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HIV-Infected Parent's Final Illness Toughest on Teens

Death may ease emotional burden, study suggests

THURSDAY, April 7, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- AIDS takes a heavy emotional toll on the teenage children of HIV-infected parents, with risks for depression and self-destructive behavior peaking just before a parent dies, researchers report.

"We always knew that children suffered long-term consequences when their parents died. But we did not know that the clock starts ticking as soon as their parent falls ill," researcher Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles' David Geffen School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

The six-year study included 307 HIV-infected parents and their 414 teenage children living in New York City.

Half the teens took part in a comprehensive intervention program designed to provide them with skills to cope with their parent's illness, manage negative emotions, plan for the future, and reduce risky sex and drug use behaviors.

Researchers compared the emotional state and behavior of these teens to that of teens in the control group, who did not receive this intervention. The comparisons were done at two separate points before the parent's death, and then at two points after the parent's death.

Teens who worried about the impending death of a seriously ill parent experienced much more emotional distress, negative life events and problems with the law compared to teens whose parents were living with chronic HIV infection.

But these problems seemed to taper off quickly after the ill parent died, the study found. A year after their parent's death, these teens were less depressed than teens of parents with chronic HIV infection.

Furthermore, teens whose parents died of AIDS didn't abuse drugs, or have more problems at school or with peers than teens of chronically ill HIV-infected parents, the researchers found.

The study appears in the April issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Rotheram-Borus said the study results show the benefits of early intervention in such cases.

"By teaching emotional tools to teens during their parent's illness, we give them the coping skills they need to function better as young adults even after they lose their parents. Addressing these families' psychosocial issues results in long-term benefits to society as well as to the young adults involved," she said.

More information

The American Hospice Association has more about grieving teens.

SOURCE: University of California, Los Angeles, news release, April 1, 2005
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