Kids pick pets over siblings
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.
A pet can offer support as children negotiate difficult life stages.