How pets can help children cope with tough times
Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30
Shortly after my father's sudden death last week, I found my young daughter solemnly telling our family cat the awful news.
She hadn't said much when I'd told her about her granddad and so I was relieved to hear her talking to the cat. I knew she was finding comfort and solace in sharing the sad news with her furry friend. It reminded me of all those years ago, when my grandfather died and I had taken my cat to my bedroom for a cry. For some reason, I felt the cat understood and empathised.
It seems I am not completely delusional to think that animals can be true friends in times of sorrow.
A new study has shown that cats and dogs are the top confidantes of young children, because they believe that pets will be the least judgemental about their secrets.
According to the research, children facing adversity - such as illness, bereavement or parents splitting up - are more likely to confide in their pet than in siblings.
Researchers at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University found that family pets often play a listener role in the lives of children and can help them deal with all kinds of issues.
Matt Cassels, who conducted the research at Cambridge University, said too little attention has been paid to the significant role of pets in young people's emotions.
This 10-year study of children's social and emotional development included a section on children's relationships with their pets, as well as a broad range of other data from the children, their parents, teachers, and siblings.
Astonishingly, Cassels said that family break-ups mean that in the United States and the UK children are now more likely to live with a pet than their natural father.
"In the US and England pets are more common in families with young children than resident fathers and yet we don't quantify how important they are to us."
Mr Cassels said the research showed that children facing emotional difficulties - such as bereavement, divorce, instability and illness - placed a particular importance on their pets.
"These children not only turn to their pets for support when faced with adversity, they do so even more than they turn to their siblings.
"This is even though they know their pets don't actually understand what they are saying," he adds.
The study also showed that children with stronger relationships with their pets had a higher level of prosocial behaviour - such as helping, sharing, and co-operating - than their peers. The study also demonstrated that these children, particularly girls and those whose pet was a dog, were more likely to confide in their pets than in their siblings. There seems to be a therapeutic side to this relationship, with the pets playing the role of the listener and being more empathetic for children than writing problems into a diary. Cassels believes that the study showed that it was "valid to talk about child-pet relationships in the same way we talk about sibling relationships".
It's not only children who are going through a difficult time that turn to pets. Research has shown that pets can help children with autism. Dogs and other pets can play an important role in individuals' social lives, and they can act as catalysts for social interaction.
A University of Missouri researcher recently found that children with autism have stronger social skills when any kind of pet lived in the home. The findings revealed children with any kind of pet in the house reported being more likely to engage socially by introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people's questions. These are the kinds of social skills that children with autism would normally find difficult, but this study showed children's assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.
Having seen first-hand how comforting a pet can be to a child, I cannot recommend more highly that every family have one. Be it a goldfish or a Great Dane, a family pet will comfort your children in times of trouble.
I have also discovered this week that it's not just children who find solace in pets. I now know that you are never too old to cuddle a cat, especially in a time of grief.