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Adolescents Growing Up With a Family Dog: Maximizing Resilience in Adulthood

Teenager Life: Living in The Fast Lane

To consider what having a dog means to a teenager, we have to try to identify with where the teenager is at in this normally complex time of development. In 2019, The New York Times interviewed 17 year old, Sadie Radinsky about what it was like to have a family dog to relate too. She mostly listed ways she cared for and connected with her current dog, but when asked what benefit she gets from having a dog, Sadie mentioned having a dog helps her stop – and live for the present. Not something many teenagers are conscious of, in their opinions.

“We’re hardly ever present… We’re always wishing we had done better on that Spanish test last week.” Sadie Radinskey, New York Times, 2019.

Adolescents: Finding and Proving Their Identity

A study by R. Purewall, R. Christely, K. Kordas, C. Joinson, K. Meints, N. Gee, C. Westgrath. (2017) identified building positive relationships as crucial during adolescent development. Many studies focused only on human to human social development. Purewall et al (2017), explored that ” Childhood and adolescence are crucial life phases in their contribution to the quality of health, emotional well-being, learning and behavior across the life span”

The Value of The Family Dog in Your Teenager’s Life

Studies on adolescent research indicate that for teenagers, “growing up” can be a very stressful time. Adolescence is the next phase of rapid development after toddlerhood. Adolescent development attempts to establish peer to peer relationships, expand interpersonal and intrapersonal skills as well as complete coping skills development for success in adulthood. Teenagers are very emotional, and learning how to cope with their feelings is increasingly important to help provide resources and outlets for them to debrief at the end of their long day.

” There is growing evidence that children turn to their pets for comfort, reassurance and emotional support when feeling anger, sadness, or happiness.” – Purewall et al. 2017

There is a Difference Between “Pet Ownership” And “Pet Attachment” For Adolescent Development

Purwall et al. (2017) defined in their research that “pet ownership” and “pet attachment” are two different meanings. They were able to show that pet ownership and pet attachment lead to different behaviors by the adolescents and different psychosocial benefits. The adolescent can self-identify as being a “pet owner”, but may not have true “pet attachment”. While it is also possible for an adolescent to self identify as being “attached” the their pet without seeing themselves as the pet’s owner.

Adolescents that self-identified as the pet’s owner and had an attachment to the dog, generally got more psycho-social benefits. Psycho-social benefits included ability to manage more responsibility, and be more self-accountable and have higher self-esteem overall compared to same age peers without a pet at home. The more the teenager felt responsible to the animal, the more they participated in the care, the more involved with the pet they were overall. The relationship also had a correlated impact in how much they would confide in the pet, and how much that debriefing helped relieve the teenagers stress and anxiety experiences.

This is not to undervalue teenagers who saw themselves as pet owners but not “attached” to the animals. These teenagers still felt a responsibility to provide the basic care, without being overly involved. Basic chores revolved around feeding and walking, but may not have been consistent. These teens were also able to demonstrate limit setting, directly or indirectly. Although, less attached to the family dog, they still were responsible to the dog to a certain extent. They also were less likely to confide in the family dog and therefore had less of an emotional attachment to the family dog. Perhaps preferring the company of humans more than animals.

Adolescent Gender Roles and Ability to Care For The Family Dog

Most of the studies I read seemed to mainly focus on young ladies growing up with dogs. I started to ask myself – what about other kinds of teenagers? Where were they in the discussion of growing up with a dog? And especially now, in modern society where gender rules are not so “pink and blue” anymore? How does our concept of gender influence the care we provide within families for our teenagers and the family dog?

How do you think a teenager’s self-concept of gender influences how they care for the family dog?

Do you think preconceptions of gender roles determine how a teen becomes “attached” to the family dog or sees themselves as the “owner” of the family dog?

How Adolescents Benefit From Having a Dog
Adolescents that had a dog, regardless of identifying as pet owner or having an attachment to the pet did experience benefits over adolescents that did not have a pet prior to adulthood.

The benefits adolescents with family dogs experienced were vast psycho-social and physical outcomes. Let’s start exploring the emotional benefits:

Anxiety – Dogs can relieve social anxiety and separation anxiety in adolescents. Having a family dog can increase adolescents social networks and ease communication with peers.

Depression – No direct correlation could be concluded between family dogs and decreased levels of depression in adolescents. Findings where thought to be more correlated to the other psychological benefits of having a dog such as increased self-esteem, decreased sense of loneliness and decreased sense of self-isolation.

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