What to Do When a Child Thinks It’s Their Fault

Posted by Emily Piccirillo on

A Very Common Reaction

With the loss of a beloved pet, children often blame themselves in some way for the death. Rest assured, this inclination is a normal developmental aspect of who they are. In fact, they can become consumed by “woulda, coulda, shoulda” worries and “if only” doubts. It’s essential to recognize that children typically believe that the world revolves around them, especially until about age seven or eight. While perfectly healthy under most circumstances, this outsized sense of power and magical thinking can add undue burden to an already confusing, anguished experience like the loss of a loved one.

Children of all ages can feel paradoxically better by believing they have influence over such a stressful situation rather than accepting that they are helpless in determining the life and death of their pets beyond the basic responsibilities of caring for them. Often, they’re trying to revise history as they hold out hope that they could have prevented their passing. Alas, irrational guilt can take hold as a result.

Adults Struggle Too

Let’s pause here for a moment to note that when adults oversee end-of-life decisions for a pet they tend to do their own ruminating, no matter how obvious the timing and compassionate the approach. Parental anxiety and uncertainty can interfere with clear thinking since emotions are running high. Because adults often experience guilt associated with euthanasia, we recommend tuning into this first and doing all you can to work it through (or at the very least contain it for the time being), in order to avoid compounding a child’s distress. It’s vital to feel grounded in your heart and mind about the death, knowing that you did your best and were motivated by love in a compromised situation. 

Developing a Conscience

As the saying goes, children learn by doing, and the very concept of guilt needs to be unpacked over time so they can appreciate its complexity. As they mature and gain interpersonal skills, they observe and incorporate the rules of causal relationships and consequential thinking into their cognitive and social-emotional capacities. Helping them understand that a conscience is based in considering and caring about how one’s actions affect others is best achieved in relation to specific situations that serve as examples. These practical lessons teach children to recognize moral discomfort as a signal that they might be harming someone else and therefore serve as opportunities to review, reflect, and evaluate potential transgressions and to identify better, kinder alternatives.

A child’s otherwise wonderfully active imagination can do them a serious disservice when they blame themselves for events beyond their control and full comprehension. With gentle inquiry, the source of their preoccupation can be surprising to the adults in their lives. For example, a child might conclude that forgetting to kiss the dog goodnight or being angry at the cat for scratching them during innocent play was enough to cause their pal’s demise.

Children’s bonds with their pets can be profoundly intimate and characterized by such deep physical, emotional and spiritual attunement that they become downright telepathic. While they don’t share the same verbal language, the communication between children and their companion animals can be remarkably nuanced and effective. This can lead children to believe they missed a pet’s cue and therefore are responsible for not acting differently to avoid their death.

Because children learn ethical values and behaviors from the adults in their community, another possible source of believing the death is their fault will occur when it isn’t openly discussed by those around them. A classic example is when kids come home after school to find the dog or cat gone, and their parents are unwilling to give a convincing explanation for their absence. While it might be a well-intended protective impulse to spare children from pain, unfortunately this creates a major breach of trust and respect. For the child, this type of traumatic secrecy tends to be interpreted as resulting somehow from their own actions and can have a lasting negative impact. They figure they did something wrong or bad that caused the death and that their furry companion was taken away or killed as a punishment for unacceptable behavior.

Also, this dodge is a huge missed opportunity to teach new coping and communication skills that can prove useful for a whole host of other life challenges. It’s up to the adults to mentor and help kids navigate and grow through such difficult experiences.

Interventions to Consider

Children benefit tremendously from having the facts of the reality shared openly with them at their developmental level so they can process the information and build resiliency. Their concerns should be handled with care—not minimized or dismissed—so they’re able to work through them as part of their grieving process. In such a serious situation as a pet’s death, it’s essential for adults to affirm for children that they are worthy of knowing the truth. This means the adults need to prepare to offer accurate, appropriate information, along with explicit reassurances and comfort. Children need to be told directly and plainly that the death is not their fault and that it’s normal for them to wonder aloud about what’s happening. 

In giving this validation, it’s also important for the adults to model self-expression and coping strategies. They can help kids to find and put words to their feelings and also to distinguish them from physical sensations. Words like “upset” are vague and while it’s a fine starting point, kids need to learn to differentiate sadness from anger, fear, etc. And when somatic reactions like nausea and headaches, or regressed behaviors like thumb-sucking and bed-wetting occur, the adults can help by translating these indicators of grief and encourage kids to verbalize or draw/paint their thoughts and feelings. This usually reduces these symptoms.

