12/04/2012 03:22 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Teen Self-Injury Risk Twice As High After Parent's Cancer Death: Study

By Andrew M. Seaman

Dec 4 (Reuters Health) - Teens who have lost a parent to cancer are twice as likely as those who have not to cut or burn themselves, according to a new Swedish study.

About 20 percent of those with one surviving parent said they hurt themselves compared with about 10 percent of teens with both parents.

"We were very surprised to find that so many did it," said lead researcher Tove Grenklo, a behavioral scientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

Earlier research showed that children who lost a parent were more likely to have psychiatric problems, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and anxiety. Grenklo and her colleagues wanted to see if they also were more likely to hurt themselves.

For the study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, they used Sweden's national death databases to find 851 teens who lost one of their parents to cancer between 2000 and 2003, when they were between 13 and 16, and 451 who had not.

"This study is one of the first to establish that (losing a parent to cancer) might be a unique risk factor for this behavior," said Stephen Lewis, who was not involved with the new study but has studied self-injury at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

The researchers said teens may injure themselves after a parent's death because of increased emotional stress and less parental attention but communication can help prevent the behavior. "Children need to know the facts of what happened and why," said Grenklo. "And that it's OK to be sad and talk about the diseased parent." (Editing by Ivan Oransky, Jilian Mincer and Andrew Hay)