Animals in the Lives of Children

, Aubrey H. Fine

Purdue University

California State Polytechnic University

12.1 Introduction

All therapeutic interventions involving animals rest on a powerful assumption: there is something about animals that powerfully attracts and motivates humans. This assumption seems particularly compelling when children are involved. In this chapter we examine this assumption closely. First, we document the pervasiveness of animals, both real and symbolic, in children’s lives. Second, we ask what the presence of such animals might mean for development. As a guide, we draw on four helpful conceptual approaches—psychodynamic, relational and self psychologies, ecological psychology and the biophilia hypothesis. We consider how existing research might support and also challenge hypotheses drawn from these approaches. In the 2006 edition of the Handbook, we noted the paucity of well-conducted research studies. Although the empirical base of human/animal interaction (HAI) studies continues to grow, there remain many gaps in knowledge (Melson, in press). Hence, a review of research on HAI and children’s development still raises more questions than provides answers.

We use both conceptual frameworks and existing research to suggest implications for therapeutic practice with children and their families. (In doing so, we draw on case examples from the clinical practice of the second author, AHF, and of other clinicians.) Throughout this essay, we emphasize the importance of considering both children and animals within family systems and when AAT occurs, within therapeutic systems. As children develop, they are embedded within complex social systems, the most important of which is the family. When animals are added, both child and animal become part of a dynamic system which almost always includes at least one adult (Melson, 2007). We must consider the entire system when we ask: What is the significance of animals in children’s lives?

12.2 Where are animals in children’s lives?

The world of childhood in contemporary Western societies is “peopled” with animals. Overall in the USA, pet ownership rates are high; 62% of American households had one or more resident animals in 2008 (APPMA, 2009). According to the 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey, 71.4 million US households own a pet. In 1988, the first year the survey was conducted, 56% of US households owned a pet as compared to 62% in 2008.

Dogs and cats are found in at least one out of every three households. Among families with children under 18 years of age, 38% were pet owners in 2008, and most families report more than one pet (APPMA, 2009). Moreover, based on surveys, most parents acquire animals “for the children,” in the belief that pets teach lessons of responsibility and nurturing while providing companionship and love (Melson, 2001). According to parents, children maintain high levels of daily involvement in caring for and playing with family pets as the children grow from preschoolers to teens, even though children’s (human) family time decreases as they age (Melson and Fogel, 1996). While children’s own attachments to pets vary depending on many factors, in general, children report a strong bond with at least one resident animal.

The demographics of pet ownership become more striking when juxtaposed against the changing demographics of human family structure. Since the Baby Boom generation, within-home family size has been shrinking, as declining birth rates and rising divorce rates strip away additional children and adults from the household. To be sure, children have been adding “sometime” family ties—non-custodial parents, half-siblings, stepparents, longer living grandparents—but they often juggle commitments within and outside the family. When we search for affective bonds present 24/7 to children within their homes, pets may well be the most available. Thus, in 2003, 68% of family groups with children under 18 years of age were in married couple families, with both father and mother present (Fields, 2004); however, in the same time period, an estimated 75% of households with children reported at least one pet present during the time the child is growing up (AVMA, 2003). As noted earlier, that rate has held steady for several years, but it seems to have declined in the most recent survey by APPMA (2009). That survey reported a total of 77.5 million dogs and 93.6 million cats in American homes.

Beyond pets in the home, children encounter animals in their classrooms, especially in the early years of school. For example, a survey of 431 Indiana public elementary school teachers found that over a quarter (26.1%) had resident pets in their classrooms, while an additional 46% had animal “visitors” (Rud and Beck, 2003). Teachers who incorporate animals in their classrooms echoed pet-owning parents in extolling the benefits of fish, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, and other “pocket pets” in teaching children responsibility and caring, providing enjoyment, and generally enhancing children’s psychological well-being. Given the pervasiveness of pets in children’s homes, it’s not surprising that teachers view animals as lending their classroom a more “homey” atmosphere. A year-long observational study of preschoolers’ responses to animals in their classroom revealed that observing and interacting with animals stimulated children’s development in wide-ranging ways (Myers, 1998). These animal encounters stimulated children’s language, sense of self, connection with others, imagination, and play.

