Study shows importance of child-pet relationships

Featured on family holiday cards and pampered with special treats and their very own day-spas, it’s no question that our pets are much more than just pets, but are rather actual members of our families. The importance of this kind of relationship is examined in a new study showing kids in turmoil rely on their pets even more than they do their siblings. In fact, this new research is also shedding light on the unexpected ways animals boost kids’ social skills and confidence.

These findings come from Matt Cassels, a Ph.D. psychiatry student at the University of Cambridge, who according to a recent article, analyzed the data from a 10-year longitudinal study which examined the social and emotional development of kids from the time they were two-years-old through age 12. Cassels’ study focuses on children with low cognitive skills and their relationships with family, peers, and teachers—and with their pets.

Though his research, Cassels found that pets have profound and perhaps unexpected effects on kids’ social skills. Unsurprisingly, children in the study who faced hard times, such as their parents’ divorce, tough home lives, or illness, also tended to perform poorly in school. However, these kids were also more likely to rely on their pets more than their peers for support.

Specifically, Cassels discovered that girls with dogs especially, confided in their pets more frequently than in their own siblings.

“It is really surprising,” Cassels said in the article. “They may feel that their pets are not judging them, and since pets don’t appear to have their own problems, they just listen. Even confiding in a journal can be therapeutic, but pets may be even better since they can be empathetic.”

Kids who bonded strongly with their pets were also better in social situations, Cassel found. This included helping others, cooperating, sharing, and interacting. In other words, connecting with a pet bolstered their ability to connect with people and suggests our bonds with animals can be viewed as just as important and measurable as our relationships with other humans.

The article goes on to state that previous studies have shown that pets help children with autism demonstrate stronger social skills, especially if these animals are dogs. Children who regularly interact with dogs have been found to be better at introducing themselves to others and responding to social prompts. Pets have also been shown to boost compassion, self-esteem, and reduce stress in kids.

Regardless, Cassels believes more research needs to be done to find exactly how close bonds with animals impact young people.

“Pets are relatable and ubiquitous,” he said in the article. “In the U.S. 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.”

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