Telling your child that you’ll have to put down their four-legged best friend.
It’s one of the most difficult moments of pet ownership for both you and your family. Telling your children that their four-legged best friend has to leave them for good, and you’re not quite sure how to answer them when they ask the dreaded why?
Putting a dog down is often a child’s first experience with the unfortunate certainty of life, and how a parent handle’s this can have lasting effects on their child views death and dying.
Children view their pets as partners for life and don’t really grasp the notion that their pets may run on a much quicker timeline than they do. It may not be clear to them either how the immediate solution to illness or injury is to put them down vs. take them to a hospital and try all that we can to save them.
How a child relates to the passing of her pet depends on what stage of development they are in.
Under 2 years of age.
At this age cohort, children are emotionally able to react to a pet’s death but this is mainly dependent on how they view the reaction of their family members around them. If everyone is sad and crying, you’ll see your child cry too. But there’s little chance your child will remember the passing of their four-legged buddy when they are older.
2 to 5 years of age.
At this age, your child starts to view his or her pet as a playmate. They don't necessarily understand 'love' and 'attachment' to the pet at this point. If your pet is put down they may feel sad temporarily and will quickly forget it when attached to something else in their life (e.g. a new pet).
5 to 9 years of age.
At 5 to 9 years of age, your child has started to understand death is permanent and will start to think through ways it can be avoided for their pet. This means they may try and take care of it in special ways when it’s ill or feed it other medication meant for humans hoping it’ll get better. As a result, pay more attention to how your child is processing events during this time if a pet is sick and about to be put down.
Guilt is also a real emotion at this age cohort and children who may have resented their pet at one point might feel a lot of guilt when their pet passes. Parent’s should be sure to explain that their child had nothing to do with their pet’s passing.
10 years and above.
At 10 years and above, kids are well versed on the notion and permanence of death. They can understand why a pet may be put down but could struggle to accept this decision. This is the normal stage in one’s life where they’ll experience traditional stages of grief leading to acceptance.
With a general understanding of how each age group reacts to a pet’s death, let’s dive into key tactics on how to explaining the loss of a beloved pet to your child.
Explaining your pet’s passing
Broaching the topic of your pet being put down or passing needs to done delicately.
Some guidelines to follow when thinking of how to tell your child this is to remember that it should never be based on lies. For the love of God don't say their pet was sent to a farm or even 'put to sleep'. The harm in doing this is eventually they'll grow up to realize it was a lie and this can harm their relationship with.
The use of euphemisms can also cause anxiety in a child. Using examples such as the dog 'went away' can cause children to spend days awaiting their pet's return, and even wonder why it didn't say bye. Whether the child had done something wrong.
Always do the following when explaining the passing of a pet:
? Be honest and never lie. If it’s a health issue, explain to the child what led to their pet dying. If their pet needs to be put down, explain euthanasia to them and don’t shy away from using words such as death or dying. Answer all their questions, even if it’s apparent they don’t really understand what’s going on.
? Allow your child to be present during the euthanasia if you think they’re mature enough for it. Our general advice is to only do this with children that are 6 years and above as at that point they’ll be able to understand what’s going on even if they can’t fully process it. Later in life, however, they’ll appreciate knowing they were able to say goodbye.
? Explain dying clearly to the child. This means talking to them about how their pet's body is shutting down and if you’re religious and believe in the after-life there’s no harm in explaining this to them either. The important thing here is to communicate to your child that the pet is not coming back.
? Leading up to when a pet will be put down and even after it’s passing. Be extra available for your children. Let them know you’re around to chat whenever they’d like and actively encourage them to talk about their feelings.
? Building on the above point, don’t be afraid to show your own feelings. Talk about how it makes you sad and communicate to your child how special the pet was. This helps show that they’re not alone in this and can help them with the grieving process.
? Let your child’s teachers and other relevant parties know what’s going on so they can be aware and keep an eye on your child when you’re not there.
? It’s good to carry out a ritual. Planting a tree where your pet is buried etc. are good practices that help in the grieving process for your child and can be hugely beneficial in their later years in building positive associations with death and dying.
Ultimately, children are very resilient and will eventually learn to accept that their best buddy has left them. There won't be any lasting psychological impact on experiencing the notion of 'death' so early in their lives. If your child is having a hard time, however, it's best to seek a professional for help and advice on how they can cope.