Tag Archives: death

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.


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

Preventing Childhood Deaths

DCF and DOH just released the Statewide Child Abuse Death Review Report, which investigates deaths related to abuse or neglect.

Most of the children in the report were under age 4 and the majority of these deaths could have been prevented.  Of 126 deaths, 62 were caused by drowning or unsafe sleep practices. Several other deaths were a result of parental frustration with the child.

Here are some tips to help ensure your family is safe:

Drowning prevention

  • Install fencing and other barriers around your pool and check regularly to make sure they are working properly.
  • Make sure your doors have alarms and child-proof locks so that you know if a child has left the house.
  • Adults should learn to swim and also teach their children how to swim. Children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be at risk of drowning.
  • Remove toys, especially riding toys, away from the pool area.
  • Never allow a child to be around any water unsupervised. That includes bathtubs, buckets, toilets, ponds, ditches, canals, pools, rivers, oceans, hot tubs and more. Children can drown in as little as two inches of water.
  • Never allow a child to supervise another child near or in water.
  • Learn first aid and CPR for children so that you can help in the case of an emergency.

Safe-sleep practices

  • Put baby’s crib, cradle or bassinet close to the parent or caregiver’s bed for the first six months.
  • Place your baby face up to sleep
  • Make sure the baby’s mattress is firm and fits snugly in its frame, and that sheets fit tightly around the mattress
  • Keep the baby’s sleeping area away from all loose strings (i.e. blind cords, electrical cords and clothing)
  • Offer your baby a pacifier (never a bottle) when placing your baby down to sleep.
  • Keep the room temperature of your baby’s sleeping area comfortable for a lightly clothed adult to keep baby from getting overheated.

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Parenting tips

  • Constant infant cries can be frustrating. It is ok for your baby to cry while you take a five-or 10-minute break. First, put your baby in a crib, make sure the baby is safe, and close the door. Check on the baby every five minutes. Don’t ever shake a baby.
  • The “Terrible Twos” can be a difficult time for any parent. Give your toddler basic choices – this outfit or that outfit? – and tell them what they CAN do – “Please take your toy to your room,” instead of “Don’t leave your toy there.”
  • The teen years can be extremely challenging for parents. Take time to do activities together and talk so you create a bond of trust. It is very important to have open communication with teenagers so they feel comfortable talking to you about issues such as sex, drugs, school, friends, etc.
  • For more parenting tips, check out our online Parenting Guide. It is also available in a free e-book format.