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Talking to children about death: parental use of religious and biological explanations.

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. As such, the current study aims to investigate how young children begin to understand death by examining the variety of ways that parents are approaching conversations about death, and the emotional and physical impact of such conversations.

Religious and Biological Explanations of Death

Generally, there are two ways that death can be conceptualized. The secular view of death consists of an acknowledgment and understanding of the biological components of death. The other view of death has roots in religion and/or spirituality. Though the role of religiosity and spirituality has been acknowledged as playing an integral role in the lives of young children (Bosacki, Moore, Talwar, & Park-Saltzman, 2011), the spectrum of religious and spiritual views of death is large, and thus beyond the scope of this paper. Furthermore, as the distinction between religiosity and spirituality continues to be discussed by contemporary theorists, the terms are often used interchangeably in the literature (for review see Moore, Talwar, & Bosacki, 2012). Legare, Evans, Rosengren, and Harris (2012) define those "phenomena that violate, operate outside of, or are distinct from the realm of the natural world" (p. 780) as supernatural. Though this term nicely encompasses the wide range of religious and divine beliefs, to remain consistent with the language used with parents who participated in the current study, we will continue to use the terms religiosity and spirituality and make distinctions between the two when necessary.

The religious/spiritual and biological positions on death are not mutually exclusive, as regardless of one's religious/spiritual perspective of what happens when an individual dies, an accurate concept of death must acknowledge that when an individual dies their bodily functions cease to exist in the natural world. Such dualistic reasoning and explanations are pervasive across cultures and considered to be "an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition" (Legare et al., 2012, p. 779). Yet, the majority of research to date has focused on children's biological understanding of death (Lagare et al., 2012). As a result, this exploratory study aims to document one way in which parents are educating children about death by exploring their use of religious/spiritual and biological explanations.

Some researchers have argued that belief in an afterlife arises indirectly via certain errors in attribution and reasoning (e.g., Bering & Bjorklund, 2004), while others argue that the path from the young child's dualism to beliefs about immortality may be more direct (e.g., Anthony, 2006; Estes, 2006; Harris & Astuti, 2006). As adults often categorize perceptions of death into either secular or religious perspectives (Harris & Gimenez, 2005), some have suggested that stories told about death by adults influence young children's ideas about what happens after death (Anthony, 2006; Estes, 2006; Harris & Astuti, 2006). Furthermore, as the value of life plays a central role in many religious and spiritual perspectives, the religious/spiritual socialization of young children and their understanding of death may be related to the religious/spiritual beliefs and practices of their family. For example, Boyatzis and Janicki (2003) documented the religious communication between Christian parents and children, ages 3- to 12-years, using survey and diary entries. Though the concepts of God, Jesus, and prayer tended to be referenced most frequently in parent-child religious communication, heaven, afterlife and the soul were documented as occurring an average of once a week.

Research has shown that even the 3-year-old child is a 'mind-body dualist' and can make a distinction between mental events (i.e., events that are not actually visible) and physical events (i.e., events that can be seen; Bering, 2006; Bering & Bjorklund, 2004). Bering and Bjorklund (2004) reported that though many preschool-age children understand the nonfunctionality or cessation of the physical body after death, these children also tended to attribute psychological traits to the deceased characters of stories.

Such findings could be the result of false positives, but may also be an indication that a new type of reasoning is beginning to emerge during the preschool years. For example, Bering and Bjorklund (2004) reported on the dualistic thinking in which kindergarten and young elementary school age children were found to more often claim that bodily functions cease after death (e.g., the eyes of a deceased individual stop functioning) in comparison to mental functions (e.g., a deceased individual still being able to see). In fact, the older the children were, the more likely they were to state that mental functioning continued after death. When adults tell children stories about what happens after death or share their beliefs about afterlife, they too may contribute psychological traits to deceased individuals.