Most of all, to help kids heal through their loss, they’re bolstered by reminders of what a wonderful friend they’ve been to their companion animal, how deep the love is, and that it lasts forever. They tend to experience a close pet as a sibling, best friend, playmate, or confidante. They may spend more time with the pet than any other living being, therefore it helps to spell out specific ways they ensured their buddy had a high-quality life—e.g., picking out special treats, rubbing their ears, playing fetch, cuddling in front of the TV. Invite them to share fond memories, tell favorite stories, and look at photos or video, so the enduring bond becomes the focal point for moving forward. This can also introduce smiles and laughter through the tears.

In this way, children can turn toward—rather than away from—the source of their anguish so they can recognize all the meaning it holds. Above all, they learn that intense love and grief go hand-in-hand. Repeating invitations to talk about their deceased pet as the child advances through different developmental stages can allow them to reminisce with greater maturity and insight. This will bolster and energize them while softening their grief as they navigate it over time. This can also resolve lingering notions of regret or guilt.

The End as a Beginning

Because the loss of a pet is often a child’s first introduction to death, they are learning to mourn and must rely heavily on the adults to show and guide them. The buffering interventions by adults naturally ease children’s minds, hearts, and bodies as they become reconciled to this major formative change in their young lives. How the death is anticipated (if that’s possible), how it’s explained, how it’s processed, and how the life is celebrated are likely to create lifelong memories for the child.

Such early loss becomes integral to who we become. And while grief can be very destabilizing during the acute phase, it offers many valuable life lessons about what matters most, and it can be filled with wisdom and grace.

Once nurturing measures are taken regarding the death, the adults need to continue to keep an eye out for signs that the child has returned to worrying, doubting, and ruminating since this tends to happen. Memories of the pet will naturally surface for years to come, and when adults casually mention them in the course of daily life, this provides new opportunities for check-ins to explore how the child’s grief process is evolving.

A Few Additional Comments

  • Because euthanasia is a frequent means by which a pet passes, this topic is best discussed frankly so children understand how and why it occurs. It needs to be made clear that it’s medically indicated due to chronic or terminal illness, severe injury, pain, loss of bodily functions, poor quality of life, etc. If the pet is exhibiting visible and audible signs of suffering, the adults’ acknowledgement of these can help a child to understand and anticipate that the end is near. Be prepared for the child to question the timing and to propose alternate treatments or solutions out of a desire to prolong life. That said, it’s best to spare young kids all the detail around final treatment decisions, however teens will likely benefit from a fuller explanation. Euthanasia is a significant opportunity to underscore that you’ve all done your best, including the vet, in caring for this dear family member and that euthanasia is your final act of kindness and respect.
  • A special challenge does arise if circumstances point to the child having done something that shaped the occasion of the death, for example leaving the back door open and then the pet being hit by a car. This needs very sensitive care, so the child can learn to differentiate an accident from intention. Neither the child nor the driver was trying to hurt the pet. It’s crucial that they aren’t shamed for their mistake and that they are helped with forgiving themselves and recognizing that pets have a sense of adventure that can lead to sad and unpredictable events.
  • Of course, if a child did act out and acknowledges doing something truly mean to their pet around the time of the death, they’ll need special support regarding their remorse, clarifying how they could have behaved differently, distinguishing the coincidence of their misbehavior and the cause of death, and ultimately accepting responsibility for their actions. Stating an explicit apology to their pet’s memory can help to relieve their burgeoning conscience.

A Tender Growth Opportunity

Ultimately, the death of a pet can be an extraordinary bonding experience as it’s grieved together by a family. When we invite a pet into our lives, we are making a commitment and a promise to care for them through end-of-life. We know it’s highly likely we will outlive them, which makes our time with them all the more precious. While our hearts break when it’s time for them to go, all that we share with them gives us strength to grieve and heal through their passing. Because the pain of all kinds of loss is inevitable in life, these truths of having furry family members can contribute greatly to children growing up into strong, ethical, and benevolent adults. The joyful company of a beloved pet is worth every moment in life, and death.

Additional guidance on preparing children for pet loss can be found here.

If you’d like to explore other resources, please click here, and, of course, we always welcome your insights and feedback here.

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