Children facing a crisis at home are more likely to speak to their pets about it instead of with their siblings or peers, according to a new study conducted in the U.K.
Though the relationship between pets and children as friends and playmates has often been studied, there isn’t as much about the role of a pet as a confidante, said Matt Cassels, the researcher.
Cassels began by looking at data from a 10-year study in the U.K. on the social and emotional devlopment of children in 100 different families, which included a section on children’s relationships with their pets.
“The data on pet relationships stood out, as it had never occurred to me to consider looking at pet relationships, although I had studied children’s other relationships,” Cassels told BBC.
Cassles suggested that there is a therapeutic side to this relationship, as pets play the role of the listener and are more “empathetic” for children than writing problems into a diary.
“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,” Cassels said. “This is even though they know their pets don’t actually understand what they are saying.”
Results of the study showed that children suffering from different kinds of adversity — bereavement, divorce, instability and illness — or came from disadvantaged backgrounds “were more likely to have a stronger relationship with their pets than their peers,” Gates Cambridge wrote as overview on the research.
Children in these situations also did less well academically and suffered more mental health problems, Cassles found.
The study also found that children in the U.S. are more likely to live with a pet than with their father due to family break-ups, which could be another reason some children are more comfortable confiding with their pets.
“According to U.S. data, about two-thirds of children live with their father, while about four in five of families with school-age children have a pet,” BBC wrote.
More studies have been done in recent years to look into the many different affects pet-owning can have on children, including those with mental disabilities, such as a study on pets aiding autistic children in becoming more assertive.
“There is evidence that some individual kids seem to benefit from their relationship with these animals,” James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times in an article on possible benefits in child-pet relationships.
“There is some evidence, but it’s largely anecdotal, that bringing a dog into these households has a dramatic effect on the behavior of these kids,” Serpell said.Whether it really does have much affect on children or not, it is well-known that most families bring pets into the family because of the children’s desires, often leading to more of a connection between them and the animals.