Children’s encounters with animals are not limited to those species kept as pets. Although children’s everyday contact with wildlife has been shrinking as Western societies become more urbanized, what one might call intentional wildlife experiences persist. Families and schools set up bird feeders, take children to zoos and aquariums, and organize nature walks in parks. An estimated 63 million individuals in the USA feed wild birds at home-based outdoor bird feeders (Dickenson and Edmondson, 1996). Zoos and aquariums draw millions of visitors who are disproportionately families and groups with children.

The animal world of children extends beyond direct contact with living animals to encompass mediated exposure, through print, audio and visual media such as Animal Planet. This involvement at a remove is gaining in importance; for many children, it is the dominant mode of gaining knowledge about wild animals. For example, in one study of rural 8–14 year olds living next to a national park and protected wilderness, over 60% said they had seen more animals on television and in the movies than in the wild (Nabhan and Trimble, 1994).

Finally, anyone who remembers childhood is likely to recall fanciful animal characters—Peter Rabbit, Barney the dinosaur, Curious George, or Nemo the damselfish. Children’s picture books, stories, toys, games, and media are saturated with animal symbols, reflecting, in part, the cultural assumption that animals and children naturally go together. Thus, when Swedish, Hungarian and Chinese researchers wanted to examine how six and seven year olds in their cultures made up stories, they asked each child to tell a story about a dog (Carlsson et al., 2001). There is also ample evidence from children themselves of interest in animals. For example, in a study of 8–13-year-old Dutch children’s Internet use, “seeking information about animals” was one of the four most common descriptions of positive experiences with the Internet (Valkenburg and Soeters, 2001). In sum, wherever one looks, animals, particularly those species kept as pets, are an integral part of children’s lives.

12.3 What do animals mean in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of animals—pets, wildlife, story characters—raises the question of their significance for children. Scholars have considered theory and research on the possible role of animals in children’s lives: (a) nurturance and caring for others, including empathy; (b) coping with stress; (c) emotion regulation, self-control and positive adjustment; (d) reduction of maladaptive outcomes, such as conduct disorder symptoms; (e) theory of mind; (f) social support; and (g) physical activity, among other outcomes. Parents cite increased responsibility, companionship, and “fun” as benefits that companion animals confer on their children (Melson, 2001). To understand why and how interactions with animals might impact child development, a theory-driven approach is needed. Such an approach is essential for guiding AAT with children as well.

12.3.1 Psychodynamic theories

Freud (1965) was struck by children’s fascination with animals, noting how frequently animals appeared in the dreams of children (and adults). For him, animal figures represented projections of powerful adults, usually parents, who were too threatening to the child to pop up undisguised in the dream world. From a psychoanalytic perspective, children and animals shared a natural kinship, since biological urges rather than human reason held sway over both of them. Even more than Freud, Jung stressed that animal symbols often expressed facets of the self. As one Jungian psychologist argued, “The Self is often symbolized as an animal, representing our instinctive nature and its connectedness with one’s surroundings” (von Franz, 1972).

Such was the frequency of animal imagery in children’s dreams and associations that psychoanalytically oriented psychologists developed a variety of projective tests using animal images for children and even for the purported “inner child” of adult patients. A recent version is the Animal Attribution Story-Telling Technique (Arad, 2004), in which family members assign an animal counterpart to each member of the family and then tell a short story about the animal protagonists. The technique has been applied to family therapy with families that have a child diagnosed with conduct disorder or ADHD, and according to its developer, “the animal name attribution to family members creates a fun, non-threatening atmosphere that helps to promote the description of personality traits and interpersonal relationships through the various animal counterparts” (p. 249).

Play therapists often advocate the use of animal toys. A therapeutic technique, “My Family as Animals,” was designed “to interest and maintain the attention of children so that therapists will become more comfortable with the presence of young ones in the room” (Rio, 2001).

