Health professionals require more guidance to prepare and support children when a parent is dying, according to researchers in Surrey.
They called on UK guidelines to follow countries like some in Scandinavia, where it was “mandatory for nurses to involve children in their dying parents’ care”.
“As a young child, unsure of what is happening, the occurrence can be particularly traumatic”
The findings from the study, thought to be the first of its kind, are published in the journal Palliative Medicine. It was carried out by the University of Surrey and the Princess Alice Hospice.
They reviewed 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.
The researchers identified a “number of key barriers” preventing health professionals connecting with parents to help them support their children.
Many perceived themselves to be lacking relevant skills, such as age-appropriate communication and counselling, preventing them from engaging with parents and children.
Fear of making things worse for the children and causing distress in families by saying the wrong thing was also a concern among health professionals, said the authors of the review.
In addition, it was found that some professionals developed “distancing behaviours”, such as focussing on the physical care of the patient, and avoided talking to the parents about their children.
“The UK needs to look to countries like Sweden, where it is mandatory for nurses to involve children in their dying parents’ care”
This tactic was employed to help them manage the pain of over identifying with parents and children, noted the researchers.
Around 23,600 parents with dependent children died in the UK in 2015, according those behind the latest review.
They also highlighted that previous research had shown that, if not prepared or supported afterwards, children are more likely to have higher levels of referral to psychiatric outpatient and specialist services, and be absent from school.
To overcome this problem, health professionals in the study called for more guidance and training in this area and for patient records to “flag up” the presence of young children in the immediate family.
Lead study author Penny Franklin, a postgraduate researcher from Surrey University, said: “Losing a parent at any age is a devastating experience.
“However, as a young child, unsure of what is happening, the occurrence can be particularly traumatic and can have a long-lasting impact,” she noted.
She stated: “More guidance and training is needed by health professionals who need to hold discussions with parents about preparing their children for their Mum or Dad’s death.
“Such discussion – when conducted well – can make this devastating situation more bearable for families, said Ms Franklin.
She highlighted that support systems also needed to be in place for professionals delivering such care in order to allow them “to manage their own emotions”.
“The UK needs to look to countries like Sweden, where it is mandatory for nurses to involve children in their dying parents’ care. In the UK, there is no such requirement,” she said.
She added: “Disappointingly, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines only generally acknowledge supporting patients’ children resulting in them being at risk of being overlooked or forgotten by the system.”