Age-Based Coping Tips

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Every child is different. However, the following guidelines may help you better understand reactions to pet loss that are typical for different age groups.

Children Under 2 Years

At this age, a child may respond to a pet’s death based on the actions and emotions of those around him or her. Thus, if you are feeling stressed, it is likely your child will, too.

Children Approximately 2-5 Years Old

At this age, a child will miss the pet as a playmate, but not necessarily as a beloved and trusted companion. A child in this age range may also have difficulty conceptualizing death as a permanent state.

What You May See:

  • Viewing the loss of the pet as reversible or temporary
  • Believing in “magical thinking” or assuming that their thoughts and wishes may have caused things to happen
  • Intermittent grief; don’t assume, as many adults do, that the child is not affected by the loss
  • Some regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking or changes in sleep or toilet habits
  • Lack of full understanding, causing the child to ask seemingly inappropriate questions
  • Confusion and sleep disturbances, such as nightmares or sleepwalking

Ways to Respond:

  • It is important that the child feels secure and has the resources to address his or her grief.
  • Questions need to be answered clearly and honestly, with as much information as a 2- to 5-year-old can handle and understand. For example, explain that his pet has died and will not return (avoid terms such as “put to sleep” or “lost”).
  • Clearly explain that he did not do or say anything that caused the death. (If the child did cause the death through an accident, please visit Euthanasia, Traumatic Losses and Other Circumstances). [link to Other Circumstances page]
  • Avoid acting as if nothing happened or encouraging the child to “get over it.” A child’s feelings and loss must be validated and allowed to progress naturally and at the child’s own pace.
  • When possible, allow the child the opportunity to say goodbye before the pet passes. Allowing the child to be present for euthanasia or to see the deceased pet is a personal choice, based on an individual child’s emotional maturity.

Children Approximately 5-8 Years Old

At this age, children begin to recognize death as permanent, although they may still believe that it can be reversed. Children in this age range have also begun to be aware of the impact of their own behavior. Thus, a child may feel guilty for being angry with a pet before the pet passed away.

What You May See:

  • Having a better understanding of death and its implications, but with little coping capacity
  • Denial as the prime defense
  • Acting as if nothing has happened or hiding his or her feelings, common behaviors when children fear losing control and adjust their views to reflect that adults cannot “fix” everything in their world
  • Neutral behavior; do not assume the child is uncaring or unaffected by the loss
  • Bowel or bladder disturbances, and/or changes in eating, sleeping or playing habits
  • Guilt and anger surrounding situations not related to the pet

Ways to Respond:

  • Provide opportunities to discuss the pet, draw pictures of the pet or write stories about the pet.
  • A child’s feelings and loss must be validated and allowed to progress naturally and at the child’s own pace. For example, avoid encouraging the child to “get over it” or acting as if nothing happened. A child this age may tend to mimic the reactions of the other people in his or her life, so it is critical that the adults set a healthy and appropriate example.
  • When possible, allow the child the opportunity to say goodbye before the pet passes. Allowing the child to be present for euthanasia or to see the deceased pet is a personal choice, based on an individual child’s emotional maturity. Help him or her remember the pet when it was a happy, healthy family member.

Children Approximately 8-12 Years Old

Although children in this age range are able to comprehend the finality of death, they may still have trouble accepting the loss, and may likely experience adult-like stages of grief. These stages include denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and finally, acceptance.

What You May See:

  • Irritability, which may be a symptom of feelings of anger around the loss
  • Trying to act grown-up in an attempt to master the pain of the loss
  • Trying to become caretakers in an effort to control their environment
  • More than any other time, a tendency to be fearful, to develop phobias or to be overly concerned with their body
  • Less dependence on adults; however, their independence and security are still quite fragile
  • School problems, anti-social behavior, aggression, withdrawal, clinging behavior, or physical complaints or pain (e.g., headache, stomach ache, etc.)
  • Understanding that death is a part of a natural cycle and modeling the behaviors seen in adults
  • The triggering of memories of previous losses of any kind, which may require additional support and discussion

Ways to Respond:

  • Provide opportunities and encourage children to mourn and grieve, rather than withdraw
  • Welcome discussions

Adolescents

The needs of the grieving teenager have frequently been overlooked. Teenagers often exhibit a wide range of reactions to a loss, and adults may not always know how to respond. People may back off from grieving teens, leaving them to handle their feelings alone or with limited support.

What You May See:

  • Reactions similar to those of an adult
  • Span of expression can range from apparent total lack of concern to hyper-emotional

Ways to Respond:

  • Provide support and interaction with understanding friends
  • Because conflict (with parents, rules, etc.) is a part of the daily life of an adolescent, it is important to avoid antagonism over any decisions made around the loss

Sources

Beyond Indigo (2010). Children and Grief

Rando, T. (1998). How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books.

Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement. (2010). Children and Pet Loss.  

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