Kids pick pets over sib­lings

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - PETS - By Dr. Gre­gory Ramey Dr. Gre­gory Ramey is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Dayton Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal’s Pe­di­atric Cen­ter for Men­tal Health Re­sources.

When it comes to re­la­tion­ships, young teens pre­fer their pets to their sib­lings. In a study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied De­vel­op­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy, 91 young­sters were asked to rate their con­nec­tions with sib­lings and pets.

Over­all, kids were sig­nif­i­cantly more sat­is­fied with their pet re­la­tion­ships, com­pared with how they felt about their sib­lings. There were sig­nif­i­cant gen­der dif­fer­ences, with girls in­di­cat­ing that they dis­closed more in­for­ma­tion to their pets than to their sib­lings, which was not true for boys.

This re­search was con­ducted with boys and girls who were 12 years old, an age that can be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for young­sters just be­gin­ning the chal­lenges of young adult­hood, sep­a­rat­ing from their par­ents and forg­ing their own iden­ti­ties. Pets pro­vide a unique sup­port for this age group.

Pets of­fer what hu­mans can­not — un­con­di­tional ac­cep­tance. Many chil­dren have told me that their pets are their best friends. They can trust and con­fide in their pets, with­out fear of re­jec­tion or ridicule. Kids have a hard time at that age shar­ing their thoughts and feel­ings, of­ten over­whelmed by phys­i­cal changes to their bod­ies and psy­cho­log­i­cal changes to their spir­its. They may lack the vo­cab­u­lary to ar­tic­u­late what they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, but that doesn’t mat­ter when they are talk­ing with their pets. They may feel that their an­i­mal friends un­der­stand and ac­cept them. Other stud­ies have af­firmed the many pos­i­tive ben­e­fits of pet own­er­ship. Kids turn to their pets at times of stress, and that re­la­tion­ship serves to sup­port them dur­ing dif­fi­cult times.

I work in a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal with an ac­tive pet-ther­apy pro­gram, and it’s just amaz­ing to see kids’ re­ac­tions when vis­ited by a dog or other an­i­mal. Quiet kids be­come an­i­mated, los­ing all in­hi­bi­tions as they reach out to hug and talk with an an­i­mal. Pets may be par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial for boys, who seem to have a more dif­fi­cult time un­der­stand­ing and deal­ing with their feel­ings. I some­times get stuck when talk­ing with a young per­son in my of­fice, un­able to find any com­mon ground for dis­cus­sion. Ask­ing about the child’s pet usu­ally starts a safe con­ver­sa­tion about a strong emo­tional bond. I then ask a very sim­ple ques­tion: What does your pet of­fer that you are not get­ting from your par­ents or peers? Re­la­tion­ships are re­cip­ro­cal. I also ask kids how they treat their pets and com­pare that with how they treat their par­ents and oth­ers. Kids ap­pre­ci­ate this in­sight very quickly. At times I’ve asked kids to treat their par­ents as nicely as they treat their pets, and then see what im­pact that has on the fam­ily sit­u­a­tion.

DREAM­STIME

A pet can of­fer sup­port as chil­dren ne­go­ti­ate dif­fi­cult life stages.

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