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Why pets can be a real boon to our children in tough times

By Sinead Moriarty

Published 15/05/2015

Comfort: A beloved pet cat
Comfort: A beloved pet cat

Shortly after my father's sudden death last week I found my young daughter solemnly telling our family cat the awful news. She hadn't said much when I'd told her about her grandad, so I was relieved to hear her talking to the cat.

I knew she was finding comfort and solace in sharing the sad news with her furry friend. It reminded me of all those years ago when my grandfather died and I had taken my cat to my bedroom for a cry. For some reason I felt the cat understood and empathised.

It seems I am not completely delusional to think that animals can be true friends in times of sorrow.

A new study has shown that cats and dogs are the top confidantes of young children, because they believe that pets will be the least judgmental about their secrets.

Researchers at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University found that family pets often play a listener role in the lives of children and can help them deal with all kinds of issues.

Matt Cassels, who conducted the research, said too little attention has been paid to the significant role of pets in young people's emotions.

This 10-year study of children's social and emotional development included a section on children's relationships with their pets, as well as a broad range of other data from the children, their parents, teachers and siblings.

Astonishingly, Cassels said that family break-ups mean that, in the United States and the UK, children are now more likely to live with a pet than their natural father.

Mr Cassels said the research showed that children facing emotional difficulties, such as bereavement, divorce, instability and illness, placed a particular importance on their pets.

"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. This is even though they know their pets don't actually understand what they are saying," he said.

The study also showed that children with stronger relationships with their pets had a higher level of pro-social behaviour, such as helping, sharing and co-operating, than their peers. The study further demonstrated that these children, particularly girls and those whose pet was a dog, were more likely to confide in their pets than in their siblings.

There seems to be a therapeutic side to this relationship, with the pets playing the role of the listener and being more empathetic for children than writing problems into a diary. Cassels believes that the study showed that it was "valid to talk about child-pet relationships in the same way we talk about sibling relationships".

It's not only children who are going through a difficult time that turn to pets. Research has shown that pets can help children with autism. Dogs and other pets can play an important role in individuals' social lives, and they can act as catalysts for social interaction.

A University of Missouri researcher recently found that children with autism have stronger social skills when any kind of pet lived in the home. The findings revealed children with any kind of pet in the house reported being more likely to engage socially by introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people's questions.

These are the kinds of social skills that children with autism would normally find difficult, but this study showed children's assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.

I have also discovered this week that it's not just children who find solace in pets. I now know that you are never too old to cuddle a cat - especially in a time of grief.

The Readers' Editor is away

Belfast Telegraph

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