Like many kids, I grew up with pets. There were hamsters and turtles and fish and cats and dogs and chickens. Yes, chickens – remember I was a farm kid. So I tried to remember what it felt like when the pets died. I have vivid memories of some pets like my dog Boo and others not so much.
When a pet dies, the amount of information or what you say, depends on the child’s age, experiences, and maturity level. Offer your child a clear and simple explanation. Let your child’s questions guide the details you reveal.
Tell the truth. Use the actual words “death,” “dying,” or “died.” Be sure your child understands the pet’s body stopped working; it died; and will not be coming back. Do not say Baxter ran away when he really crawled in the garage and died. Do not say Penelope went to sleep and won’t wake up. Children take literally what you say and false statements will confuse them. Eventually your child will figure out you lied and that starts to complicate trust issues.
Sometimes there is a chance to say goodbye and if a child able to do so, that can be helpful. The family may want to observe the pet’s death in a special way. I remember wrapping pets in cloth, putting them in shoe boxes, and burying them in a special place. Every pet, no matter type or size, always got a burial ceremony. We talked about our pets, remembering the funny stories and antics.
And here’s one last tip. Don’t immediately get another pet. We don’t want children to think pets and people are replaceable. Wait until your child asks to get a new kitten. Then you can talk about how welcoming a new furry friend into your home is a way to honor the life of the pet that died.
Do you have a memory of a pet that died? How did your parents handle the situation? What have been your experiences with your own child?
Many of us have been a part of the ritual – a small box is buried under the shade tree in the back yard. This becomes the final place for our beloved canary or hamster. As parents we don’t like to think about the demise of these special members of our family, but death is a very real part of having a pet.
Pets have significantly shorter lifespans than people but some will be companions for a considerable number of years. So how do you help your child when a pet dies? A child’s reaction is tied to her age and development, previous experiences with death, as well as the intensity of attachment to the pet. Check out http://aplb.org/services/children.html for detailed information on the reactions of children at various ages. This is a link from The Associaton for Pet Loss and Bereavement.
As parents you can help your child honor and remember his pet in appropriate ways. Displaying photos, drawing pictures, telling stories, or holding a ceremony are possibilities.
Our family buried special dogs under the trees in the pasture where we imagined them running free. And I’ll admit to having a small urn in the closet containing my beagle’s ashes. Just the mention of Pearl’s name makes us all smile.
So how have you handled the death of pets in your family?
grief, pets, social-emotional
Admittedly I am going to be completely biased on this topic However, I am including the research information so you can look for yourself.
I LOVE pets. All kinds of pets. Lots of different pets. I have had – fish, dogs, cats, spiders, mice, hamsters, rabbits and I’m really trying to convince myself I need a horse! Now I haven’t had them all at the same time nor would I recomend it! But having a pet does have some very important benefits.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists several benefits. They state:
“Children raised with pets show many benefits. Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy.” Facts for Families: Children and Pets
How have pets enhanced your children’s lives? What have they learned from them? Share with us!
I considered myself a lucky kid. I grew up on a farm with lots of space for animals. Pets were just a normal part of life. The fish, turtles, and hamsters shared our home. The cats occupied the back steps while the chickens and dogs roamed the yard. They were our companions and playmates. It was never a question if we were old enough to have a pet; they just kept coming!
But for most parents these days, the question of when to get a child a pet is worth some discussion. One point for consideration is what is your purpose for having the pet. Is it for companionship and play? Or do you want your child to take responsibility for part or all of it’s care?
Let’s start at the beginning. Babies aren’t old enough to handle or take care of pets. Toddlers want to touch and grab pets. As the kids grow into the preschool age years, they are able to better understand how to handle a pet and fill the water and food dishes. I suspect that the “I wanna dog” (or whatever) gene really kicks in during the elementary years.
The good news is that school-age kids are old enough to assume some pet chores and can play with the pets responsibly. The bad news is that this age children may have short attention spans and change their minds often. So that dog wanted now may be not so much fun three months later. Preteens and teens have the capabilities to be responsible. But they are also getting into the “busy” years and pets will have to compete for their time.
No matter your decision as to when to add a pet to your family, realize that as the parent you have the final responsbility for its care and well-being.
Note: Check out the ASPCA web site for some good thoughts about the right pet for your child’s age.