Talking with children about death

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By Dr Bob Montgomery PhD FAPS
Adjunct Professor in Psychology, University of the Sunshine Coast
Director of Communications, Australian Psychological Society

Children can be helped to cope with grief and death by learning to understand the nature of death as a biological event.

Children are inevitably confronted by death, through direct or indirect experience or through fictional depictions. Adults understand that death comes to all living things, is the final stage of the life cycle, is inevitable and irreversible, and is caused by a breakdown in the biological functioning of the body. However, children do not think like adults and their reactions to death are shaped by their ideas about its nature.

Early research found that children, like adults, saw death as a highly emotional issue, evoking sadness, anxiety, and fear, particularly of the separation that death may cause. Children’s ideas about death involved some consistent misunderstandings (from an adult point of view) that could exacerbate children’s emotional responses. Children younger than 10 tended to see separation due to death as similar to other forms of parting. Death is behavioural, in that dead people had gone away, to heaven or the cemetery or some such special place, where they continued to live but from which they were unlikely to return, because they were unable or were permanently asleep. It is easy to see how the language sometimes used by adults to discuss death with children could give rise to such ideas.

Later research identified seven components in the adult idea of death: (1) irreversibility; (2) universality and applicability (all living things, but only living things, die); (3) personal mortality; (4) inevitability; (5) cessation (body and mental functions cease after death); (6) causality (death is caused by a breakdown of bodily functions); (7) unpredictability. By ages 5 or 6, children have usually acquired the ideas of universality and irreversibility; but the ideas of cessation and causality are usually acquired last, not until age 7 or older. In other words, an understanding of death as a biological event typically comes last.

Recent research has explored how children build ideas about how the world works by actively building causal ‘theories’. Dr Virgina Slaughter, a psychologist at the University of Queensland, and her colleagues investigated children’s understanding of death in two studies, one in North America and one in Australia. She concluded that young children typically don’t have a sufficiently mature ‘theory’ of the biological nature of life, so they cannot have an understanding of death as a biological event. Researchers generally agree that between ages 5 and 8 children first begin to think specifically about how biology works and how this applies to the human body. Usually between ages 4 and 6, children begin understanding the body as ‘biological’, seeing its major organs as serving the purpose of maintaining life. So by age 7 children are usually understanding life in a way that allows them to begin understanding death.

Implications

Talking with a young child about death is inevitably difficult, because it is highly emotional and requires a level of thinking more mature than usually occurs in youngsters. But there will unavoidably be occasions when adults need to discuss death with young children and to do so in a supportive way. Euphemistic discussions may only serve to maintain children’s misinformation about death, so delaying their coming to terms with it and exacerbating their emotional distress. Expert opinion is that death should be discussed with children in concrete and unambiguous terms.

This means talking, in language understandable to the child, about death as a biological event involving the irreversible cessation of bodily functions. However, such an explanation will not be helpful to a child who has not yet developed a biological ‘theory’ of life, so this may need to be addressed first. Ask the child open-ended questions about the nature of life and death to allow the child to show whether she or he has developed a biological ‘theory’ of life. If not, then the child will benefit from reasonably detailed explanations of the biological nature of life, repeated as often as necessary to achieve understanding. One or two age-appropriate library books may help. An understanding of death as a biological event should facilitate helpful, supportive communication with adults and lessen the child’s emotional pain.

For reference

Slaughter, V. Young children’s understanding of death. Australian Psychologist 2005; 40:179-186.