Children’s and adults’ understanding of death: Cognitive, parental, and experiential influences

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This study explored the development of understanding of death in a sample of 4- to 11-year-old British children and adults (N = 136). It also investigated four sets of possible influences on this development: parents’ religion and spiritual beliefs, cognitive ability, socioeconomic status, and experience of illness and death. Participants were interviewed using the “death concept” interview that explores understanding of the subcomponents of inevitability, universality, irreversibility, cessation, and causality of death. Children understood key aspects of death from as early as 4 or 5 years, and with age their explanations of inevitability, universality, and causality became increasingly biological. Understanding of irreversibility and the cessation of mental and physical processes also emerged during early childhood, but by 10 years many children’s explanations reflected not an improved biological understanding but rather the coexistence of apparently contradictory biological and supernatural ideas—religious, spiritual, or metaphysical. Evidence for these coexistent beliefs was more prevalent in older children than in younger children and was associated with their parents’ religious and spiritual beliefs. Socioeconomic status was partly related to children’s biological ideas, whereas cognitive ability and experience of illness and death played less important roles. There was no evidence for coexistent thinking among adults, only a clear distinction between biological explanations about death and supernatural explanations about the afterlife.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)96-115
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date15 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018


  • Understanding of death
  • coexistent thinking
  • parental influences
  • religion
  • afterlife beliefs
  • conceptual development

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