The development of children’s understanding of death: cognitive, parental and cultural influences
Understanding death is a complex and emotional process that involves the recognition of some key biological facts: a) all humans die (inevitability); b) death applies to all living entities (universality); c) death is permanent (irreversibility); d) with death all physical and psychological functions stop (cessation); and e) death is caused by the breakdown of bodily processes (causality). Understanding of these notions is acquired at different times and at different rates. Children as young as 5 years grasp the ideas that death is inevitable and irreversible, but most do not begin to understand universality and cessation until around 7 years. Although biological understanding of death becomes more sophisticated with age, older children often combine biological and religious or metaphysical ideas to explain what happens after death. These ‘co-existent’ - and apparently contradictory - explanations emerge after children have acquired the biological facts about death. They serve as alternative explanatory frameworks that are often embedded within religious or culturally-specific beliefs.
In this talk, we will present a programme of studies that explore how understanding of death develops between the ages of 5 and 12 years, and whether age is associated with an increased reliance on coexistent explanations about different aspects of death. Our research also explores the extent to which religion, previous exposure to illness or death and parental beliefs shape children’s conceptions. We will present data from studies with children from different cultural and religious backgrounds (i.e., White British, British Muslim and Pakistani) and explore how culturally-specific experiences inform children’s understanding of the death concept. We will discuss preliminary findings from our current studies that examine the influence of parental discourse about life and death on their children’s beliefs and explanations. Finally, we will explore the implications of this exciting research for developmental theory, educational and clinical practice.
Georgia Panagiotaki, Senior Lecturer, Norwich Medical School
Georgia Panagiotaki joined the Norwich Medical School in 2006 as a Lecturer in Psychology. I lead the Psychology theme for the MBBS course and teach Developmental and Health Psychology, and Consultation Skills. I supervise medical students' selected studies (SSS) in Psychology and ClinPsyD trainees' research projects.
Her research has evolved from the study of children’s conceptual development in the domain of astronomy (the topic of my DPhil) to the study of children’s understanding of biology, the human body, and the concepts of life, health, illness and death. Her current research explores the relationship between school children’s knowledge of the functioning of the human body and their ideas about what constitutes healthy food and physical activity. She is also interested in how culture and experience influence children’s reasoning in the biology domain.
Carys Seeley, School of Psychology, University of East Anglia