A Child’s Understanding of Death

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Kids certainly say the darnedest things. But what if your preschooler tells you she wants to kill someone? I was recently asked by a mother if she should be concerned that her four-year-old daughter said after a play date that she wanted to kill her playmate. The mother was surprised by such a shocking statement and wondered if it is normal for a child to talk in such a way.
In my opinion, the best way to approach this situation is first to look at the age and developmental stage of the child. Four-year-olds are in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, which means that their thinking is concrete rather than abstract. This makes their understanding of the concept of death something temporary, such as going to sleep or departing on a trip. In fact, the majority of research studies have found that not until age seven do most children begin to form an adult-like understanding of the concept of death: namely, that death is universal and irreversible, and that it has various causes. It is therefore critical to acknowledge this difference and not to equate a young child’s perception of death with that of an adult. This allows us to understand why a healthy four-year-old may tell her mother that she wants to kill a friend who has annoyed her. It actually makes perfect sense that she would wish for her friend to temporarily go away so that she could have all the toys to herself or avoid having to deal with her friend’s adverse behaviour.
As well, even though our children may not show it, as parents we know that they are incredible listeners, and what they hear is likely to be repeated. I am the first to confess that I may have in a joking manner threatened to kill my husband for repeatedly using my bath towel. As such, it would hardly surprise me to hear my kids repeating this threat.
Having said that, I would like to make a distinction between the example I have illustrated and a child who is repeatedly threatening to kill someone, including him- or herself. This is especially critical if we are looking at a more cognitively developed older child. There are too many factors to account for here, and, as such, I would highly recommend that if your child has told you he or she wants to die, or you know that he or she is having suicidal thoughts, immediately consult with a your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.

kathyewaA Child’s Understanding of Death

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