There are many therapists who employ animal puppets in their work with children. It appears that most children relate more easily to animal puppets than to other types of puppets, including those with human features. Children seem to interact more calmly and open up more naturally. Perhaps this is because children do not see animal puppets as an extension of themselves. Fine (2005) and Fine and Lee (1996) recommend that clinicians using puppets therapeutically consider incorporating animal puppets in their work because such puppets could be considered less threatening than human representations. It appears that children can act out their conscious and unconscious feelings more freely with animal versus human figures (Fine, 2005).

Fine (2005) reports that animal puppetry can be quite clinically revealing, especially as it relates to observing how clients select their puppets and how they act with them. Specific themes can be played out that directly relate to the challenges a child is experiencing. Fine and Lee (1999) point out that while observing the child during puppet play, the clinician can develop a clearer diagnostic understanding of the child. The medium of puppetry can help the child verbalize certain conscious-associated feelings or act out unconscious feelings, thereby relieving underlying tensions. For example, Adam (all client names have been changed to protect confidentiality) is a six-year-old boy who has a mild learning disability. He was referred for therapy because of being constantly bullied by others and feeling left out. An aspect of his cognitive therapy was AAT. He responded well to the animals in the office, especially the young golden retriever. At times puppets were also integrated, and he felt very comfortable when the therapist presented a group of animal puppets. In fact, several of the puppets had been purchased because of their similarities to the therapy animals within the practice.

Clinically, it was diagnostically fascinating to observe how Adam selected specific animal puppets. Although traditionally gentle in nature in the office, when the medium of puppetry was applied, he acted out aggressively towards the therapist’s puppets. Growls and hostile tone accompanied his actions. It soon became apparent that his behavior in the play session was cathartic, allowing him to vent his frustrations in a constructive manner. Outside the therapy context, in his classroom, playground and other settings, he was always being picked on. Within this session, he was rebelling against his victimization by acting out. When the therapist redirected the session, he had his puppet reveal hurt feelings and beg the other puppet to exhibit kindness. Immediately, Adam’s puppet acted more compassionately and became more accepting. The puppet session led to a discussion of how to handle bullies. The medium provided an excellent entry into this discussion, allowing Adam to feel less threatened about confronting his feelings.

Bibliotherapy, especially books about animals, also can be an effective adjunct to traditional AAT (Fine and Lee, 1996). In Chapter 11 several therapeutic approaches are discussed in detail; bibliotherapy is one of the approaches. Readers are encouraged to review that material. Briefly, reading materials may serve as a springboard for discussing sensitive issues “while at the same time giving the child an opportunity to explore these issues in an indirect and more comfortable manner” (Fine and Lee, 1999, p. 261). There are many books on subjects ranging from topics of death, trauma, bullying, and divorce that have animals as their main characters. The indirect use of animals as stand-ins for the self and other humans makes these books easy to read and follow without arousing the child’s defenses. Appropriate books can be found through a variety of sources including by searches on the Internet and resource books such as the Bookfinder, published by the American Guidance Services.

Implications for AAT

Because animals slip under the radar of human defense mechanisms, animal presence in the therapeutic setting, either direct or indirect (e.g. as a story character), may help open a window into the person’s or family’s underlying issues. However, a skilled therapist is required to help the client make sense of this “unleashed” (if one may permit the pun) material. Moreover, psychodynamic theory cannot specify the forms of animal contact considered most helpful in various circumstances. Would a therapist’s dog in the therapy room be preferred to a storytelling exercise involving animal characters? When, and under what circumstances?

Clinically, the answers to these questions are complex. Parish-Plass (2008) advocates living animals for preverbal and non-verbal children and also for traumatized or highly anxious children who lack the emotional ability for symbolization. For some children, the live animal will be an appropriate therapeutic choice, while for other children, storytelling or perhaps puppetry or animal figures will be a powerful alternative. Fine (2005) suggested that both alternatives—living animals and symbolic representations—fit naturally in a practice centered on AAT or AAI. Clinical experience suggests that child clients readily accept approaches that involve animals, but the specific modality and approach must be individualized.

