When it comes to relationships, young teens prefer their pets to their siblings.
Based on a study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 91 youngsters were asked to rate their connection with their siblings and their pets.
Kids’ overall satisfaction with their relationships with their pets was significantly higher than how they felt about their siblings. There were some 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 12-year-olds, an age that can be particularly difficult for many kids. These youngsters are just beginning the challenges of young adulthood, separating from their parents and forging their own identities. Pets provide a unique support for these kids.
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 body and psychological changes to their spirit. They may not have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re experiencing, but it doesn’t matter when they are talking with their pets. They 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 kids during the difficult times.
I work in a children’s hospital with an active pet therapy program, and it’s just amazing to see the reaction of kids 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 youngster’s strong emotional bond with another. 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 get this insight very quickly. I’ve at times asked kids to treat their parents as nicely as they treat their pets, and then see what impact that has on the family situation.
Dr. Gregory Ramey is the executive director of Dayton Children Hospital’s Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources.