by Emily Giedzinski
Research suggests therapy animals can be very beneficial for children who have experienced abuse and neglect. They can aid a child in forming attachments, feelings of security, psychotherapy processes, and opening up, as well as providing feelings of being understood and accepted – all supports that can be especially important for children who have been adopted. Further, pet "adoption"can provide a parallel experience that can help adopted children learn about their own experience and identity.
Therapy animals and abused or neglected children
The relationship between children who've experienced abuse or neglect and their pets was explored in a 2008 study published in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry by Nancy Parish-Plass. Its findings indicated that abused or neglected children were less nervous, frightened, and withdrawn in the presence of a pet during therapy sessions. Animal-assisted therapy was also shown to improve children’s self-esteem and give opportunity to practice new social skills.
Therapy animal professionals and scientists who’ve investigated animal therapy hypothesize that dogs are particularly effective with abused and neglected children for a variety of reasons. Canines have a naturally loving and accepting nature – this diminishes the child’s feelings of being rejected, as dogs provide an almost unconditional love and support, unmarred by expectations. Children find dogs to be a nonthreatening source of affection, allowing attachment to happen fairly intimately and quickly. Dogs can also provide a sense of connection and friendship without necessitating words. This can be wonderful for adopted children facing challenges in relationships due to a language barrier, as well as for traumatized children who lack the vocabulary to speak about their experiences.
Therapy animals and adopted children
Family Experiences Concerning Adopting a Previously Institutionalized Child from Russia or Romania by Deanna Linville, MS, describes this effect more specifically in relation to adoptive families. All 20 of the families she studied owned pets and all 20 families reported having found the animals to be emotionally beneficial to their adoptive children.
Linville went on to publish in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy in 2007, detailing how the families found having animals in the home helped their children’s transition into their new homes. The children seemed to find comfort in the belief that the pet was going through a similar adaptive and emotional experience. All families reported positive experiences.
Who else uses therapy animals?
Therapy animals are used in a variety of settings such as schools, funeral homes, therapist offices, and the dentist. Findings show that most people can benefit from the presence of an animal in times of challenge or stress. A 2009 journal article called Family Process by Dr. Froma Walsh describes a variety of psychological and physical benefits that result from having a pet around. Multiple studies have shown that petting an animal has been shown to reduce blood pressure, leading to a reduction in physiological stress.
All in all, it is always important to make decisions about what is best for your child and your family on an individual case basis. Although many people find therapy animals to be a wonderful, beneficial part of their life, it is important to remember the unique needs and ramifications on your child and family.
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