Another implication of the psychodynamic approach for AAT stems from the view that children are instinctively drawn to animals because both are subject to the sway of id, biological urges untamed by the strictures of civilization. As Freud (1980) put it: “The child unhesitatingly attributes full equality to animals; he probably feels himself more closely related to the animal than to the undoubtedly mysterious adult, in the freedom with which he acknowledges his needs.” Thus, Boris Levinson (1997), the great pioneer of animals within child therapy contexts, liked to observe child clients as they watched Jingles, the dog Levinson dubbed his “co-therapist.” Jingles went about being a dog, therapy or no therapy—shedding fur, taking a nap, licking his genitals, slopping up water from his dish. How children responded to this essential dogginess gave Levinson clues to the internal struggles being fought.

Having several animals in my practice (AHF), Levinson’s comment is particularly evocative. On various occasions, all of the animals have acted in ways that generate a smile, laughter, or an endearing feeling. For example, when the birds begin to talk to the clients, it often catches them off-guard. Snowflake, an Umbrella cockatoo, tends to greet clients when they enter the room with a soft “hi.” The greeting usually prompts children to head toward the bird and begin a conversation. The cockatoos frequently act in mischievous ways. Periodically, they sneak off their perches and wander to a near-by computer. When not closely monitored, they have pecked off all the keys of the computer keyboard, while the therapy dogs sat and watched. (Surprisingly, the keyboards were not destroyed, and could be reassembled quite easily.) Children have been easily amused by the behaviors of the birds. Such incidents illustrate the role that animal behavior can play in providing moments of humor and distraction. What appears to be animal “misbehavior” can provide an opening for discussion of a child’s feelings of “badness.’

Parish-Plass (2008) suggests that AAT provides avenues for treating children with insecure attachment. She suggests from her work with animals and children with attachment disorders that the presence of the animal provides a calm and less threatening atmosphere for therapy. She believes that AAT serves as a catalyst because it takes place in a “twilight area” within the mind that can be interpreted both in the play world and the real world of a child. She identifies several goals that animals can help with while treating children with insecure attachment due to abuse and neglect. The most critical benefit is that the therapy animal can assist a child who has little reason to trust adults as well as enabling a working client/therapist connection. The animals also seem to facilitate change in the child’s mental representations and help the child work through salient and threatening issues concerning his/her difficult life situation. Parish-Plass also suggests that the animal’s presence or as a subject matter can be used as a valuable assessment tool. For example, exploration of pet history in the family can provide information concerning the type of environment the child was raised in because of the proven link between animal abuse, domestic abuse, and child abuse. Finally, she suggests that clinicians can utilize the interactions as a window into a child’s daily life. Clinicians can use these observations to provide a better understanding about the child’s reaction to social situations.

12.3.2 Relational and self psychologies

Social connections were of paramount importance for psychologists, such as George Herbert Mead and Charles H. Cooley, who argued that a child’s sense of self and indeed all thought and emotion emerge through relationships with others, called “objects” by object psychologists, like Margaret Mahler and Heinz Kohut. Cooley coined the term “looking glass self” to capture how the self is built from the qualities seen reflected in the eyes of others. Among the interpersonal experiences that these relational and self psychologists contended were building blocks for a cohesive and balanced sense of self were the following: mirroring (feeling recognized and affirmed), merging (feeling one with another), adversary (being able to assert oneself against an available and responsive other), efficacy (feeling able to elicit a response from the other), and vitalizing (feeling the other is attuned to one’s shifting moods) (Wolf, 1994). It was assumed that only other humans were eligible to provide such relationship benefits. However, human/animal interaction (HAI) research finds that many children report these building blocks in their relationships with their pets (Melson, 2001). Thus, the range of “self object” experiences now includes other species, not just human/human bonds.