To investigate young children's beliefs about what happens after death, Harris and Gimenez (2005) asked elementary school children who were either 7- or 11-years-old about the processes after death. They used two different story contexts about the death of a grandparent: one biologically oriented and one religiously oriented. in the biologically oriented narrative, children asserted that most functioning ceases at death and offered biological justifications. However, in the religiously oriented narrative, they asserted that functioning continues after death and offered religious justifications. Thus, children were able to demonstrate two distinct ways of conceptualizing death, a biological conception and a metaphysical conception. In fact, when both children and adults were asked about the irreversibility of death (i.e., that the dead cannot come back to life), children were more likely than adults to insist on the irreversibility of death (Brent & Speece, 1993). These results, as well as those from additional studies on the afterlife beliefs of children and adults, document a progressive increase with age in references made to an afterlife (e.g., Brent, Speece, Lin, Dong, & Yang, 1996; Harris & Gimenez, 2005; Legare et al., 2012). Thus, there are often individual differences in terms of one's understanding versus one's belief about the subcomponents of irreversibility and cessation. This illustrates the importance of considering the spirituality and afterlife beliefs of individuals when examining their understanding of death and the even further significance of exploring the beliefs of parents when investigating the developing understanding of children.

Children's Biological Understanding of Death

Children who are learning about death may be provided with a number of possible explanations depending on the source and context of the information. Conversations may address a number of different areas of death understanding, such as why people die, who dies, and what happens after we die. Throughout the literature there is a consensus among researchers regarding the importance of five major subcomponents that make up the biological concept of death: the inevitability of death (living things must die eventually), the universality of death (it happens to all living things), the irreversibility of death (the dead cannot come back to life), the cessation or nonfunctionality of death (bodily processes cease to function), and the causation of death (characterized by a breakdown of bodily function; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Though the name given to each subcomponent varies somewhat throughout the literature, an understanding of these basic concepts is considered necessary to have a mature biological understanding of death (Slaughter, 2005; Speece & Brent, 1984, 1992).

Early research in children's understanding of death was conducted from a psychoanalytic perspective (e.g., Nagy, 1948, 1965), whereas in the latter half of the twentieth century empirical research of children's understanding of death tended to focus on children's understanding in relation to Piaget's theory of cognitive development. As of 1984, there were more than 40 papers published on children's understanding of death. A review paper by Speece and Brent (1984) examined 35 papers and reported that across studies almost all children demonstrated a mature understanding of each subcomponent by 12-years of age. In addition, it was noted that the majority of children between 5- and 7years of age achieved an understanding of the three major subcomponents of death (i.e., irreversibility, cessation, and universality). In a more recent review, Cuddy-Casey and orvaschel (1997) reported that children are able to develop a complete understanding of death after they reach the chronological or mental age of 9-years-old and there is a consensus throughout the literature of a developmental trend in which the concept of irreversibility is understood first (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). However, what remains unclear is at what age children begin to be provided with different explanations by adults, and how children react to these different explanations.

Fear of Death

Fear is one of the most commonly expressed emotions in response to the concept of death (Moore & Williamson, 2003). Yet, studies investigating adult reports of death anxiety and its relationship to religiosity and belief in afterlife have yielded unclear results. For example, Falkenhain and Handal (2003) reported correlations between religion and death anxiety and religion and belief in afterlife, but did not find a significant relationship between belief in afterlife and death anxiety. Furthermore, there is an existential argument that a child's fear of death can actually interfere with their understanding of death (e.g., Yalom, 1980). However, the content of children's fears tends to change in relation to their age, cognitive development, and emotional understanding (Owen, 1998). For example, while younger preschool age children may fear the boogieman, the dark, and separation from parents, elementary school age children may begin to have more realistic fears such as drugs and violence, as a more developed cognitive structure allows children to make more abstract conceptualizations. Regardless, children as young as 5-years-old have reported a fear of death (Muris, Merckelbach, Gadet, & Moulaert, 2000).

In a study on the fears of elementary-school age children, Owen (1998) reported that the most frequently feared items on the Children's Fear Survey Schedule (CFSS) were related to death, danger, and physical injury. In addition, these fears were not related to cultural background, as Hispanic children's reported fears did not differ from those fears reported by Anglo children. These results suggest that despite social and cultural differences, there seem to be common themes in the fears of children. Interestingly, fear of death and physical injury, two of the most commonly feared items, can be related to children's understanding of the irreversibility of death and its link to the cessation of bodily functions.

Research has also focused on children's understanding of death in relation to their self-reported fear of death and generalized anxiety. In general, fear of death has been found to be negatively correlated with children's understanding of death, as children with a mature understanding of death reported lower levels of death-related fears (e.g., Cotton & Range, 1990; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). In terms of generalized anxiety, that too has been negatively correlated with children's understanding of death (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Such results indicated that in general, children who demonstrated a better understanding of the biological subcomponents of death were less anxious and fearful of death. Yet, it remains unclear what role a religious or spiritual understanding of death plays in children's fears and emotions and how parental attitudes and fears around discussing death influence children's feelings. As a result, the current study will examine parental perceptions of children's emotional and physical reactions to explanations of death, as well as parental death anxiety and afterlife beliefs.

