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There’s No Normal When it Comes to Kids’ Reactions to Death

“Are you taking the sick chicken to the vet today?” my daughter asked me.

She’d been awake less than five minutes and she was already talking about the one thing I didn’t want to discuss – our chickens. We’d raised them since they were chicks. For two long, smelly months, we kept them under a heat lamp in a dog crate in our basement. Once they were big enough, we relocated them to a coop in our backyard where they’d lived not even two weeks when we woke one morning to find nothing but their bloody entrails. (By “we” I mean my husband.)

Our kids, ages three and five, loved observing and feeding the chickens as they grew from itty bitty babies into full-size birds. Our five-year-old was thrilled that in exchange for helping care for the chickens, she’d have the opportunity to sell eggs to friends and neighbors. She couldn’t wait to replenish her “money-wallet.”

Although I had no idea exactly how to break the news of the chickens’ demise to our kids, I knew I had to tell the truth. I just wished I’d had my coffee before I did. I looked at my eldest from across the kitchen table as the early morning sun cast a glow across her face. I braced myself for a tantrum, tears, or both, took a deep breath, and said, “The chickens died overnight.”

“How?” she asked.

“The coop was left unlocked and we think a raccoon got in and ate them,” my husband said.

“But I was the last one to look at them yesterday,” she said. “I left it unlocked.”

“No!” we exclaimed.

“It wasn’t your fault at all,” I assured her.

“The grown-ups should have made sure it was locked before we went to bed. That’s not your responsibility,” my husband said.

We exhaled and waited for her to explode, as she is wont to do when things don’t go as planned. Instead, our eldest looked in the direction of her little sister’s room, and with a sing-song voice, she cried out, “Oh, sissy! I have news for you!” She stretched the word “news” into two syllables.

I looked at my husband with raised eyebrows. Our younger daughter toddled into the living room, rumpled from sleep.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Our chickens died!” her big sister exclaimed, with a sly, knowing smile on her lips.

I shot my husband a “Holy shit is our kid a psychopath?” look.

He shot me one right back that said, “Hell if I know, but that was really weird.”

Like so much of parenting, the “Telling Your Kid Her Pet Chickens Got Killed” chapter did not go as we’d expected. According to Jill Ceder, psychotherapist and parent coach, there is wide range of preschoolers’ reactions to death that fall within the normal range. Common ones include:

  • expressing anxiety or fearfulness
  • being clingier than usual
  • experiencing difficulty sleeping
  • displaying regressed behaviors (e.g., bed-wetting and thumb-sucking)
  • showing changes in their appetite
  • looking for the person or pet who has died

Meanwhile, they may demonstrate little reaction of any kind. Ceder says this, too, is perfectly normal.

It is important to note that preschoolers are typically unable to understand the finality of death. Says Ceder, “magical thinking is present at this age so it is common for preschoolers to think someone will come alive again or that they have the power to make someone die with their thoughts.” According to the NYU’s Child Study Center, at three to five years old, with no concept of death’s permanence, children at this age perceive death as living under different circumstances, so even though they may have seen the burial, they may still worry about that person getting hungry, for example.

If your child experiences a loss it is important to support them by being open and honest. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, when talking to preschoolers about death, adults should avoid euphemisms like, “he’s passed away,” or, “she’s gone to sleep.” As concrete thinkers, children will take these words literally, and consequently may become afraid of sleeping. Instead, they should be told something along the lines of, “She has died, which means we will not be able to see her again,” along with the reassurance that memories last forever.

We can also support children dealing with death or loss by understanding that they are not necessarily able to put their feelings into words. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics remind parents that play can be the language of childhood. So, don’t be surprised if your child expresses her thoughts and fears while playing and be open to listening and trying to understand the messages she’s trying to communicate via play.

If and when your child does express curiosity and asks questions, Ceder reminds parents to be honest when answering their questions. Additionally, parents shouldn’t be surprised if their preschooler asks the same questions repeatedly and wants the details repeated many times, as this is how they process information. When answering questions, less is more; kids don’t need long, complicated answers. The National Institutes of Health recommends only answering the question that was asked and doing it with age-appropriate language.

It’s also important to validate kids’ feelings. For example, saying something like, “Don’t be sad Sparky died, he’s in heaven now,” is not helpful. Rather, allow your child to be sad and offer empathy. You could say something like, “I know you miss him and it’s hard right now.”

Even if, like mine, your child learns about the death of her pets and is neither sad nor curious, but instead appears strangely gleeful – this is not necessarily cause for concern.

Ceder reassures parents that “most reactions would be normal, [as] everyone experiences death and grief differently. Death is a confusing, complex and interesting topic for kids (and adults).”

As for whether my child is a psychopath, Ceder says her reaction to the tragic news of our chickens’ murder wouldn’t be any indication.

“Many times adults place a judgment on a child’s behavior, but the child is just ‘reporting the news.’ At first, it sounds as if your daughter was worried that she would be blamed. She may have genuinely felt bad/worried or she may have been scared she would get in trouble – both normal reactions. But when you reassured her that it was not her fault, she switched over to “news reporting mode.” It appears to me that she thought this was an exciting event to share with her sister. Her response was normal and healthy in the same way that children between 3-5 years old say ‘I am taller, you are shorter.’ ‘I am older, you are younger.’ As adults, many times we want to jump in and say – that isn’t the right thing to say…assuming the other child may be offended or feel less than. But many times, the child is just stating an observation. Your daughter was stating what just happened. Her reactions fall into the normal category because she does not understand the finality of death and because she does not attach sad feelings to death like we do as we get older.”

Guiding a child through death and loss is never fun. It helps to know, though, that just as there are so many different normal, healthy ways to be a kid, so are there a wide variety of healthy, normal ways for kids to process the experience.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.



PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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