Ask Dr. Phelps: How do I explain death to my young children?

Guest blog column by Dr. Pam Phelps is the owner/director of the Creative Center preschool and doctor of Early Education. Her posts answer parenting questions.

Parent:

Dear Dr. Phelps,

Our dog just passed away and we aren’t sure how to explain it to our 3-year-old and 5-year-old daughters. How can we help them understand that our dog will not be coming back home without scaring them?

— Doggone in South Florida

Dr. Phelps:

Dear Doggone,

Deaths are hard for any of us to understand. Below are some tips to help children cope:

  • There are some lovely books about death that help young children.
  • Collecting pictures of the family with the dog and making a book about the experiences can be visited over and over again.
  • Discussing the gifts that the dog brought the family and what children loved about him helps also.

Children’s first experiences with death will help them with later losses so encourage them to talk. Little ones have no concept of time so they may ask where the pet is over and over again. It is a good idea not to say things like, “He went to sleep” or “He just got sick” because they can become frightened about themselves or other family members. Statements such as “his body was just old” or “his body just couldn’t work anymore” are less frightening. Here are some suggested book titles:

  • Jim’s Dog Muffins by Miriam Cohen
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
  • Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie

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