One in seven Americans will experience the death of a parent or sibling before age 20 (New York Life survey, 2010). Given that many children and adolescents will experience the death of a loved one, and that death is universal and an inescapable part of life, it is important for society to understand how youth view death and dying in order to best support them. A child’s understanding of death relates directly to their level of cognition. Piaget’s work on the four stages of cognitive development is a useful framework for considering what children are capable of understanding about death as they develop (Piaget, 1960). Death is a complex concept, and many researchers break down how children conceptualize death into subconcepts. Speece and Brent (1996) found that a child’s concept of death could be broken down into three main components: irreversibility, nonfunctionality, and universality. The first component, irreversibility, describes the understanding that once something is dead it will not come alive again. The second component of nonfunctionality refers to a child’s understanding that all external and internal functions of the human body have stopped working when someone dies. The third component, universality, refers to the understanding that all living things will eventually die and that death is universal and will happen to everyone. Children normally master these concepts in sequence between the ages of 5 and 10 (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Adolescents are aware of death’s nonfunctionality, universality, and irreversibility, yet their development in the biological, cognitive, social, and affective domains presents “dialectical dilemmas” in their understanding of death (Noppe & Noppe, 1991). While in middle childhood children are learning to grasp the main components of the death concept in a Piagetian cognitive-developmental context, adolescents have the intellectual capacities to understand death and its components but do not have a truly mature concept of death due to the dialectical tensions present in this phase of development. As children develop from middle childhood to adolescence, their concept of death becomes more complex; it undergoes a transformation from a binary logical concept to a “fuzzy” logical concept, particularly in regard to noncorporeal continuation (Brent et al., 1996).
Children aged 7 to 12 are in Piaget’s concrete operational stage of development and begin to think more logically about death, though their understanding is also affected by their experiences (Rollins et al., 2005). Nagy (1948) identified three stages in the child’s developing theories concerning death: egocentric thinking with denial of death or perception of death as temporary at 3 to 5 years old; personification, where death is thought of as a human figure who carries people away, from 5 to 9 years old; and finally, recognition of death‘s inevitability and its universality, between 9 and 11 years old. In a fascinating study, Bering and Bjorklund (2004) interviewed participants ages 4 through 12 about the cognitive and psychobiological functioning of a dead agent. In the early elementary age group, ages 6-8 years old, 63% of children thought that psychobiological functioning ceased while 54% thought that cognitive/psychological functioning ceased. In the late elementary group, ages 10-12, 91% of the children reasoned that biological functions no longer applied at death while only 63% reasoned that psychological/cognitive functioning ceased. The authors hypothesize that this discrepancy is caused by the older children’s belief in the afterlife, and that the more time children spend in a given socioreligious milieu, the more they show signs of indoctrination. The results also support that “fuzzy” concepts regarding noncorporeal continuation begin at the onset of adolescence.
Adolescents are in Piaget’s formal operational stage of development and have the intellectual capacities to understand death, yet they are vulnerable to certain tensions that compromise their ability to have a truly mature concept of death. Noppe and Noppe (1991) suggest that adolescents’ understanding of death can be described in terms of four dialectical themes: biological, cognitive, social, and affective. Biologically, there is the tension between physical and sexual maturation, and its inevitable decline once reached. Cognitively, there is tension between the adolescents’ greater understanding of life’s possibilities with the onset of Piaget’s “formal thought”, and the contemplation of death. Socially, adolescents have a greater reliance on their peer group while experiencing an increased sense of isolation. The affective dialectic, highlighted in Erikson’s theory of conflict in adolescence between ego identity and role diffusion, is the tension between the teen’s emerging sense of identity and autonomy interwoven with depression, the emotional separation from family, and sense of loss that comes with that autonomy.
In a study by Noppe and Noppe (1997), the differences in death concepts between early, middle, and later adolescence are explored. Middle school, high school, and college students were surveyed using an open-ended death questionnaire, and clear differences were found between their conceptualizations of death. Middle school students in the early adolescence stage of development did not often worry about death, and referenced their personal mortality in the hypothetical term of “if I die.” They described death as separation from friends and family, and rarely referenced noncorporeal continuation. High school students in middle adolescence varied from the middle schoolers in that they extensively pondered what happens after death and worried about legacy building. The study also found that high school students who believed in noncorporeal continuation engaged in less risk-taking behaviors. The college students in late adolescence were characterized by certainty in their beliefs about the afterlife, and they worried more about death in terms of personal mortality and leaving a legacy than the middle school or high school students. This study is one of a kind and suggests the need for further research on early, middle, and later adolescent death concepts.
A study by Brent, Speece, Lin, Dong, and Yang (1996) perfectly illustrates the changes that occur in the death concept between middle childhood and adolescence and supports the research findings of Noppe and Noppe (1997) and Bering and Bjorklund (2004). The study compared 262 Chinese and 215 American children and teenagers (ages 3-17) understandings of the death subconcepts universality, irreversibility, and nonfunctionality. They found that as children entered teenagedom in both cultures, they developed a more complex and “fuzzier” conceptualization of death, which included both non-naturalistic and naturalistic considerations and uncertainty about the boundary between life and death in terms of noncorporeal continuation. Adolescents were more likely than children to give nonnaturalistic explanations for death and were less likely than children to dichotomize life and death.
While children’s conceptualizations of death and dying have been the focus of many studies, the empirical research on how adolescents conceptualize death is lacking. More research must be done to further understand how adolescents conceptualize death at different ages and the role culture and gender plays in this development. The research available suggests that in middle childhood, children are mastering the death subcomponents in sequence, while at the onset of adolescence, the biological aspects of death are understood logically while ideas of the afterlife and noncorporeal continuation begin to form which leads to a “fuzzy” death concept. This knowledge will assist professionals in providing developmentally appropriate support to children and teenagers who experience the death of a family member or friend.
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Brent, S. B., Speece, M. W., Lin, C., Dong, Q., & Yang, C. (1996). The development of the concept of death among Chinese and U.S. children 3-17 years of age: From binary to “fuzzy” concepts? Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, 33, 67-83.
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Rollins, J., Bolig, R., & Mahan, C. (2005). Meeting children’s psychosocial needs across the health-care continuum. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
Speece, M.W., & Brent, S.B. (1996) The development of children’s understanding of death. In C.A. Corr & D.M. Corr (Eds.), Helping children cope with death and bereavement (pp. 29-51). New York: Springer.