Sometimes, we could all use an extra hand (or four) to help us start coping with negative emotions. As humans, we seek out company and community when we’re going through a rough patch, but sometimes it’s hard to really let our guard down and be vulnerable. Personally, I grew up in a family where we worked through our emotions individually, in private. We never really shared how we were feeling, probably due to feeling embarrassed. Even as a child, I was too shy to share how I felt. But when I was alone with only my cat to comfort me, I really let loose. For the highs and lows, my pets were there for me, steady as can be.
I’m certainly grateful to have grown up with pets, and seeing how my younger siblings also grew up with them, it makes me wonder what they would be like without them. Do pets contribute to healthier emotional development in children? Or am I just making this up? Well, if you’re looking for a sign to finally say yes to your child’s plea for a puppy, keep reading. (P.S. – if you’re a kid reading this, you can totally use it in your argument for a new pet!)
Are Pets Linked to Positive Emotional Development?
The reluctant parent and new pet owner usually only agrees to getting a new pet if and only if the child agrees to take responsibility for it by playing with it, feeding it, washing it, going on walks, etc. Certainly, this can teach kids a lot about responsibility and interdependence! When my brother would forget to feed our dogs after school, my dad would say something along the lines of “How would you feel if I forgot to feed you? And dogs can’t even talk to let you know they’re hungry!” It can help children to develop empathy for their little furry (or not so furry) friends and understand caregiving roles better. They will learn to be gentle, patient, and kind as their little puppy or kitten clumsily grows before their eyes. They’ll also learn this when their elderly pet starts to age and has trouble seeing or walking. These are all wonderful life lessons that are gathered gently through their relationship.
Interestingly enough, a very thorough study conducted in 2017 revealed that children with pets generally fared better both physically and mentally. According to parent reports, the children with pets in their household were more likely to:
- have better general health
- be more obedient
- be more physically active
- be less moody
- have fewer behavior problems
- have fewer learning problems
So that seals the deal then, right? Well, not exactly. This study also revealed some interesting points about wealth and class. Compared to children without pets, these children were more likely to have parents that spoke English, live in a house rather than an apartment, had parents that were in good health, and were more likely to be white rather than African-American, Hispanic, or Asian. Essentially, the ability to have pets growing up was often linked to wealth, making it hard to isolate the impact of having pets away from all the other factors that contributed to their physical and mental well-being.
With that said, there’s absolutely no denying the connection between children and their pets. Don’t believe me? Watch Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs if you’re up for a good cry.
Can Pets Help Us While We’re Coping with Negative Emotions?
Pets can reduce stress, provide social support and companionship, and improve children’s communication skills. Having your child read or explain things to your pet is not only heart warming, it’s a fun way for them to practice newly learned skills. Often times it’s much easier for a child who struggles with reading to read to his or her pet. The pet doesn’t correct or judge so sometimes it’s a safer way for kids to practice their reading skills. Instinctively, pets understand that they, too, need to be gentle with children. There are even accounts of pets comforting and protecting pregnant women as if they were part of their pack.
Dogs especially have an incredible ability to understand, recognize, and mimic their owners’ emotions. Dogs can sense our emotions, read our facial expressions, understand nuances in our vocal tone, and even read our physical gestures. Emotional support animals of all kinds are becoming more and more popular. One of the best pieces of advice my dad ever gave me was “Whenever you’re feeling sad, go pet Winston (our pet labrador)” — it worked like a charm.
In short, children are resilient. Whether they have pets or not, they will exercise their curiosity and continue their journey through emotional development, even into adulthood. When it comes to coping with negative emotions, sometimes they could use a helping hand, or a snuggly fuzzy friend to comfort them. Having a pet can support a child’s emotional development by:
- Instilling responsibility
- Fostering empathy
- Providing a safe place to experience any emotion
- Managing stress and anxiety
- Becoming more gentle and patient
Whether or not pets are in the picture for you, consider signing up for the free Mission I’m Possible challenge, a program designed to help children develop emotionally through open-ended play. Additionally, HAPPÉ is proud to share the power of Tapping for coping with negative emotions. Tapping, or EFT Tapping, is a non-invasive form of acupuncture that children and adults can do whenever they’re feeling overwhelmed to help them feel calm and in control. We’ll walk you through, step by step, with the help of our friend Ellie. Your pet can watch too!