are happening with children from an early age.

“It’s also about making sure that no children fall through the cracks and those who need additional support are identified.”

Dr Paul said:

“The findings show that children are not protected from death by virtue of their age. If you have a classroom of eight-year-olds then at least half that class will have experienced bereavement of a close family member.

“We talk about bereavement as a majority experience but there hasn’t been a large prevalence study done in Scotland before and we wanted to have hard figures for that. Our findings suggest that the figure in younger children is much higher than previous estimates and that children with a lower household socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to experience the death of a parent or sibling.

“We believe the figures are actually an underestimate of the true extent of childhood bereavement in Scotland as we only looked at data which reported on the death of close relatives. We don’t know how many children experienced the death of other important people, such as other family members, close friends, neighbours, teachers and so on. We also made the decision not to include people who dropped out the GUS study.”

Dr Paul added:

“Age appropriate bereavement education in early years and primary education, and supporting the capacity of families, peers and community networks could all help engage with children on these issues. This potentially requires significant culture change in society about the willingness and ability to have open and honest conversations with children, as well as implications for professional training and children’s services, including those offering specialist bereavement support such as palliative care services.”

A child born into a family in the lowest income band at Sweep 1 of less than £8,410 per annum, had a five times greater risk of being bereaved of a parent by age ten than a child born into a family in the highest annual income band – more than £33,571. The risk of being bereaved of a sibling was also almost four times higher in the lowest income families as it was in the highest income families.

Dr Paul said: “Our research has shown that there is a link between children from the most deprived households and the risk of a parent dying. The risk is five times greater than for a child from an area of less deprivation.”

Most bereaved children won’t need professional services like counselling, but there is a body of research which argues bereavement can make children vulnerable to anxiety and depression, as well as self-harm and suicide. It has also been linked to underachievement at school, offending and unemployment.

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University of Strathclyde
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