Health professionals require more guidance to prepare and support children when a parent is dying, a new study in the journal Palliative Medicine reports.
In the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of Surrey and the Princess Alice Hospice carried out a review of studies examining the experiences of over 300 health and social care professionals when supporting parents who are dying and preparing their children for what is happening.
After analysing responses, researchers identified a number of key barriers preventing health professionals from connecting with parents to help them support their children. Many perceived themselves to be lacking relevant skills, such as age-appropriate communication and counselling. Fear of making things worse for the children and causing distress in families was also a concern.
To manage the pain of over-identifying with parents and children, professionals developed distancing behaviours, such as focussing on the physical care of the patient and avoided talking to the parents about their children.
Approximately 23,600 parents with dependent children died in the UK in 2015. Previous research in this area shows that if not prepared for parental death, or supported afterwards, children whose parents die are more likely than their peers to have higher levels of referral to psychiatric outpatient and specialist services, and experience absence from school.
Lead author of the paper, Penny Franklin, from the University of Surrey, said health professionals need more guidance and training on how to support children of terminally-ill parents. Support systems also need to be in place for professionals delivering such care, allowing them to manage their own emotions, she added.