Dead Hamster Syndrome

Ask any primary school teacher, they’ve all been there, they’ve all witnessed the tears, consoled the inconsolable and empathised on the sudden, inexplicable passing of a beloved pet hamster, only of course to later discover that the said hamster:

  1. Has been deceased for a good 3 years;
  2. Is the pet of a second cousin’s friend’s older brother;
  3. Never actually existed in the first place!

The tears and the distress are very real even if the reason behind isn’t. Unless there is an obvious, easily explainable cause for why the child is crying e.g. a grazed knee, a child can find it difficult to explain why it is they are upset and become even more distressed as a result. The brain will, in turn, search for a plausible reason to be upset or recall a time that felt similar and assign that as explanation to current feeling – hence the dead hamster!

When I was class teacher I would term this the ‘Dead Hamster Syndrome’ and always saw it as an alarm bell. The dead hamster was merely the metaphor and what was important was that I made myself available to listen, to comfort and to reassure. Acknowledging the feelings a child is experiencing and empathising with them is a simple yet powerful tool.

As adults, although we’d all love to have a magic wand to make life easier for the children in our care, the reality is we cannot take away the real causes of the anxiety and upset. What we can do however is give them time, a safe space and a creative outlet to communicate their thoughts, feelings and emotions. Whether this be through the metaphor of the dead hamster or a jellyfish it matters not.


September 20th, 2019 by