Current Study

The aim of the current study was to contribute to the literature on children's understanding of death by investigating the types of conversations about death that parents have with their children. It also examined the way that children tend to respond to different explanations of death offered by parents. The role of parental religiosity, spirituality, belief in afterlife, and death anxiety, were examined in relation to the content of the parent-child conversations about death.

The study was completed using an online survey that was able to adapt the questions asked based on participants' previous responses. Thus, parents who indicated that they had spoken to their child about death were subsequently directed to a portion of the survey that asked them to provide information regarding the content of their conversations. Parents who indicated that they had provided an explanation of death during their conversation, were then asked to report their level of satisfaction with the explanation they provided. Parents were also asked to report any emotional and physical symptoms that they observed in their child after their conversation. All parents who participated were asked to report on their religiosity and spirituality, in addition to completing Templer's Death Anxiety Scale (DAS) and the Belief in Afterlife Scale (BAS).

Explanations of death were divided into three categories: religious/spiritual, biological, and irreversibility. Religious/spiritual explanations were those that discussed an afterlife, heaven, or made references to God, spirits, or angels. Biological explanations included those that emphasized that the body of the deceased stops functioning or that the heart stops working. Explanations of irreversibility were those that emphasized that the deceased would not come back to life or that they were gone forever. Parents were asked to identify, from a list of possible religious/spiritual and biological explanations of death, which of the explanations they had provided their child.

It was predicted that as children's age increased, the likelihood of parents having spoken to their child about death would increase. It was also hypothesized that religious/spiritual explanations would be the only type of explanation positively correlated with parental belief in afterlife and religious and spiritual beliefs. Numerous studies have reported a relationship between death anxiety and belief in afterlife (e.g., Kurlychek, 1976; Rasmussen & Johnson, 1994; Thorson, 1991). However, a more recent study by Falkenhain and Handal (2003), using the same measures of death anxiety and afterlife belief as the current study with an elderly population, reported no significant correlation between death anxiety and afterlife belief, but did report a significant relationship between religiosity and death anxiety. In addition, numerous studies have reported on females consistently scoring higher than males on measures of death anxiety and there is some evidence that suggests scores tend to decrease with age (for review see Scanish & McMinn, 1999). Thus, given our middle age population of parents, typically mothers, we hypothesized that death anxiety would be correlated with both belief in afterlife and parent reports of religiosity. Finally, as much of this study was exploratory in nature, there were no predictions made regarding possible relationships between the types of explanations offered, children's physical and emotional reactions, and parental satisfaction.



Participants were 130 parents of children 2- to 7-years of age from across two provinces of Canada who agreed to participate in a larger research study on children's developing understanding of death. The mean age of the children, who parents were reporting on, was 3.91 years (SD = 1.46). The gender make-up of the children was 51% boys, 44% girls, and 5% not identified. Parents were asked to report on the experiences of their youngest child. The gender make-up of the parents was 915% mothers, 6.9% fathers, and 1.5% not identified. Of those parents who agreed to participate, 125 completed the entire survey (i.e., the questionnaire, Templer's DAS, and the BAS). The five parents who did not finish the survey were still included in analysis because they did complete the initial portion of the questionnaire and the BAS, thus providing information on the types of conversations about death that they have had with their child and their belief in afterlife, but had incomplete measures of death anxiety.

Materials and Procedure

Participants were recruited three different ways: (a) through a university Infant Research Group (a database of recently born children in the province who previously indicated an interest in participating in research); (b) using a database of families who have participated in other studies in our research lab and have indicated their interest to be contacted about other future studies; and (c) through word of mouth, as parents who participate in research at our lab often invite other parents to participate. Parents were contacted by phone or email and the purpose of the online survey was explained as part of a larger research study on children's developing understanding of death. Parents were told that regardless of their child's experience with death thus far, they were eligible to complete the survey, and that they could do so from the comfort of their own home. Parents of multiple children were asked to report on the experiences of their youngest child. Parents who indicated an interest were sent an email with the link to the complete survey (including the measures of death anxiety and afterlife beliefs) on Survey Monkey. No participants were excluded based on ethnic/racial background or socioeconomic status. The first page of the survey contained information to receive informed consent and discussed participant rights (which stated confidentiality would be maintained). Parents then completed the study questionnaire, the measure of death anxiety, and the measure of belief in afterlife. After completing the study, parents were provided with information regarding counseling services and contact details for the researchers involved in the study.

