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A child’s relationship with their pet is a cherished one, filled with constant companionship and lifelong memories. Pets become part of the family - a comforting presence that provides affection, protection, and reassurance in times of need. For children especially, pets bring unconditional love along with the opportunity to share all of their feelings without concern for judgement or disapproval. In the company of a pet, a child can be their most vulnerable selves, displaying their best or their worst moments, and their pet will continue to love them no matter what! Where else and who else can offer a child the experience of unfettered acceptance, love, and felt understanding? The loss of a child’s furry best friend can therefore be quite painful and traumatic. According to a recent Mass General study, findings show that the loss of a pet can potentially lead to an onslaught of mental health issues for children due to the strong emotional attachment that young children have with their pets.
Having to deal with the loss of a pet while finding the best way to break the news to your child and help them to discuss and understand this loss can be challenging for families. In a recent article for VeryWell, I discussed how important it is for parents to be honest, truthful, empathetic, and concise in their approach to helping their children deal with and understand the loss. Oftentimes, the loss of a pet could very well be the first time a child is confronted with death and grief. Remember that a pet is like a family member, not just to your child, but to you too. In your response, be sensitive but honest, and avoid sugar-coating or using euphemisms such as “it went to sleep.” This can confuse children and provoke further reason for worry. Keep in mind how your child may have been exposed to themes of death in television or books. Young children, particularly under the age of 5, may understand death as being reversible or temporary based on its representation in cartoons and storybooks. It is important to let your child know that your pet has died and will not be coming back. Validate your child’s feelings and reassure them that this had nothing to do with them, and that you too are experiencing loss. This can make news of the loss less distressing while strengthening your connection with your child.
By supporting your child through their grief and openly discussing your own, you as a parent can actually teach your child critical coping mechanisms needed not only in moments of grief, but throughout their life. In times of loss especially, your child needs love, understanding, and permission to feel with your support, guidance, and reassurance. Discussing the many emotions that loss can provoke can be challenging for us all. As a parent, start by sharing your own feelings. This will show your child that all emotions are important, acceptable and felt by all. Reassure your child that these feelings won’t last forever. By modeling appropriate empathetic and emotional responses and behaviors, your child will start to feel less isolated and alone in processing their own feelings. When your child opens up about his or her feelings related to the loss of a pet, validate and support their emotional experience. Given that young children typically feel responsible when a “bad thing” happens (whether it be divorce, or loss), it is especially important to help your child understand that the loss of a pet is not their fault, and that they couldn’t have done anything differently to change it. Begin to ECSEL supports and provides families, educators, and mental health professionals with the tools to help guide children through painful and emotional times. Modeling appropriate coping and emotion management strategies, validating children’s feelings, and supporting the expression of all emotions are key to navigating such emotional events.
It is important to know that all children experience and express loss differently. As a parent, be aware of changes in your child, as some might be indicative of a child needing professional support. When a child experiences such a painful loss, there can be different manifestations of grief. Emotions of sadness and anger might be expressed in a child’s play, which acts as an outlet where children can express and work through their greatest worries and concerns over time, even when they aren’t yet ready to talk about them. Children also might express their emotions in actions and behaviors, and sometimes in physiological disturbances such as with bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. It is important for parents to observe and consider the severity of the behaviors and the length of time these behaviors persist, whether it be for one week, or one month. For example, if you notice behaviors such as heightened aggression, prolonged silence, displays of clinginess, separation anxiety, or hypochondriacal concerns that interfere with daily activities that persist for 2-4 weeks, it would be helpful to seek mental health support to best address your child’s needs.
When dealing with the loss of a pet, processing the painful feelings that arise can feel exhausting. As I mentioned in the VeryWell article, make sure to spend time celebrating and remembering all of the good times you shared with your furry friend, and how loved they were by you and your child. Sharing photos together or drawing pictures of the pet are both ways to celebrate its life and memory. Support your child by understanding the significant impact that a pet had on their lives, and encouraging them to talk freely, share feelings, and share stories – all of which can be some of the best medicine in helping your child, and your family, to heal over time. Most importantly, let your child know that in time, the pain will lessen until it goes away, but your memories of your best friend and pet will always remain.