More than 40,000 U.S. kids have lost a parent to COVID-19 and the long-term impacts could be severe, experts warn.
Americans under age 65 account for about 1 in 5 COVID deaths. Of those, as many as 15% involve someone in their 40s and 3% someone in their 40s.
"In these younger age groups, substantial numbers of people have children, for whom the loss of a parent is a potentially devastating challenge," said Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State University.
Using a statistical model to estimate how many kids have lost a parent to COVID since February of last year, researchers say three-quarters are in their teens and the rest are elementary school-aged youngsters.
This reality is more dire for Black families, who have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, researchers said. Of those who lost a parent, an estimated 20% are Black children, even though only 14% of the nation's kids are Black.
The study estimates that deaths due to COVID will boost the nation's total cases of parental bereavement by 18% to 20% over a more typical year -- straining a system that already fails to connect all kids who are eligible to needed resources.
In comparison, the number of kids who lost a parent to COVID is about 13 times the estimated 3,000 kids who lost a parent in the World Trade Center attacks.
Verdery said kids who have lost parents in the pandemic are at higher risk for traumatic prolonged grief and depression, lower educational attainment, economic insecurity and accidental death or suicide.
And the COVID losses come at a time when kids may be facing other pandemic challenges, including social isolation and economic struggles. This may strain their access to support services at a time when they also are less connected to other family and community supports.
"Teachers are such a vital resource in terms of identifying and helping at-risk children," Verdery said in a university news release, noting that this is one reason it is important for schools to resume in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so and provide support for overburdened educators.
Research suggests proven interventions delivered widely could help head off severe psychological problems in bereaved kids, although some may need longer-term support, the authors said.
"I think the first thing we need to do is to proactively connect all children to the available supports they are entitled to, like Social Security child survivor benefits -- research shows only about half of eligible children are connected to these programs in normal circumstances, but that those who do fare much better," Verdery said. "We should also consider expanding eligibility to these resources. Second, a national effort to identify and provide counseling and related resources to all children who lose a parent is vital."
The findings appear in the April 5 issue of JAMA Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more information on helping children cope with grief.
SOURCE: Penn State, news release, April 5, 2021