Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact
Ask Dr. Gayle

"My child killed her hamster!"

QUESTION: Our daughter had a new pet hamster. She came out of her room with a guilty/sad look on her face and when we asked her what happened, she wouldn't tell us. Later I found her dead hamster lying in his food dish with some of the bedding partly covering his body. I was horrified. I learned the hamster bit her and she squeezed it causing it to die. Should we be extremely worried about this?

ANSWER: Your daughter's guilt and sadness is a healthy reaction to this accident. It is natural for her to feel guilt because her actions caused her hamster's death. And sadness at the precipitous loss of her pet is inevitable.

The good news is that your daughter is capable of empathy, shown by her feelings and possibly, by her consideration in covering her hamster with its bedding. But she could use your help in overcoming the irreversible outcome of her actions, caused by her own inexperience and her hamster's unexpected attack.

Two steps are critical, so that this experience becomes a part of her growth, rather than an episode that holds her back. Expressing feelings and resolving the trauma she experienced can make a difference. Your guidance can help her master, instead of withdraw, from responsibility at this age.

Do not be overcome with worry. Instead, simply support her. Your job is to help her grieve her new pet, learn from her experience, and eventually, when she is ready, to master care taking another pet in the future.

Expressing feelings

She will need your help to process the myriad of feelings and her role in this unfortunate event.

Ask your child to recount the story, capturing her own pain (and shock?) when her hamster bit her. Help her to recover what she was feeling when she was bitten. Likely, her reactive squeeze was instinctive, albeit deadly. Help her remember that it was not her intent to harm her pet. It was an accident. And she did not realize that her hamster might be frightened of her, in the beginning.

Label this misfortune as an accident. And that she may have even acted instinctively to defend herself. In this case, the animal was more fragile than she realized! This was a mistake, perhaps based on ignorance. Do not shy away from identifying a mistake, giving her appropriate responsibility, but not blame for the incident. Mistakes are for learning, and she can learn from this experience.

Support her grief process by burying the hamster, or some other ritual which completes the process she may have begun in covering it with bedding.

Resolve the past through education about the future

When you and your daughter are ready to consider another hamster, identify guidelines for animal care, which will help prevent being bitten in the future. Educate yourself and your daughter about safety in animal care. Consult an animal care specialist (perhaps the owner of the pet store) about what happened. Find out the appropriate ways of handling a hamster, both for your daughter's and the animal's safety. Read a book on the subject and supervise her until she is competent to handle the hamster alone.

Hands-on supervision will help ensure that she succeeds as a pet owner the next time around. With your guidance, she can learn from her mistakes. And with knowledge and information as her allies, she can experience success. With your guidance, this unfortunate event can deepen, rather than weaken your daughter's confidence in herself.

Return to Previous Page

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com