A recent study by Tufts University shows that children who have a strong relationship with a pet cope better when dealing with the stress related to a parent’s deployment.
The study was designed to find out how animals help people physically and emotionally during stressful times as well as how to help people commit to fitness, reach educational goals, overcome physical disabilities and recover from psychological trauma.
Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI) surveyed 600 children from both military and nonmilitary families. The kids were asked how they interact with animals, about their stress levels and their strategies for dealing with stress. The outcome of the study was that children with animals at home had more positive outcomes than those without, regardless to whether they had a parent on deployment or not.
The children that had animals at home were found to be more confident and had stronger relationships with both peers and family members. On multiple occasions, children reported that pets are what kept them company while a parent was on deployment or when they moved.
What researchers say is the most significant outcome of the study is that children who had a parent on deployment and also had a strong bond with an animal at home exhibited greater ability to cope with the stress of the situation than children that didn’t have pets.
“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,” said Megan Mueller, a developmental psychologist and research assistant professor at Cummings School. She goes on to say,
Pets provide a nonjudgmental, emotionally supportive relationship, especially for kids who may be having difficulty in social situations or moving to a new social setting. The responsibility of caring for another living creature and understanding an animal’s needs also plays a role. There’s been some research showing that just stroking an animal reduces your blood pressure and heart rate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible for every child to have a pet however. There are many circumstances that can prevent families from being able to incorporate a pet into their lives. This could include allergies, illness, finances, housing rules, travel schedules and more.
If you fall into this group, you can still provide opportunities for your children to receive the benefit of animal interaction. Take a day trip to a local farm. It doesn’t have to be advertised as a petting farm. Many farms will allow families to meet their animals. Call ahead and see if you can arrange a time to visit when your child will be able to touch and possibly feed the animals. Let the owners know your spouse is on deployment and they might be even more inclined to have you over.
Horses have an amazing effect on children. If you can, take your children to a horse ranch while your spouse is on deployment. Check with your MWR; many Army garrisons for example have stables with equestrian services. Horses are great therapy animals.
The Tufts study showed that horses can reduce the level of stress in children that suffer from PTSD. Horses respond to children’s body language.
One of the symptoms of PTSD is being either hyper-aroused or under-aroused, and horses react to that –avoiding the jittery kids and ignoring those who are emotionally detached. In order to interact positively with their therapy horses, the children must learn to better regulate their own fight or flight response. By taking deep breaths and employing other techniques, they can lower their heart rate and relax their muscles.
You don’t necessarily need to sign up for equestrian-assisted therapy. Perhaps, plan a family day at a ranch, take an hour-long lesson or even enroll your child in equestrian camp. That would certainly be a great way to take their mind off deployment.
The interaction between children and animals is amazing and there are so many benefits to building this relationship. If your child is having problems coping with the stress of a deployment, consider adding a pet to your family or incorporating time with animals into your regular schedule.