Losing A Dad Hurts Boys On A Different Level. Here's How To Help Them Cope.
The death of a parent can be incredibly painful at any age, but when boys lose their dads, they may be more vulnerable to a variety of problems later in life.
The loss of a parent is a universally significant and painful experience at any age, and scientists believe the death of a mother or father changes people on both a psychological and biological level. A new study suggests these bereaved children are more prone to a number of problems as they grieve and grow up, including challenges in relationships and keeping a job, as well as such mental health issues as substance abuse, self-harm, and even an increased risk of suicide. While this is a concern for all children, boys are especially vulnerable.
“The results show that the odds of boys and young men experiencing difficulties are greater, at least in the Finnish context,” says lead author of the study, Petri Böckerman. On top of that, the “emotional attachment may be stronger if the parent and child have the same sex,” meaning that the prognosis for boys who have lost their dads is even more precarious.
The data in question comes from 962,350 Finnish citizens born between 1971 and 1986, with nearly 65,800 of these individuals having had one parent pass away before the age of 21. Although the study didn’t look at whether therapy or other support can manage these risks or if the findings apply to other cultures like the U.S., Böckerman speculates that in countries that lack the universal healthcare coverage of Finland, “the negative effects on mental health may arguably be even larger.”
Böckerman, who is also a research economist at the Labour Institute for Economic Research, believes that part of the reason boys and young men experience such difficulties when losing a parent is because there’s more pressure placed on them to be breadwinners later in life — and when they don’t have the tools to do that, this can lead to low self-esteem and mental health problems. Böckerman speculates that their problems in the workforce likely start with difficulties making friends and concentrating in school, which lead to poorer performance, and can snowball into fewer academic and professional opportunities later in life.
Clinical psychologist Mary Lamia, who was not involved in the study, suspects that gender norms, which socialize girls to express their emotions and discourage boys from doing so, certainly don’t help the matter. “Hiding or suppressing emotions is a response that often results from learned gender roles,” says Lamia, who is the author of Grief Isn't Something to Get Over.
Although the research provides some broad perspective regarding how boys can be impacted differently than girls, Lamia is cautious about making generalizations about any individual child’s grief being “worse” than another’s following the death of a parent — let alone which parent would be a greater loss. The loss of a parent as a child is “a unique and very individual experience,” she says. Böckerman isn’t denying that or saying that one child’s grief is worse than another, however, only that the loss of a parent tends to have different consequences on children of different genders.
How To Support Boys Who Have Lost A Father
There are some ways that adults in the life of a boy who has lost a dad — perhaps the most vulnerable group — can support him in managing his grief. Whether you’re a parent grieving the loss of your partner and co-parent, or a loved one who wants to help but doesn’t know where to start, here are three recommendations to consider.
1. Identify Male Role Models in Their Lives
Fathers tend to spend more time with sons compared to daughters, which on the surface can be seen as favoritism. But Böckerman notes that this has more to do with the role dads play in modeling male relationships and other healthy behaviors to their sons specifically. “The parent of the same sex is arguably an important role model for the development of a child’s personality traits and the provider of social support for the child,” he says.
Since fathers tend to show boys how to grow up and live in the world, finding other paternal figures to shoulder that responsibility is crucial. And because being a dad is such an undertaking, this role can be filled by multiple people.
And in lieu of a male role model during certain points in life, Böckerman stresses that mothers and non-male caretakers are all the more essential. “A stable parent or guardian figure can be particularly important during puberty for boys,” he says.
2. Keep Their Dad’s Memory Alive
As much as boys whose fathers have passed away benefit from the presence of other male role models, leaving space for their dad’s memory is equally imperative. “One danger of imposing role models on a child is unintentionally conveying that his father can be replaced,” Lamia warns.
To avoid accidentally indicating this, it’s important to discuss positive memories of their deceased parent and ask them questions about how they feel along the way. “This should be done naturally throughout the course of conversation,” Lamia says. If a child doesn’t want to talk about it in the moment, let them lead and don’t force it.
When kids are too young to engage in conversations about their grief, encourage them to use their active imaginations to picture their deceased parents and talk to them. “In childhood, fertile imagery may represent a coping mechanism in response to loss,” says Lamia, who has counseled a number of men who lost their fathers at a young age. “A common theme is how they keep their dads with them lifelong — ‘talking’ to their father, imagining their father’s advice, wearing their father’s watch, ring, or bracelet to have him near.”
Most children don’t develop a conscious recall of memories until ages 5 to 7, so if the death of a parent occurs before this, kids rely on what Lamia calls “implicit memories” that help them keep the relationship with their parent alive to whatever extent possible. Such implicit memories are informed by how much their family talks about the deceased, what they see in their friends' parents and the families on TV, and an internal sense that their parent did not intend to leave, Lamia adds. “Through imagery, we can bring the deceased back to life, so to speak, and attempt to make things different.”
3. Lead With Developmental Stage, Not Gender
Although Böckerman’s work provides insight into the mental health of boys and young men who have lost a father, when it comes to specific children who have lost parents, Lamia advises looking at their grief through a developmental lens rather than a gendered one. For instance, some younger children may be able to jump back into everyday activities, but others may act out and get labeled with behavioral problems. Older children might experience a drop in grades or issues with making friends.
“If after a loss the child’s grades decline or he isolates, then intervention and support may be necessary to help get him back on track,” she says. Intervention doesn’t necessarily mean therapy or support groups if they’re not ready for it. Helping boys who miss their dads can also involve sharing memories, photos, and feelings about the parent who is no longer with them.
It’s also reasonable to expect upticks in grief during certain milestones later in life, like when they receive an award, graduate school, get married, or have children of their own. You can anticipate certain challenges for boys who have lost their dads, but it’s impossible to get ahead of them all. Any attempt to do so would risk minimizing a very valid void left in their lives, both experts agree.
“We do not simply ‘process’ a loss and get over it,” Lamia says. “Loss impacts us lifelong.”