Questionnaire. The online questionnaire collected demographic information (i.e., the age and gender of their child). It also asked parents to indicate their level of both religiosity and spirituality on a three-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 3 (very). Parents were then asked whether or not they had spoken to their child about death. Those who indicated that they had spoken to their child about death were asked whether or not they provided their child with an explanation of death. Subsequently, parents were then asked to indicate the type(s) of explanations of death they had provided their child (i.e., a biological explanation, a religious/spiritual explanation, or an explanation of the irreversibility of death). Parents were also asked to report their level of satisfaction regarding their conversation on a three-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not satisfied) to 3 (completely satisfied). Parents were also asked to report any perceived emotional and physical reactions their child may have had (i.e., changes in mood, anxiety, appetite, sleep, and fear of dying) on a three-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (no changes) to 3 (significant changes).

Templer's Death Anxiety Scale (Templer's DAS). Parents were asked to complete Templer's Death Anxiety Scale (DAS; Templer, 1970) to assess their feeling about death. This self-report measure of death anxiety consists of 15 items responded to in a true/false format and has been used as a measure of death anxiety in a number of studies (e.g., Falkenhain & Handal, 2003; for review see Scanish & McMinn, 1999). The DAS has test-retest reliability correlation coefficient of .83. Internal consistency (Kuder-Richardson-20) was demonstrated with a reliability coefficient of .76. Clinically meaningful levels of death anxiety are represented by scores ranging from 9 to the scale maximum of 15.

Belief in Afterlife Scale (BAS). Parents were asked to complete the Belief in Afterlife Scale (BAS) to assess their beliefs and feelings about what happens after death (Osarchuk & Tatz, 1973). This scale consists of 10 items that individuals respond to using a numbered scale, and has been used as a measure of belief in afterlife in various studies (e.g., Berman, 1974, Falkenhain & Handal, 2003, Kurlychek, 1976). While the original instrument used a Likert scale that ranged from 0 to 100 with 5-point intervals, a more recent study by Falkenhain and Handal (2003) modified the measure to use a ten-point Likert scale. The format of administration was modified slightly for this study to allow participants to respond to each statement on a five-point Likert scale with scores ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Scores from completed questionnaires were subsequently transformed back to reflect the original scale (with a maximum score of 100). In a review of questionnaires on death acceptance and afterlife beliefs, Casebolt (1999) reported that an unpublished data set using 60 undergraduate students yielded an acceptable level of reliability (Cronbach's Alpha = .89). Casebolt (1999) also reported on the validity of the BAS scale and stated that the questionnaire has been significantly correlated with the individual's own estimates of their belief in an afterlife, as well as shown validity in results from a number of experiments that manipulated fear of death and used the BAS scale pre and post manipulation. High scores on the BAS reflect high levels of belief in afterlife. Osarchuk and Tatz (1973) interpreted scores below 29 as indicating a low belief in afterlife and scores above 70 as indicating a high belief in afterlife.


Analyses including the demographic variables of parent age and gender were run with all of the independent and dependent variables. The control for gender and age did not show significant results.

Parent-Child Conversations About Death

A total of 74.6% of parents (n = 97) indicated that they had spoken to their child about death and were directed to the portion of the questionnaire that examined parental explanations and their perceptions of their child's emotional and physical reactions. The likelihood of parents talking to their child about death (i.e., parents' response to the initial question, "have you ever spoken to your child about death?") was significantly correlated with child age in months, [r.sub.s] = .26 (p = .001, one-tailed). This positive correlation indicates that the older the child, the more likely it was that parents reported having spoken to them about death. Figure 1 displays the percentage of parent-child conversations about death by age of child.

A total of 85.6% of parents (n = 83) who had a conversation with their child about death provided their child with an explanation of death. Figure 2 displays the frequency of use of the three different explanations of death. The most frequent types of explanations that were provided were religious/spiritual, with the majority of parents providing these types of explanations. The second most common explanation of death was biological. Parents were least likely to explain about the irreversibility of death to their children. Spearman Correlations were run with child age in months and each of the explanations of death. Children's age was not significantly correlated with providing any particular type of explanation.



