It is a parent's natural instinct to protect children from great sadness. The loss of a pet is often a child's first experience with grief and it's important to help the child through it. Resist the urge to replace the fish (again) and confront the loss together.

If there's one topic many parents hope to avoid for as long as humanly possible, it's death. Even as adults, confronting and talking about death is no easy task. The finality of death makes it difficult to process and comprehend, and it's natural for parents to want to shield their children from such a difficult topic.

The loss of a beloved family pet, be it a hamster or a dog, often marks the first time that a child truly confronts death. While it might seem easier to downplay the loss or run out and replace the pet as soon as possible, the loss of a pet is actually a good time to help your child learn about the process of grief. In processing the loss as a family, we show that we can overcome difficult life experiences together.

Many parents wonder when to start preparing a child for the inevitable loss of a pet. The truth is that too many details can trigger anxiety for young children, and anticipatory anxiety can lead to sleep disturbance and other behavioral issues. The best way to start preparing a child for loss is to simply note the signs of aging (appearance, moving less, playing less).

Keep it simple

When discussing the loss of a pet, it's best to keep it simple. Resist the urge to fill your child in on every detail of the event, and try responding to your child's questions instead. Provide a brief but honest explanation of what happened to the pet and then allow questions. Most young children only seek as much information as they can handle. If you see your child looking away or moving on, stop talking. You will most likely revisit the topic again soon.

Provide reassurance

Young children have a tendency to internalize their fears and/or negative emotions, and they often blame themselves when something goes wrong. Be sure to reassure your child that she did a good job taking care of her pet and gave her pet a great life. Remind her that animals do not live as long as people, no matter how much love we give them.

Provide empathy

While some children will show an immediate emotional reaction to a loss, others need time to process the information. Either way, be sure to help your child label her feelings. Encourage expression of feelings of sadness and anger and provide extra hugs, kisses and snuggles as your child works through her grief. It's also important to remember that grief comes in waves, and everyone experiences grief differently. Be patient as your child works her way through the loss.

Avoid vague statements

While it's easy to blame the loss of a pet on advanced age or illness, this can be confusing to young children. Like it or not, our kids think that we are old! When children hear that old pets die, they often jump to the conclusion that old parents die too. Try something simple like, "Buster's body stopped working so he can't run, jump and play with us anymore, but he will always be in our memories."

Memorialize

Give your child the opportunity to create a scrapbook about her pet. Ask her to choose her favorite pictures, draw some pictures of fun memories with her pet and share some stories of her pet. Let your child lead the way and create a memory book that she can revisit often to remember her pet.

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