An important relationship is that of caregiver/cared for, or nurturer/nurtured. Wild bird feeding (Beck et al., 2001) and even exposure to wild animals (Myers and Saunders, 2002) has been shown to prompt children to think about themselves as caregivers and conservers. There is evidence that children engage in caregiving, nurturing relationships with pets, along with play and companionship (Melson and Fogel, 1996). Given the high incidence of pet ownership and relatively lower incidence of younger siblings and dependent elderly living in households with children, pets may well be the most frequent opportunity to observe, learn and practice nurturing others. This opportunity, unlike the nurture of young children, is not perceived as gendered; that is, children do not identify pet care with the feminine role, but consider it gender neutral, equally appropriate for males and females (Melson and Fogel, 1989). By contrast, children as young as three years of age view the care of infants and young children as “female” (Melson and Fogel, 1988), and gender differences in observed nurturing behaviors toward babies appear by age five (Melson et al., 1986; Melson and Fogel, 1982).

Attachment theory singles out one type of relationship as particularly significant. In the secure attachment relationship, another individual provides the child with a sense of security and safety, particularly under conditions of perceived threat. The founding father, John Bowlby (1969), and mother, Mary Ainsworth (1979), of attachment theory began with the assumption that mothers were the primary attachment figures, but since then, attachment theory and research gradually have expanded the list of potential “attachment objects” to fathers, older siblings, grandparents and child care providers, among others. Human/animal interaction researchers have suggested that pets often function as attachment “objects” for children (Melson, 2001), by giving them a sense of reassurance, calm, and security.

Because secure attachments in childhood are predictive of concurrent and later adjustment, resilience and coping with stress, it is possible that children’s attachments to their pets may be linked to these positive outcomes as well. As we discuss later, there is growing evidence that pets do function as supports when children are feeling distressed or going through difficult transitions (Melson, 2001). The possible role of animals as coping “mechanisms” has implications for children in therapy.

Pets can also help children by acting as an emotional buffer for children coping with a stressful environment or emotional discord. According to Strand (2004), children who have pets in their home often turn to them for comfort during high stress situations such as parental disputes. She has found evidence that children who use their pet interaction as a “buffer” or as a self-calming technique may exhibit fewer behavioral problems because they have an outlet to help them regulate reactions to environmental stressors. The companion animal’s presence allows the child to have something to turn to for emotional support during times of high internal or external conflict. Additionally, the pet provides the constant nurturing and acceptance needed to facilitate healthy coping skills, even in difficult times (Strand, 2004).

Implications for AAT

A cornerstone of relational and self psychologies is that only relationships, as contrasted to interactions or contacts, contribute to the self. Thus, children must develop an ongoing relationship with a specific individual animal before these “building blocks” of self can be activated. The ingredients of relationship involve commitment over time. Moreover, specific qualities of a relationship predict which building blocks can come into play. For example, children are most likely to develop a secure attachment bond to another when, over an extended period, that individual has been promptly responsive to the child’s needs (Ainsworth, 1979). It is unclear how long, broad, and deep contacts with another individual need to be for a therapeutic relationship to emerge. This poses challenges for AAT, which generally lasts for a limited period per session over a limited number of sessions. The more limited the contact with an individual animal, or the more different animals participate interchangeably, the less likely building blocks of self will emerge.

Some self-object experiences—merging, vitalizing, secure attachment—may be more likely with animal species like dogs that are highly responsive to humans (and within species, individual animals who are most responsive). However, the well-known human propensity to anthropomorphize animals—think of a child looking at a fish in an aquarium and exclaiming: “He likes me!”—might make self-object experiences at times more likely with animals than with humans. Moreover, because animals are especially suited for children to experience and re-enact nurturer/nurtured interactions, HAI lends itself to exploring themes of neglectful or abusive parenting, feelings of abandonment, and examples of being well cared for (Parish-Plass, 2008).

