Teaching your toddler to say goodbye

From divorce to losing a family member or pet, there might be some times you have to explain the unexplainable to your toddler. Here's some helpful advice

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  • Explaining the death of a grandparent

    A toddler won’t have the same sense of loss and grief as you when a close relative dies, says consultant educational psychologist Charles Ward (www.wardpsychology.co.uk). But she will still realise that someone isn’t around anymore. “It’s OK to show your emotions,” says Charles. “Say, ‘Mummy’s crying because she misses grandma’. Be truthful and matter-of-fact. Explain that grandma’s body stopped working. Then add your own beliefs, whether that means heaven or simply that grandma isn’t coming back.”

    Counselling can help you cope – try Cruse Bereavement Care (www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk). Reassuring your child and making her feel safe is important at this time, too.

  • Explaining the death of a pet

    Pets are like living toys to children. They just never imagine that their rabbit, hamster or even fish might not be there one day. “First, explain to your toddler what’s happened using simple language,” says Charles Ward. “Try something like, ‘Harry’s body isn’t working any more and now we need to go and bury him in the garden so his body is safe.’ Then involve your child in the process by suggesting she helps you find a little box to bury Harry in. Then she can help you make the grave, too.”

    Don’t be surprised if the next day your child wants to dig up the hamster to see if her pet has got better. She’ll learn day by day when he doesn’t come back that he’s not going to.

    “Our pet rabbit Max died but as it was so close to Christmas I didn’t tell the children – and they didn’t even notice until several weeks later! However, they were very upset so I told them Father Christmas had taken him and he was able to come alive in Lapland and be Santa’s helper,” said Charlotte Eardley, 33, from Banstead, mum to George, 5, Isabella, 4, and Olivia, 1. 

  • Explaining a sibling’s stay in hospital

    If you’ve got a sick child in hospital, your emotions are probably all over the place and it’s easy to forget that your toddler will have anxieties, especially when it comes to leaving her brother or sister alone.

    “Explain in simple terms that her sibling is not feeling well, is very tired and is staying in hospital,” suggests Charles Ward. “Reassure your child, ‘He’ll be well looked after here.’ Make sure she also knows she’ll see her brother again.

    The difficulty lies when your child is so sick he may die. Then it’s better to use terms like ‘We’ll be coming back tomorrow,’ rather than ‘We’ll see your brother tomorrow’ just in case you sadly can’t keep the promise.”

    “Lily-Kate was born 12 weeks premature and had to stay in hospital for 15 weeks. Daniel, who was 3, at first worried about who was looking after his sister when we left her in the hospital. Luckily, some of the nurses had nursed Daniel when he was born, so we arranged for him to have a chat with them to reassure him,” said Cat Cullen, 35, from Ballygowan, Northern Ireland, mum to Daniel, 4, and Lily-Kate, 16 months.

  • Leaving nursery friends

    When she finishes nursery or if you’re moving out of the area, your little one probably won’t like the fact she’s leaving her friends behind. “It’s fine to acknowledge that she may be upset at leaving and that you feel that way, too,” says psychotherapist Jill Curtis.

    “Tell your child, ‘It’s a bit sad to be leaving Penny, but there will be other nice little girls where we’re going,’ so it’s a case of onwards and upwards. A ‘leaving party’ is often a good idea, with a camera for your child to take snaps of her friends,” says Jill.

    Moving doesn’t mean they can’t still be friends! Set up some playdates to catch up and carry on cultivating the friendships your tot has made.

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  • Moving houses

    It’s the only home she’s ever known – her own happy territory – so she’s bound to feel apprehensive about leaving it. “Again, it’s OK to let your child know you’re sad about leaving, but tell her you’re also excited about the new home,” says psychotherapist Jill Curtis. “Let her pack her own little suitcase so she feels part of ‘the move’ and give her a camera to take photos of the house. It’s also an idea to let her know she can choose how to decorate her new bedroom – or even help stick room stickers on the walls.”

    “When we moved we let the children say goodbye to every room when it was full of our things and looked homely – I thought it would be awful for them to walk around echoing empty rooms to say bye-bye,” said Anna Wynne-Williams, 39, from south London, mum to Leo, 6, and Florence, 2.

  • Explaining divorce

    Divorce can hit your little one hard, so it’s not a case of her being ’too young’ to be affected, warns psychotherapist Jill Curtis, who runs a helpsite for parents (www.familyonwards.com). “Let your child know it’s not her fault that daddy’s leaving and he still loves her,” says Jill.

    “But be realistic and don’t make promises that can’t be kept. If you’ve sorted out access visits, then you can tell your child she will be seeing daddy every weekend. However, if daddy’s disappeared off the scene, it’s best to say something like, ‘”Let’s hope daddy can come over to see you when he’s more settled.” Reassure her she can still have her favourite things when she’s at daddy’s.

    Keep information bite-sized and try to avoid confrontation with your ex in front of your toddler – save potentially argumentative discussions for when you’re alone.


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