The mean score of 2.43 (SD = .59) for satisfaction indicates that the majority of parents were somewhat satisfied with the explanation they provided (scores can range from 1 to 3, with higher score indicating higher satisfaction). Nearly all parents (95%) who offered their child an explanation indicated that they were at least somewhat satisfied with the explanation they provided, with 48% of parents reporting that they were completely satisfied. Spearman Correlations were run with the satisfaction level of parents and the different types of explanations. There were no significant correlations between the three different types of explanations provided and the level of satisfaction parents reported.

Parents' Perceptions of Children's Reactions

Of those parents who had a conversation about death with their child (n = 97), the majority of parents reported no perceived changes in their child's appetite (97.8%), sleep (87.8%), fear of dying (78.9%), generalized anxiety (73.6%), and mood (67.4%). Only those symptoms that occurred in more than 15% of the sample were included in further analyses (i.e., changes in fear of dying, generalized anxiety, and mood). Spearman Correlations were run with each of the three types of explanations of death and parents' perceived physical and emotional changes in their children. There was one significant correlation. The explanation of irreversibility was significantly correlated with perceived changes in children's generalized anxiety, r, = .26 (p = .018). This positive correlation indicates that those parents who provided an explanation of the irreversibility of death were more likely to report that their child exhibited symptoms of anxiety.

Spearman Correlations were also run with child age in months and parents' perceived physical and emotional changes in their children. There were no significant correlations between child age and the perceived reactions in children.

Parental Death Anxiety, Belief in Afterlife and Religiosity

The mean of 63.13 (SD = 18.45) on the BAS indicates that parents in the current sample believe in an afterlife (scores can range from 10 to 100), with 92.3% of parents reporting moderate to high belief. Cronbach's alpha was .92. Scores for belief in afterlife were significantly correlated with parents reporting higher levels of both religiosity, [r.sub.s] = .60 (p < .001, one-tailed), and spirituality, [r.sub.s] = .47 (p < .001, one-tailed). A total of 125 parents completed the measure of death anxiety (Templer's DAS). The mean of 7.52 (SD = 2.92) on Templer's DAS indicates that parents are within the average range on death anxiety (scores can range from 0 to 15 with scores > 9 considered to be clinically meaningful). Cronbach's alpha was .68 for the current sample. Majority of parents in this study (62.3%) reported non-meaningful levels of death anxiety. Scores for death anxiety were significantly correlated with parents indicating higher levels of religiosity (as reported on a three-point Likert scale), [r.sub.s] = .15 (p = .04, one-tailed) but were not correlated to parental spirituality.

To investigate a possible relationship between death anxiety and belief in afterlife a Pearson Correlation, using a one-tail distribution, was run. There was a significant correlation, r = .15 (p = .047), between scores on Templer's DAS and scores on the BAS. As scores in death anxiety increased so did scores in belief in afterlife. Spearman Correlations were run between scores on Templer's DAS and the BAS and each of the possible emotional and physical reactions parents may have perceived in their child. There were no significant correlations.

Types of Explanations and Parental Factors

Parents reported their level of religiosity and level of spirituality separately, using a three-point Likert scale. Though significantly correlated, [r.sub.s] = .36 (p < .001), these two factors are considered to represent different beliefs, as 40.8% of parents indicated that they were not at all religious but only 12.6% of parents indicated that they were not at all spiritual. Both level of religiosity, [r.sub.s] = .51 (p < .001, one-tailed), and level of spirituality, [r.sub.s] = .26 (p = .009, one-tailed), were significantly correlated with providing a religious/spiritual explanation. This indicates that as levels of religiosity and spirituality increase, so does the likelihood that parents provide a religious/spiritual explanation. However, parents' level of religiosity was also negatively correlated, [r.sub.s] = -.18 (p = .048, one-tailed), with providing biological explanation of death. This result suggests that as parental religiosity increased the likelihood that parents provided a biological explanation of death decreased.

To investigate whether providing a particular type of explanation of death could be predicted by the continuous variables of parental death anxiety, and parental belief in afterlife, discriminant analyses using the Wilks' Lamda method were conducted. Group membership for biological explanations and explanation of irreversibility could not be predicted using this model, however, whether or not parents provided a religious/spiritual explanation could be predicted by scores on Templer's DAS and the BAS. The overall Wilks' Lambda for religious/spiritual explanations was significant, Wilks' [LAMBDA] = .818, [chi square] (1, N = 80) = 15.47, p < .001, indicating that whether or not parents provided religious/spiritual explanations could be successfully differentiated well above chance levels, 77.5% of the time. These results indicate that parental death anxiety and belief in afterlife played a unique and significant role in parents choosing to use religious/spiritual explanations and that by examining scores on the DAS and BAS together, we can accurately predict whether or not the majority of parents will use a religious/spiritual explanation.


