Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 08:14 GMT 09:14 UK
Children 'more upset by divorce than death'
Children are very resilient, says Dr Harrington
Children who lose a parent may be less susceptible to depression than those whose parents divorce, according to a leading doctor.
Dr Richard Harrington argues in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that there is little evidence that children who are bereaved suffer mental health or behavioural problems.
He believes evidence shows that children who have to witness their parents separating or divorcing are much more likely to develop depression than those who have experienced to the death of a parent.
He says that people expect the death of a parent or relative to have a big impact on a child, but many are "extremely resilient".
Many health workers think that bereavement in childhood may be a marker for psychiatric disorders in later life.
Dr Harrington says there has been little systematic research into the area.
He says families have a right to expect that any treatments offered to them have been properly monitored and evaluated.
He debunks some common "assumptions".
Health workers often assume that children should go through the grief process, says Dr Harrington, and that their "failure to mourn" will affect their mental health in adulthood.
He argues that this has never been proven.
He says: "Different children will cope with bereavement in different ways.
"Children who do not go through the conventional grief process do not seem to develop later psychological disorders."
Dr Harrington also states that there is no proof that counselling helps bereaved children and can never harm them.
Research into counselling children for other problems, such as delinquency, has shown that it can harm rather than help, he says.
He cites an American project where boys thought to be at high risk of becoming delinquent were given counselling.
In later life, they were more likely to become delinquent and suffer physical illness than those who had not received counselling.
Dr Harrington said: "Systematic studies are required to make sure that counselling of bereaved children does more good than harm."
Dr Harrington says it may be better to target counselling at children who already have a mental health problem, low self esteem or little emotional support from their families before they suffer bereavement.
Because of the unproven benefits, he argues, it should be directed at children who are most likely to benefit from it.