Children turn to their pets more than their siblings in difficult times depicting stronger bonds with the former, say researchers.
According to Matt Cassels’ research, it is unexpected that these kids turn to their pets for assistance more often than they turn to their siblings during difficult times. They do this while knowing that their animals cannot understand what they are saying. When Matt Cassels was a child, he had at least 10 dogs, but it had never occurred to him to consider the value of his relationships with them.
A comprehensive data collection from the Toddlers Up Project, which is being directed by Professor Claire Hughes at the Centre for Family Research, was not available to him until he moved to Cambridge and began working on it.
Children’s connection with their pets
A component of children’s connections with their pets was included in this 10-year longitudinal research of children’s social and emotional development, along with a wide range of additional information from the kids, their parents, teachers, and siblings. Matt was looking for a research topic for his MPhil in Social and Developmental Psychology. He says: “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 for some time and even though my own experience of pets while I was growing up was so important.”
There has been limited research on pet relationships, but few studies have focused on how the quality of pet relationships influences children’s outcomes or utilised the same tool to compare children’s relationships with pets to their other connections. Matt made the decision to concentrate on it. What he discovered shocked him. He had believed that happy children would have close pet relationships, but the reality was more nuanced.
Children who had suffered adversity had stronger relationships with pets
Instead, he found that although they performed worse academically and experienced more mental health issues than their peers, children who had experienced adversity in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, instability, and illness, or who were from disadvantaged backgrounds, were more likely to have a stronger relationship with their pets than their peers.
According to Matt, this may be the result of their backgrounds, which predispose them to these issues. Despite this, the study found that kids who had closer bonds with their dogs exhibited more prosocial behaviour than their peers, including assisting, sharing, and cooperating. The study also showed that these kids were more inclined to confide in their pets than in their siblings, especially girls and kids with dogs as pets.
Matt says: “It is really surprising that these children not only turn to their pets for support when faced with adversity but that 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.
” Pets don’t judge and are empathetic, hence the confiding
When asked why, despite earlier, less thorough research tending to demonstrate that boys had a better bond with their pets, the study may show that girls discuss and dispute with their pets more than boys, Matt adds: “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 maybe even better since they can be empathetic.”
Most of the data used in Matt’s study was gathered when the children, 88 of whom had pets at the time, were 12 years old, which was 10 years after they first started taking part in the study. Information on prosocial conduct, emotional well-being, academic performance, and the children’s relationship with their pets was submitted by the children, their parents, siblings, and teachers. Matt compared this data to how often kids played with their pets each day, how often they disagreed with their pets, how satisfied they were with their relationship with their pets, and how much they confided in their pets.
Pets are relatable and ubiquitous
He did this by utilising a brand-new pet attachment scale that was modified from a well-known and psychometrically verified human attachment scale. His findings confirmed the applicability of the tool and the appropriateness of equating human-human relationships with those of animals.
“I had to first prove that it was valid to talk about child-pet relationships in the same way we talk about sibling relationships and that we were not indulging in anthropomorphism. My research found the tool was better than those that have previously been available so the possibilities for future research in this area are exciting.” With the help of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Matt is pursuing a PhD in the Department of Psychiatry.
He has written two articles on his research, which are being considered for publication. He claims that there is much more that can be done with the Toddlers Up data, such as examining the effects of pet deaths on kids. “Pets are relatable and ubiquitous,” he says. “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.”
Materials provided by the University of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
University of Cambridge. “Children often have a closer relationship with their pet than their siblings.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 May 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150513135011.htm>.
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