The current study explored the types of conversations about death that parents have with their children. it contributes to the current literature on children's understanding of death by documenting the ways that parents tend to explain death to their young children and any physical or emotional changes expressed by children after the explanations of death. The variables of religiosity, spirituality, and belief in afterlife were explored in relation to the explanations of death that parents provided.

The literature has documented a progressive understanding of death as children age (e.g., Cuddy-Casey & Orvaschel, 1997; Speece & Brent, 1984), and the significant positive correlation between children's age and parents having spoken to their child about death follows this developmental trend. The majority of parents (74.6%) reported that they had spoken to their child about death at some point. In addition, the majority of those parents (85.6%) indicated that they had tried to explain death to their child by providing an explanation of death. Thus, the current study provides new information on how parental conversations may be contributing to children's developing understanding.

Parental Satisfaction

Parents tried to expand their children's understanding of death, by providing explanations of what death means. Though there is a significant body of literature exploring the development of children's biological understanding of death, the current study is unique by documenting the early religious/spiritual explanations that parents are providing. The majority of parents reported that they were either completely or partially satisfied with the explanations of death that they provided their child. Thus, it is not surprising that parental satisfaction was not related to the type of explanation provided, as the tendency towards a satisfying experience did not allow further examination of parents who were not satisfied. This is one of the drawbacks of using a convenient sample, as parents who agreed to participate in a study investigating the conversations they have had with their child about death, are likely those parents who had more satisfying experiences. Yet, unlike previous literature that has reported on adults' feelings of discomfort around talking to children about death (e.g., McGovern & Barry, 2000; Nguyen & Rosengren, 2004) we can suggest from the current results that talking to children about death is a generally satisfying experience for parents.

Predicting Explanations

A discriminant analysis found that parents' use of religious/spiritual explanations could be uniquely predicted by examining together their scores on the measures of death anxiety and belief in afterlife. This highlights the important role of parental religious and spiritual beliefs and feelings in determining what is communicated to children. In fact, these two factors were stronger predictors when children's age was excluded from the model, indicating that the age of the child did not help predict parental choice of explanation. This suggests that it may be important for parents to take time to reflect on what they believe and how they feel about the topic of death before engaging in a conversation with their children. Furthermore, children's age was not actually correlated with the likelihood of parents providing any one particular explanations of death (i.e., religious/spiritual, biological, or irreversibility). Thus, it would appear that parents are not choosing an explanation based on the age of their child, but instead are using explanations that are related to their own beliefs about afterlife and any fears that they may have about dying. As such, clinicians and educators who provide guidance to parents regarding death education, should explore the possible role of parental feelings and beliefs in such conversations. In addition, future research documenting the development of children's understanding of death should consider parental religious/spiritual beliefs as an important factor.

Support for Religious and Spiritual Explanations

Not many parents perceived emotional or physical changes in their children after their conversation about death. This is consistent with the general satisfaction of parents who participated. This also suggests that the majority of parents who are having conversations about death, a topic often perceived as a difficult to discuss with children, are doing so in a way that generally leaves children expressing positive emotional and physical responses. The majority of parents used religious/spiritual explanations of death and providing such explanations was not correlated with any negative emotional or physical symptoms in children. As such, we can hypothesize that providing explanations that refer to such things as an afterlife, heaven, spirits, and God, is a comforting or reassuring explanation of death for children. This is a unique finding, as previous studies have generally reported a negative correlation between children's fear of death and a biological understanding (e.g., Cotton & Range, 1990; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Such findings have often resulted in the conclusion that providing concrete biological explanations of death can reduce fear of death in children (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Yet, previous research has only reported correlational results. Though the current study is subject to the same limitations of correlational data, this is the first study to document that a religious/spiritual explanation of death may also act as a mediating factor in death anxiety.

