Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Talking to Children about Death: Parental Use of Religious and Biological Explanations

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Talking to Children about Death: Parental Use of Religious and Biological Explanations

Article excerpt

The current study reports on parent-child conversations about death. One hundred and thirty parents of children 2- to 7-years of age completed an online questionnaire. The types of explanations of death provided by parents to their children were examined in relation to parental perceptions of their children's physical and emotional reactions, and the religiosity, afterlife beliefs, and death anxiety of parents. Likelihood of conversations about death increased with age of child. The most frequent types of explanations provided to children were religious/spiritual. Both parental level of religiosity and parental level of spirituality were correlated with providing a religious/spiritual explanation. Level of religiosity was also negatively correlated with providing a biological explanation of death. Scores on the Belief in Afterlife Scale (Osarchuk & Tatz, 1973) and Templer's Death Anxiety Scale (Templer, 1970) were positively correlated. Discriminant analysis revealed that parental beliefs in afterlife and death anxiety accurately predicted whether 77.5% of parents provided a religious/spiritual explanation. The majority of parents perceived no physical and emotional reactions in their children and reported that they were satisfied with their conversation. There was, however, a positive correlation between the biological explanation of the irreversibility of death and perceptions of children's generalized anxiety. Previous research has reported that children's fear of death tends to decrease as their biological understanding of death increases, leading some individuals to recommend that death be discussed in biological terms with children. Thus, the current study introduces a new alternative, that providing religious/spiritual explanations of death may act as a buffer to perceived parental perceptions of physical and emotional reactions in children.

Inadequate and unrealistic communication about death is the most significant situational factor causing children to have difficulty working through their grief (Siegel, Mesagno, & Christ, 1990). When parents do not appropriately discuss separation and death with children, this can lead to children becoming depressed (Takeuchi, et al., 2003).

In a familiar, supportive environment, with a trusted adult, children are willing to discuss their fears and emotions about death. Factors such as providing children with additional information about death, and the opportunity to make sense of the death of a loved one, can act as moderating variables in a child's bereavement process (Melvin & Lukeman, 2000). However, little is known empirically about children's developing understanding of death and how early experiences shape their understanding.

There have been both negative and positive correlations reported between children's understanding of death and their experience with loss (Cotton & Range, 1990; Kane, 1979; Reilly, Hasazi, & Bond, 1983). Some have suggested that such findings may be the result of some adults' tendency to use confusing euphemisms to explain death (Butler & Lagoni, 1996). However, as reports on children's experiences are typically anecdotal in nature, it is unclear how often and at what age parents tend to use such explanations. Though a significant amount of empirical research does exist in the area of children's understanding of death (for review see Slaughter, 2005), with some reporting that children as young as 3-years of age can demonstrate an understanding of some components of death (e.g., Speece & Brent, 1996), there is limited research on how death is explained to young children.

When parents and teachers are asked their opinions about death education in the home and classroom, they often report feelings of discomfort around talking to children about death (McGovern & Barry, 2000; Nguyen & Rosengren, 2004). Regardless, children tend to be curious about the topic and look to their parents for information (McNeil, 1983), yet little empirical research has documented these early experiences. …

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