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Euthanasia of a Pet

A recent question: “We recently had to put our dog down because she bit a repairman. I’m not sure how to tell our three-year-old what happened to the dog. What should we say?”

This is a difficult question to answer. If the question asked about an old dog that was in pain I would recommend the truth— or a version of the truth that a small child could relate to. “Hobo couldn’t walk any longer and was in pain so we took him to the animal hospital where he died.”

I actually told that tale to my own young children. We buried Hobo’s ashes in the yard and involved the whole family in the funeral ceremony. Each of us talked about what Hobo meant to us and about how much we missed the dog. We cried and told the children it was alright to cry. Later when they realized dogs were euthanized at their veterinarian Dad’s animal hospital they asked if Dad had euthanized Hobo and we answered truthfully.

Your problem is more complicated. Frankly I don’t know how to tell a 3-year-old that the dog bit someone and Mommy and Daddy were told they had to euthanize the dog that was a danger to people. There are so many convoluted issues: the law, liability, the fact that cute puppies can grow up to be vicious dogs. All of this is incomprehensible to a young child as well as scary. Perhaps the best thing you can say is that the dog had to go to the animal hospital and the dog died there. “It’s sad when a pet dies. Do you want to draw a picture of Lady so we can remember her?”

This is not a perfect solution as you may be asked, then or later, “Why did Lady have to go to the hospital?” “She wasn’t alright so we took her.” is the best I can come up with. When a child is old enough to understand such issues, be truthful.

The matter of telling the truth to children is a big issue throughout the parenting years. Truth vs Compassion. Truth vs the developmentally-determined ability of a child to understand a painful reality. These are difficult issues, often heartbreaking ones.

Let me share a heartbreaking situation I witnessed personally. A young mother suffered a massive stroke. When the decision was made to end life support, her five-year-old child was told his mother was very, very ill and could not get better. His father did not say he decided to remove life support. Rather he said, “Mommy is so sick she is going to die. She will not come home from the hospital.” Later that day the five year-old looked up from his Lego constructions and asked me, “Do you know my Mommy is going to die tomorrow?” I said, “Yes, it’s very sad” and I started to cry. The boy simply went back to his Lego which is perfectly normal behavior for a child.

One of the important principles to guide parents in dealing with young children and painful realities is to always be truthful about your emotions. Do not try to conceal your own grief when you talk to a child about such a tragedy. Better you cry together and talk about how sad this is. When we share grief with a child it gives the child permission to grieve and shows the child he is not alone in his grief. Guided empowerment is helpful. Suggest a bereaved child draw a picture, find ways to keep the loved one’s memory alive, role play with you about how to tell friends what happened.

A child’s understanding of death is developmentally determined. Young children think of death as reversible. Young children certainly experience grief however they grieve differently than we do. Some may seem quite callous when told of a death and neither cry nor seem concerned. But children who lose a loved one, especially a parent, have the same strong emotions to deal with that we do: guilt (“I must have done something so bad so bad that my Mommy went away and died to punish me.”) and anger (“My Mommy left me! That was mean!). The child may exhibit a drop in school performance, behavior problems, lack of appetite, sleeplessness. These symptoms can occur weeks or even months after the death and may require counseling.

There are four basic principles to guide parents in talking to children about any painful reality: 1) Be honest. 2) Model how to deal with sad feelings and encourage their expression. 3) Give the child a chance to talk about what happened and his or her feelings. 4) Empower the child to deal with such feelings.