Unlike religious/spiritual explanations, discussions about the irreversibility of death were correlated with emotional changes in children. Parents who reported having explained to their child that deceased individuals are not coming back to life, perceived higher levels of generalized anxiety in their child. Given that the majority of parents reported no significant emotional or physical changes in their child, this is an important finding that highlights the difficulty of explaining one of the main biological subcomponents of death--that when people die they don't come back to life. Previous literature has documented a trend in the irreversibility of death being one of the first subcomponents that children understand (Cuddy-Casey & Orvaschel, 1997; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). When this finding is considered together with the literature that documents lower levels of fear of death in children with a more mature biological understanding (e.g., Cotton & Range, 1990; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007), it is possible that those parents who explained the irreversibility of death, were doing so to children who had a less mature cognitive understanding of death. Thus, a lower level of death understanding may account for the increased level of perceived generalized anxiety in these children. Future research could investigate this further by examining parental conversations and explanations about death in relation to children's actual understanding. However, given the large sample of parents in the current study, it is also possible that simply the discussion of the irreversibility of death is anxiety provoking for children.

Parental Feelings and Beliefs

The mean scores obtained by the parents on belief in afterlife and death anxiety suggest that the majority of parents in the current study believe in an afterlife and report non-meaningful levels of death anxiety. The significant positive correlation between death anxiety and belief in afterlife indicates that those parents who reported higher levels of death anxiety also tended to report higher levels of belief in afterlife. What remains unclear is whether parents who are more anxious about death are seeking comfort in afterlife beliefs or whether their beliefs in an afterlife are making their fears about death more salient. It should also be considered that the mean of death anxiety scores in the current study, 7.52 (SD = 2.92), was somewhat higher than the means of previously reported samples of university students, 6.37 (SD = 3.10; Templer and Dotson, 1970) and elderly individuals 5.38 (SD = 3.07; Falkenhain & Handal, 2003). As we collected data from parents of young children, primarily mothers, we must acknowledge the uniqueness of our sample. It is possible that asking parents to reflect on talking about death with their children, just moments before asking them about their afterlife beliefs and fear of death, resulted in uniquely higher death anxiety scores than typically found. In addition, as previous literature does report that females tend to endorse higher levels of death anxiety, in a sample that includes a higher number of fathers we may not see the same relationship between death anxiety and afterlife beliefs. Regardless, the correlation is an important finding regarding the role of fear of death in our beliefs about what happens after we die, and further research is needed to examine this relationship.


The current study explored how the orientation of conversations about death (i.e., religious/spiritual or biological) may play a role in children's reactions. We found that the majority of parents of children 2- to 7-years of age have spoken to their child about death and that during those conversations, explanations about what it means to die were often provided. Typically, children fared well after such conversations, as parents reported very few significant physical and emotional changes. This suggests that with a trusted adult, young children are able to comfortably explore the complicated topic of death.

Though such difficult conversations with children are often approached while considering the child's age and cognitive abilities, the current study documented the important role of the feelings and beliefs of parents in determining the content of such conversations.

Finally, though a religious or spiritual explanation of death does not encompass the subcomponents required for children to demonstrate a mature biological understanding, among many other things, such explanations may act as a buffer to the general feelings of anxiety that the topic of death can evoke.

Sarah-Jane Renaud

Paraskevi Engarhos

McGill University

Michael Schleifer

Universite du Quebec a Montreal

Victoria Talwar

McGill University

This research was supported in part by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sarah-Jane Renaud, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, H3A 1Y2. Email:


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Sarah-Jane Renaud (MA., McGill University) is a PhD Candidate in McGill's School/Applied Child Psychology program. In addition to her research in the area of children's developmental understanding of death, she also lectures in the area of child development and works clinically at The Montreal Children's Hospital.

Paraskevi Engarhos (M.A. in Educational Psychology, McGill University) is a Ph.D. student in the School and Applied Child Psychology program in the Department of Educational Psychology at McGill University. Paraskevi's interests include the study of the young child's developing understanding of death.

Michael Schleifer is a graduate of Oxford University (B.Phil. Philosophy) and McGill University (Ph.D. Psychology). His past appointments include being Professor of Ethics at McGill University, Professor of Education at University of Quebec in Montreal and Clinical Psychologist at the Montreal Children's Hospital Department of Psychiatry.

Victoria Talwar is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair (II) in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University. She specializes in the social-cognitive development of young children. Her research interests include children's moral and spiritual development. She has published in various journals including Child Development, Developmental Review, and International Journal of Children's Spirituality.
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Author:Renaud, Sarah-Jane; Engarhos, Paraskevi; Schleifer, Michael; Talwar, Victoria
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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