Dunst was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, to Inez (née Rupprecht) and Klaus Dunst. She has one younger brother named Christian, born in 1986. Her father worked as a medical services executive, and her mother was an artist and one-time gallery owner. Dunst's father is German, originally from Hamburg, and Dunst's mother, who was born in New Jersey, is of German and Swedish descent (Dunst affirmed her German citizenship in 2011 and now holds passports as a dual citizen of the United States and Germany).
Until the age of eight, Dunst lived in Brick Township, New Jersey, where she attended Ranney School. In 1991, her parents separated, and she subsequently moved with her mother and younger brother to Los Angeles, California, where she attended Laurel Hall School in North Hollywood. In 1995, her mother filed for divorce. The following year Dunst began attending Notre Dame High School, a private Catholic high school in Los Angeles.
After graduating from Notre Dame in June 2000, Dunst continued the acting career that she had begun at the age of eight. As a teenager, she found it difficult to deal with her rising fame, and for a period she blamed her mother for pushing her into acting as a child. However, she later expressed that her mother "always had the best intentions". When asked if she had any regrets about the way she spent her childhood, Dunst said: "Well, it's not a natural way to grow up, but it's the way I grew up and I wouldn't change it. I have my stuff to work out ... I don't think anybody can sit around and say: 'My life is more screwed up than yours.' Everybody has their issues."
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