In my experience working at Utah Boys Ranch I have noticed a common theme among many of the boys. A majority of the boys come from families which have experienced loss of a parental figure; or have lost both parents. Many are form single parent families or from reconstituted families. … It is estimated one third of all children will experience such a loss before they are 18.
Although impossible to predict each time some correlations have been made between loss and adolescent behaviors. Some of these are: increased delinquency, lack of self-esteem, taking on more responsibility and reduced intellectual ability. Henry Epstein (1955) found a correlation between delinquency and family life. He studied to life histories of delinquent and maladjusted persons and found an “unwontedly large proportion of individual separated from their families for an extended period in their tender years.”
Another study by David Offord (1979) had similar results. The control group of young women showed 22 percent came from broken homes, as compared to delinquent young women 66 percent came from broken homes.
Eric Poole and Robert Regoli (1979) also conducted a study, but concluded that in addition to lack of parental support at home, the influence of peers also needed to be considered.
Other problems besides delinquency are the result of family problems. Alec Roy (1981) found parental loss before age 17 was the most constant predictor of adult depression. Reduced intellectual ability was noted by Laus Bergman (1981). “The most important influences on intellectual development are found in the early home environment.” He noted males were more susceptible to decreased performance due to family disruption than males. He also noted the effect was diluted depending on the individual’s ability to catch up.
Another aspect of a broken home is that the children have to grow up faster. Adolescents take on increased responsibility with the loss of a parent, often taking on chores, nurturing younger children, being a parental confident, or in the case of abandonment actually taking on the parental role.
Adolescence has been described as a river through which a child must cross to reach adulthood. How the child handles this crossing is based on preparation and inner strength. (Charnley 1955). The youth is dealing with a changing body and increased sexual drives, emotional emancipation, social influence of peers, and values clarification. Eriksen says the crisis of adolescence is identity vs. diffusion. The question facing the teen is “Who am I?” This question has many aspects: sexual, social, vocational, family, and personal. Inability to answer these questions leads to: rebellion, cliques, breaking laws, and defying societal standards. Children of loss have a harder time answering these questions.
Another task of adolescence is emancipation. A stable home can facilitate this process. A missing family, or family that has experienced loss, is a less effective springboard for launching children into adulthood.
Overlaying these concerns is how the child has handled loss. Claudia Jewitt (1982) feels healthy grieving can take up to two years. Jewitt describes three stages of grief: early grief, the initial shock, denial and alarm of a loss; acute grief, yearning and ping and searching for the lost person, strong emotional feeling, disorganization, despair and reorganization; and subsiding grief which includes integration of the loss and a sense of mastery.
Yorick Spiegel (1973) notes that with grief there is regression. The person’s self is deflated. Following this loss, there is a period of reintegration, where the child adapts to the new environment. After this the child’s functioning could actually can be improved, about the same, or less functional than before the loss.
In conclusion it is important to remember that a loss does not equal delinquency. However it does indicate that someone is at risk. This is a population for whom prevention services would be beneficial. Family break-up, grieving and loss added to adolescence is a good predictor of behavioral problem if adequate steps are not taken to provide social support and help youth deal with inner feelings.