12.3.3 Ecological systems psychology

This perspective emphasizes the importance of contexts of development, radiating outward from the most intimate—the family—to neighborhood, school, region, and culture (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In this view, nuanced, multi-layered depiction of children’s environments is as essential as a detailed anatomy of a child’s internal physiology and psychology. In other words, ecological systems emphasize that we understand children “from the outside in” as well as “from the inside out.” Like relationship psychologists, ecological systems view relationships as important within all the settings of a child’s many contexts. But relationships themselves do not tell the whole story. Detailed description of physical contexts also is needed.

The term “systems” signifies that contexts are interrelated, so that one context affects every other, forming a system of interacting parts. For example, families are affected by (and contribute to) the neighborhood crime rate, which city and regional law enforcement policies also influence. While the immediate family is of primary importance as a context for child development, ecological approaches also focus on school, peer groups, neighborhood play groups, religious settings, after-school activities, and extended family members. From these contexts, individuals draw their social network, all those with whom they regularly interact (Cochran et al., 1990). This social network, in turn, provides the potential for social support, the provision of material, psychological, informational, and practical assistance (Cohen and McKay, 1984). Hundreds of studies have documented the power of social support to help both adults and children weather stress. Social support strongly predicts a wide range of positive health outcomes, from adults’ recovery from stroke, cancer, and heart attack to children’s risk of abuse and their success in school (Lynch, 2000).

Why is social support so potent? Researchers believe that when we receive social support, we feel loved, unconditionally accepted, esteemed, and interconnected. These feelings, more than practical assistance—for example, a loan—or information—for example, a recommended pediatrician’s phone number—are the “magic bullet” of social support in ameliorating stress.

Social support research studies typically measure social support in ways that presuppose only human support. For example, an assessment might ask about “the people in your life who support you.” When question format is broadened, there is evidence that many children turn to pets for reassurance and a sense of emotional support during stress. In interviews with German fourth-graders, 79% said that when they were sad, they sought out their pets (Rost and Hartmann, 1994). A study of Michigan youngsters, 10 to 14 years old, found that when they were upset, 75% turned to their pets (Covert et al., 1985). Pet-owning preschoolers in Indiana about to enter public school were less likely to be anxious and withdrawn during that transition if they turned to their pets for support when they were feeling sad or angry (Melson and Schwarz, 1994). Some children in residential therapeutic settings with animals report that when they need comforting, they seek out resident animals to talk to, touch, or just be nearby (Mallon, 1994).

Animals may play the most crucial role within the family microsystem, since children tend to view their pets as a peer or family member (Nebbe, 1991). Because companion animals are readily available and non-judgmental, they can provide a feeling of support and compassion when humans are unavailable, unable, or unwilling. In one study (Furman, 1989), elementary school-age children rated pets above parents or friends as the relationship most likely to last “no matter what” and “even if you get mad at each other.”

Because pets generally have shorter lifespans than humans, children are likely to witness important lifecycle events, such as birth, serious illness and death, through experiences with family pets. Several surveys report that the majority of children experience pet loss, through death or disappearance, by adolescence (Stewart, 1983; Robin et al., 1983). Children also report worrying about their pet’s health and eventual death, even when the animal is well (Bryant, 1990).

Helping children cope with animal loss

Recently, the second author spoke with one of his graduate students named Jose. He shared his tender memories of his beloved childhood dog named Boy. His sensitive portrayal is illustrative of the outcome experienced by many children who lose their beloved pet. Jose recalls:

My first dog was a pug named Boy. I loved that dog. Boy was a gift from a man that would end up becoming the only man that I ever called Dad. His name was Eugene and he met my mom when I was eight and my brother was four. My mother had just left my brother’s father after five years of physical and emotional abuse. After months of pursuing, begging, and bargaining, my mother finally gave my Dad a chance and that changed the course of my entire life. After months of gifts, pizza parlor tokens, and carnival tickets, I wouldn’t accept him as anything but another man that was trying to date my mother. When we moved in with him, he gave me my space and I took full advantage of it. I never wanted to get even near him but my brother was already sold on him. He had already started to call Eugene dad.

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