A recent study compared the relationships children have with pets to those with their siblings. The findings revealed that kids got greater satisfaction from relationships with their pets. The study also provided further evidence that pets are important in the social development of children and early adolescents 1.
It’s no surprise that pets are considered a fully-fledged addition to the family. We form strong bonds with our pets and it is proposed that our pets can fill the four roles of an attachment figure. ”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassells a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study.
It seems the development of social relationships between children and pets is an extremely important one. Children and young adults have all reported being more likely to turn to their dogs in particular for support during times of emotional distress than human relationships.
Investigating Family and Pet Relationships
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, surveyed 77 families with more than one child and at least one pet at home. Participants filled out a modified ‘Network of Relationships Inventory’ questionnaire to provide an overall relationship score. Questions such as ‘How much do you talk about everything with your pet?’ were included in the survey. A similar questionnaire was given to assess sibling relationships.
One theory why pet relationships scored higher than sibling relationships is given by Matt Cassels, the study’s lead researcher.
“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,”
– Matt Cassels, Lead Researcher
Our pets don’t talk back to us or get upset when we unload our feelings on them. This makes them great listeners! Whereas those of you with siblings will be well aware of the many squabbles that break out over the years. The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back means they are completely non-judgmental. With this in mind we can begin to see why our pets score so well in terms of social relationships!
Looking at some more of the questions, we can see why pets would score higher than siblings:
- How much do you and your pet disagree and quarrel?
- How much do you and your pet get upset with or mad at each other?
- How much do you and your pet argue with each other?
The Benefits of Pet Ownership for Social Development
Not only do pets provide social support in times of emotional distress, they also dramatically improve social development in young adolescents. In fact, pet ownership is associated with higher self-esteem among young adolescents. Social support in early adolescence, be it pets or otherwise, supports psychological wellbeing in later life.
Pets can provide social support in other ways too. During times of physical distress, we turn to our family and peers for support. Another study showed that the presence of a dog during physical examinations reduced markers of stress in adolescents 2. Reinforcing that pets, much like humans, can give us support during stressful experiences.
Pet ownership has been shown to support us physically and emotionally, but the Cambridge Study showed those who lived with dogs were shown had a higher sense of life satisfaction than others.
Featured Image – Donnie Ray Jones
- Cassels, M., White, N., Gee, N. and Hughes, C. (2017). One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, pp.12-20. ↩
- Nagengast, S., Baun, M., Megel, M. and Michael Leibowitz, J. (1997). The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioral distress in children during a physical examination. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 12(6), pp.323-330. ↩