6 Do’s and Don’ts to Help Children Deal with the Death of a Pet

Mother consoles her upset daughter

6 Do’s and Don’ts to Help Children Deal with the Death of a Pet

Pets are often considered part of the family. When a beloved pet dies, it can be difficult for parents to know how to help their young children deal with the loss. Certainly, teaching little ones how to handle grief can be one of the most challenging aspects of child rearing.

During this time, it’s important to remember that children experience feelings of loss and grief differently than adults. Children under the age of 6 do not have the cognitive ability to grasp the vast concept of death and its finality. Infants and toddlers are able to sense the emotions of their caregivers and may respond with signs of stress. Young children ages 3-6 are likely to observe emotions and hear discussions that may cause confusion.

It’s okay for children to witness parents feeling sad and for family members to verbalize that they are sad. However, be sure to provide plenty of affectionate reassurance for little ones and maintain regular routines as much as possible.During times of grief and loss, try to keep daily and nightly routines as normal as possible at home to provide a sense of security and stability for young children.

6 Do’s and Don’ts to Help Children Deal with the Death of a Pet

Parents often wonder what to say to young children regarding the loss of a beloved family pet. Here is some parenting advice for how to help your child through this time of loss:

  • Keep your message simple. Young children do not need too much information. I often advise parents to provide brief statements and answer any questions as simply and reassuringly as possible. Keep in mind children under the age of 6 are focused on the reality of life, so keep your information as concrete as possible (i.e. “Fluffy is not here anymore. Fluffy will not be coming back and we feel sad that we cannot see her anymore.”).
  • Respond to questions in a concise and direct way. If your child asks questions like “Why is Fluffy not coming back?” or “Where did Fluffy go?,” keep your answers short and simple (i.e. “Fluffy became very old and her body could not work anymore.”).
  • Do not mention sleep when referencing death. Be careful not to say, “Fluffy was put to sleep,“ as this can cause confusion. This also can make young children afraid that if they go to sleep, they might not come back.
  • Watch for irregular behavior. If your child’s eating and sleeping routines change significantly or if there are any other lingering signs of stress, contact a children’s therapist who uses play therapy to help your child work through what is bothering her. Your child’s therapist can also guide you in how to best support your child through this period of grief and loss.
  • Provide comfort. In these types of situations, positive parenting is especially important. Give extra cuddles and provide lots of reassurance that your child is loved, safe and that you will all feel happy again soon.
  • Be prepared to deal with “magical thinking.” Understand that “magical thinking” is very common for children ages 2-4 and it’s normal for your young child to tell you he can call for Fluffy to come home or tell you he knows Fluffy will magically appear at the front door. Your answer to this should be a loving response: “Oh, it would be so lovely if that could happen! You loved Fluffy so much and you really wish Fluffy could return. Unfortunately, the animal doctor says that Fluffy is not coming back. But we can still feel our love for Fluffy in our hearts and we can look at our pictures of Fluffy and remember her.” (Want to learn more about how children learn the difference between make-believe and reality? Check out this blog post.) 

Keep in mind that you also need to give yourself time and space to work through your own grief. Losing a pet is very difficult experience for both adults and children. If your grief persists in such a way that it interferes with your ability to perform daily tasks, consider seeking professional support to help you through this difficult time.

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