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Disney & Death: Help Children Understand Death Through Media

written by: LauraLMSW • edited by: Amy Carson • updated: 9/17/2013

Childhood experiences create expectations about life. False representations of life elements that go unaddressed have the potential to lead to misunderstanding in a child’s mind.

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    A Child’s Reality and Understanding of Death

    Disney & Death: Helping Children Understand Death For children, cultural influences are heavily reflected in both play and the content of entertainment. A child’s perception of reality is shaped by what they are exposed to. On television children might see death that results from wars, killings and natural catastrophes, but they also see fantasy based death which may create unrealistic beliefs or expectations about death.

    Don't let your child watch tv or movies without discussing with them what they have seen and what beliefs they have about the images.

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    Disney Films

    The permanence of death is undermined in many Disney films. These popular films can create an opportunity to discuss death with your children. Death is not an easy topic for many adults in our society and open communication starting at an early age may help children develop knowledge and coping skills to prepare them for future loss.

    It is beneficial for parents, guardians and teachers to view films with children to help differentiate fantasy from reality, in order to avoid confusion brought about by the introduction of new themes. Contributors to the Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, said that Disney films may serve as catalysts to introduce the concept of death into discussions between children, peers, and adults; especially to address that some films eclipse the permanence, irreversibility, and emotionality of death.

    The specific featured article, Death in disney films: Implications for children’s understanding of death, emphasized that even films with unrealistic messages about death can be used as tools for pursuing discussion in personal, educational, and counseling settings.

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    Justifying Death: Bad Guys Deserve to Die?

    Ambiguous portrayals of death have the potential to confuse many young children, in particular those who lack the cognitive ability and experience to understand death fully. The moral implications associated with Disney films often insinuate that “bad guys" deserve to die, which may downplay the reality and severity of death due to the portrayal of a “justified" killing. It is for these reasons that the Omega authors recommend that parents watch Disney films with their children and verbally walk them through a death scene, deconstructing aspects that may be unrealistic and clarifying points that are exaggerated or confusing

    Film viewing with adult supervision and guidance might be a less threatening and traumatic approach to learn how to deal with death in terms of grieving and understanding. Each child will have unique outlooks and questions that can be answered and addressed in a casual, educational manner. Death is fear provoking and it is ideal to create an open discussion for children so that they feel safe asking important questions that will lead to a better understanding of death and dying.

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    Childers, P., & Wimmer, M. (1971). The concept of death in early childhood. Child Development, 42(4), 1299-1301.

    Cox, M., Garrett, E., & Graham, J. (2004). Death in disney films: Implications for children’s understanding of death. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 50(4), 267-280.

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    Online Resources