In Brief

Adolescents who have a parent who dies from AIDS experience elevated emotional turmoil and run into increased criminal trouble up to a year before the death, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 73, No. 2). After the parent's death, adolescents' emotional stability generally returns but sexually risky behavior increases, say researchers at the AIDS Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted the study.

Over six years, the researchers followed 414 adolescents who had one parent with AIDS. The participants, 11 to 18 years old, completed a set of surveys every three months for the first two years of the study and twice a year for the remaining time. The assessments included the Brief Symptom Inventory--a measure of mental distress and depression. Participants also completed a survey asking them whether they recently had been convicted of a crime, been incarcerated or labeled a juvenile offender, and they reported whether they'd engaged in unprotected sex.

During the study, half of the adolescents' parents died. Those adolescents reported more emotional distress and criminal misbehavior during the year leading up to their parents' deaths than the adolescents whose parents remained alive.

"The parent is the sickest just before death, and that can be a very stressful time," says one of the study authors, Robert Weiss, PhD, a biostatistics professor. "Afterward, the adolescents often move to a caretaker that may provide a more stable environment."

While emotional stability generally returned to normal within a year after the parents' deaths, the participants reported taking more sexual risks. Increased sexual activity might result as bereaved adolescents seek out increased intimacy from their peers, say the study's authors.

The findings suggest that providing support to adolescents who have parents with AIDS may be most critical in the year prior to the parent's death, says Weiss. Currently many programs focus on helping adolescents after a parent has died, he notes.