Death is a complex and abstract concept with an understanding of death developing over the course of childhood.
The Components of a Full Understanding of Death
Before we can explore how tweens understand death, we should consider how adults think about death. Adults understand that death is final and irreversible, meaning that once it occurs, it lasts forever. They also realize that death is universal, meaning that it happens to everyone, regardless of behavior or background. Death is also personal in that it can and will happen to loved ones and to oneself. Finally, death is caused by internal, biological processes, not by thoughts or looks or any other supernatural source. While we may take this adult-level understanding of death for granted, it takes children years to grasp all of these components.
Young Tweens' Understanding of Death
Between about five and nine years of age, children understand death to be final and irreversible. They typically do not grasp, however, that death is universal and personal. In other words, they feel immune to death and think that their loved ones are also exempt. There is also a lack of understanding about what causes death. For instance, a young tween might think she "caused" a relative's death because she said she hated the relative.
Older Tweens' Understanding of Death
Tweens who are older than nine have a nearly adult-level understanding of death. They now realize that death is not only final and irreversible, but also universal and personal. They are also beginning to comprehend that death occurs because of biological processes; however, it may take until the teen years for this understanding to fully take hold.
Further Notes about Tweens' Understanding of Death
Researchers debate the exact ages when children grasp the various components of the death concept. This is mainly because there are a lot of individual differences; some children enter their tween years with an adult-like understanding of death while others are still be thinking like a young child as the teen years approach. Much of this variability depends on life circumstances, such as whether the child has experienced a death in the family or has had a life-threatening illness. Children's level of cognitive development also plays a role in how quickly they fully grasp the concept of death.
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Children and Adolescents' Understanding of Death. Accessed September 17, 2010: http://www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Children-and-Adolescents-Understanding-of-Death.html
Hospice Net. Children's Understanding of Death. Accessed September 17, 2010: http://www.hospicenet.org/html/understand.html