Did you know that pets help your children develop better? Pets are not only a source of entertainment; they also encourage and facilitate your child’s social and emotional growth.

Whether it is a turtle or gold fish, a dog, cat, a bird or a horse, children enjoy the companionship offered by animals. A child’s social and emotional development can all be encouraged by interaction with the family pet. In new research into the bonds between humans and animals, therapists are discovering that pets provide psychological benefits that will be very important for the individual in later life.

A good relationship with a pet can help in developing non-verbal communication and compassion. Being able to read nonverbal behaviour enhances communication in humans. Teaching children to stay alert, and respond appropriately to a pet’s nonverbal behaviour develops observation skills and teaches them to take into account others preferences.

Children also learn that pets deserve respectful treatment, just as they do. Parents and children frequently share in taking care of the pet, which suggests that youngsters learn at an early age how to care for and nurture a dependent animal. They’ll realise that all living things have needs and feelings and that animals, like humans, get hungry, thirsty and tired. Sometimes they feel like playing, sometimes they don’t and just like children they get scared by loud noises. When a child knows a pet depends on them for the vitals of life (food, water, shelter) it encourages the child to feel accountability and helps develop a conscience and sense of responsibility.

Furthermore, children are usually receivers of care, so having pets puts them in the position of the caregiver. They learn to anticipate, recognise, and respond to their pet’s needs. For example, at the vet’s office children become sensitive to their pet’s fear and anxiety and being able to soothe these feelings prompts children to develop loving and kind behaviours. These acquired abilities, will then promote healthy and caring social interactions.

Pets can also facilitate other aspects of emotional development such as self-esteem, self- confidence and empathy as animals accept us for who we are. When a child is attached to a dog or cat, they learn to express themselves in more ways and they learn to relate better. When we communicate or interact with animals, we often make assumptions based on animal’s behaviours in order to interpret their responses. These experiences significantly contribute to the development of children’s empathy. They develop the ability to understand the thoughts, actions, and intentions of the animals, especially when these differ from one’s own. Children develop the ability to predict or explain others actions and to make attributions to another’s intentions. An animal’s inability to speak forces children to evaluate what animals are experiencing (e.g., thinking, feeling) and what their needs are through interpreting their behaviours and projecting how they themselves might feel. By interacting with and caring for animals, children learn to interpret non-verbal signals based on observed behaviours and the context.

Lastly, pets also help children learn and accept the cycles of life. The declining health or accidental death of a pet is often the first time children face the reality of mortality. Due to children’s limited experience, and intellectual development, many children believe death is temporary or reversible. The loss of a pet presents the irrefutable fact that life does end, no matter how much we wish it weren’t true. Learning that they will survive the grieving process, and that love is not lost if memories remain can help to positively set children up for any future experience of loss.

Pets can greatly influence how we feel about ourselves and life in general. They are teachers and healers of extraordinary talent. However, despite the many wonderful benefits pets bring, it would be important for the families not to jump in without careful thought and sit down and decide together if they truly have the time, space, finance, and lifestyle to properly care for a pet. Once this is decided, off to the pet shop!

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Psychology, Psychiatry and Speech Therapy
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