Sunday, March 25, 2012

Talking to Children about the Lost of a Pet

How do pre-school children view the death of a pet?
Pre-school children don’t have the ability to conceptualize the permanence of death.  They think in terms of death as if someone is going on a trip or going to sleep.  Though they can’t understand the finality of loss they do experience great sadness because they miss their pet’s presence.  Unfortunately, children this age don’t have the ability to express their feelings in words.  As a result they may act out their sadness by being irritable, oppositional, withdrawn, or aggressive.

Children from infancy to age 6 are also very egocentric.  They literally believe that the world revolves around them and that things happen because of them.  Thus, the child often blames him/herself for the death of the beloved pet.  For example, if a child has been told not to pull the family dog’s tail, they may think that because they disobeyed this command the dog died.

What are some of the questions they may have?
Due to the child’s inability to conceptualize the permanence of death he/she may repeatedly ask when they will see their pet again or when the pet is coming home.  Children may ask and worry about who is caring for their pet and how the pet is getting their needs met.

How can parents answer these questions?

When responding to children’s questions about death it is important to be honest without giving more information than the child can understand.  For example, an appropriate response to a question about when the family will see their pet again is, “When a pet dies we are never able to see them again but, we can always remember them.”   It is also important to reassure that the pet’s death is not due to anything that the child did or didn’t do.

In response to questions regarding the care of the pet it is important to let the child know that when animals and people die they no longer need to eat, sleep, play or go on walks.  The young child may not fully comprehend this answer but it may relieve them of their worries.  They do need to be reassured that the animal is not in danger or facing further harm.

Telling a child that their pet has gone to sleep may cause anxieties around their own sleep.  Comparing death to falling asleep may be frightening to a child and lead to sleep disturbance.

In general, how can a parent help their child handle the death of a family pet?
            There are many things parents can do to assist children in dealing with loss. They are:

1.      Listen, validate and reassure. Be patient in answering repeated questions and assure children that it is okay/normal for them to feel mad, sad, or afraid and tearful.  If your child expresses worry or sadness, you can provide validation by telling them that you feel sad as well.  While acknowledging feelings be sure to let the child know that even though the feelings may be overwhelming they can handle them.
2.      Observe. After the loss of a pet play close attention to your child’s play, artwork, and behavior for these are the blueprints to your child’s feelings and concerns. Remember, children ages 4-6 don’t have the language to express complex emotions but do so through their play and behavior. Notice any themes that may emerge in your child’s play and artwork.  Also be aware of behavior changes such as increased aggressiveness, anger, or withdrawal.  These are signs that your child is having a difficult time with the loss.
3.      Engage.  It is so important to provide opportunities to engage your child in conversation about the loss. Reading fictional picture books that address grief and loss can serve as valuable springboards for discussion.  Having your child tell about their artwork can also lead to meaningful interactions.  Assist the child in planning a special good-bye for their pet.  It may be a traditional funeral or a memorial in which the children draw pictures for the pet, make gifts, and or take a special walk in the pet’s honor.  Children have many good ideas about how they wish to say good-bye to their special family friend. Be sure to ask, listen, and assist in the implementation of these ideas.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Children and Anxiety

Children and Anxiety

Anxiety is painful. Unfortunately, we often don’t recognize this painful disorder in children because it presents very differently than it does in adults.
Children who are anxious may be described by their parents and teachers as lazy, inattentive, restless, whiney, hyper, and/ or non-cooperative. In my work with children I am seeing an in-crease in anxiety. It may well be that I have learned to better identify anxiety in children but, the trend of anxious children seems to have escalated.
According to The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library site, Anxiety disorders are characterized by fear, worry, or dread that greatly impairs the ability to function normally and that is disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. Anxiety may result in physical symptoms. The site also states that, at some point during childhood, about 10 to 15% of children experience an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobia, panic disorder, acute and posttraumatic stress disorders.
In this definition there are several types of anxiety disorders. The one that will be addressed today is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, (GAD). Symptoms that may present in a child with this disorder are:
Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
Poor sleep
Complaint of physical discomfort such as stomach aches, headaches, and muscle aches
Memory problems
Biting one’s nails, picking at cuticles, scratching oneself
Distortions of reality

The discomfort children feel with GAD is very real and is born out of fear. In order to cope with the painful feelings associated with anxiety/fear, they begin avoiding situations that they perceive contribute to feelings of discomfort. When school situations are a part of the anxiety/fear avoidance usually results in disliking anything connected with school; possibly school refusal, disinterest in extracurricular activities, truancy, self-imposed social isolation, an “I don’t care attitude,” alliance with fringe groups, or use of alcohol and other drugs.
In this frenzy of avoidance, the child is left feeling incompetent and unfulfilled. Such feelings can eventually lead to or coexist with depression. Early intervention is key. If you think your child is suffering with anxiety, seek professional guidance.
Additional suggestions to consider in supporting your child include:
Children feel less anxious when the family has a regular routine and provides structure such as regular bedtimes, meal times, and homework time.
Provide ample time during your child’s day to experience unstructured play or creative activities.
Allow for release of nervous energy on the playground and/ or outside.
Focus on the positive. Have some time during each day when the family discusses “The best thing about their day.”
Assist your child in creating a Gratitude Journal. Each day the child writes or tells you about five things for which they are grateful. Changing one’s thoughts dramatically changes behaviors.
Limit “Screen Time” The anxious child learns unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress when allowed to sit for hours watching television or playing games. More than an
hour of screen time a day is considered excessive by many studies.
Teach your child relaxation strategies and self-soothing techniques. You can do this via yoga moves, deep breathing exercises, creative visualization and positive self-talk. A great site for assistance with this is
Always respond to your child’s refusals and fears with compassion and tenderness. Respond by acknowledging their fear but, with the expectation that they can be successful.
Do not enable your child to remain in a state of avoidance. You may want to seek assistance in these efforts.
Become aware of the negative statements your child is giving him or herself. Anxious individuals feed negative messages to themselves about things that might happen thus feeding their fear, discomfort and avoidance.
Most importantly, pay attention to your own level of anxiety. Do you worry excessively? Are you suffering with depression? Are you able to model coping strategies and self-soothing strategies for your child? Has anyone expressed concern about the amount of alcohol you consume? If you grew up as highly anxious, you may think that the way you feel is normal and have difficulty recognizing your own anxiety. It is very difficult for a parent to assist a child in man-aging their fears until their own are manageable.

If you have already tried many different approaches with your child and continue to see symptoms of anxiety, please seek assistance. Your child doesn’t have to experience this painful condition.