Women Who Lose a Parent during Childhood May Experience Separation Anxiety and Anxious Attachment

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Women Who Lose a Parent during Childhood May Experience Separation Anxiety and Anxious Attachment

Jim Windell


            It is estimated that one in 20 children in the U.S. – or about five percent of all kids – will experience the death of a parent by the age of 15. That means approximately one and a half million children or teems will deal with bereavement.

            Losing a parent in childhood is a difficult event that shakes the child's world and affects their mental and physical health in both the short and long term. Studies that examined the characteristics of prolonged mourning reported that it was associated with separation anxiety and attachment style. However, the relationship between the loss of a parent at an early age and resulting psychological symptoms have been poorly studied.

            Yet, research over the past quarter century reveals that even several years following the loss, various reactions have been reported in those experiencing the death of a parent in childhood. Among the reported reactions are social isolation, impulsivity, violent or anti-social behaviors, feelings of loneliness, depression, poor well-being, poor academic achievement, post-traumatic symptoms, social problems, and increased separation anxiety.

            For most people who have lost a parent, these reactions lessen with time, and they make a decent recovery by re-engaging in activities, making meaning out of the loss, and integrating the loss into their lives. However, for around 10 to 20 percent of individuals, the experience of intense sorrow extends beyond the time which is typically considered adaptive (around 6 months) and has a significant impact on their everyday functioning during adulthood.

            A study published recently in Stress and Health increases our understanding of what happens to people who lose a parent during childhood. Carried out in Israel, the study included 60 women who lost one or both parents in their youth and 60 who had living parents. Based on participants’ answers to questionnaires, women who lost a parent reported higher levels of anxious attachment and adult separation anxiety from a partner. The groups did not differ, however, in terms of avoidant attachment, or the desire to maintain autonomy and emotional distance from their parents during childhood and from their partners during adulthood.

            In women who lost a parent, adult separation anxiety and anxious attachment peaked in the initial five years of romantic relationships and gradually declined after a decade.

            In general, the researchers write that it is suggested that the loss of a parent may have a long-term effect on mental well-being and on trust in significant others in adulthood. They point out that it is possible that not only does the child lose a parent, but temporarily, at least, in two-parent families, they lose both parents because, due to the grieving process, the surviving parent is often less able to support their child during this challenging time.

            The authors note that the findings of the research are consistent with attachment theory according to which adult attachment is thought to be influenced by childhood experiences and events. Additionally, say that the results are corroborated by studies that found that separation from a primary caregiver, as a result of death or stressful life events, was related to higher levels of insecure attachment and emotional difficulties.

            According to lead author Ora Peleg, Ph.D., of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and the Academic College Emek Yezreel, in Israel, “A future study is suggested to delve into how the duration of a romantic relationship impacts separation anxiety and anxious attachment among women who have experienced early parental loss in childhood.”

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Peleg, O., Shalev, R., Cohen, A., & Hadar, E. (2023). How is the loss of a parent in youth related to attachment and adult separation anxiety among women? Stress and Health. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.3356



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