By Dr. Becker
There are many proven benefits of pet ownership, and among the latest to surface is the ability of pets to help the children of U.S. military families cope with a unique set of stressors, including frequent moves and long absences of parents who are deployed.
A study published recently in the journal Applied Developmental Science1 suggests that a strong bond with animals, along with other key resources, helps the children of military personnel cultivate resiliency and other positive personal attributes.
Strong Attachment to a Pet Helps Military Kids Manage Stress
The study researchers, who are affiliated with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, set out to discover whether some of the specific stressors experienced by military families could be alleviated through interaction with animals.
According to Megan Mueller, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and co-author of the study:
“We found that kids with deployed parents who had developed a deep bond with a family pet reported having better coping strategies in dealing with the stress than those without such ties to a companion animal.”2
The study was conducted using an online survey that measured human-animal interaction, positive youth development, and stress and adaptive coping strategies among 300 children in grades 6 through 12 (ages 12-13 to 17-18). About 70 percent of the kids surveyed had family pets and most had some responsibility for caring for their pet.
Children who were bonded to a companion animal had higher positive youth development scores in measures such as competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring, than all military-connected children.
Kids with at least one parent who was deployed had significantly higher stress levels than those who didn’t. The ability to interact with a companion animal played a strong role in helping those children cope, and the quality and strength of the connection between children and their pets was also important.
According to Mueller:
“It isn’t enough to be around animals – children need to be engaged in that relationship. Strong attachments to pets may foster a more proactive attitude about handling stressful problems and could serve as a bridge to developing and maintaining peer relationships during stressful circumstances.”3
Improving Resiliency During Challenging Times
Mueller believes the study is a first step in understanding whether the emotional attachment to an animal companion is one way for kids to develop positive coping strategies in the face of emotional stressors. The results may ultimately help military families develop increased resiliency during stressful times.
“Through this work, we recognize the importance of establishing connections that help kids develop a sense of responsibility and outward focus. We now know that caring for a pet boosts self-confidence, establishes important routines and provides a stabilizing force in the highly-mobile life of a military child,” said Sandy Franklin of the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC).