Is Your Child Stressed? Get Them A Dog

We tend to associate stress with adult responsibilities, such as work deadlines or raising a family. However, children can feel stressed too, and long-term stress can have negative effects on their health just as it does on that of adults. New research investigates the effect of having a pet on how children experience stress.
[boy with dog]
New research suggests that pet dogs can help to lower stress levels in children.

A small amount of stress can be a powerful motivator, driving us to complete tasks and perform better at work. Too much stress, however, is known to have a negative effect not only on our mental health but also on our physical wellness.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) warn that prolonged stress can lead to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as to physical health problems including heart disease and diabetes.

Children are no strangers to stress, either. One of the surveys carried out by the American Psychological Association found that nearly a third of the children interviewed had experienced a stress-associated physical symptom in the previous month, whether it was trouble falling asleep, headaches, or stomach aches.

How we respond to stress is, of course, an individual matter. The NIMH explain that some people can deal with stress more effectively than others, and different people use different coping mechanisms.

Some people turn to animals for social support. Studies have shown that pets help adults to calm down and therefore reduce stress, but does the same go for children?

Researchers from the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville set out to investigate. Their team was led by Darlene Kertes, assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The findings were published in the journal Social Development.

Do pets provide children with emotional support?

The study included approximately 100 families with children who owned a pet. The participants totaled 101 children aged between 7 and 12. To test the children’s stress levels, the researchers asked them to complete two tasks: public speaking and mental arithmetic.

These tasks are known to cause stress and raise the children’s levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands and helps the body to respond to stressful or dangerous situations. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is a marker for stress, meaning that the more stressed we are, the higher are the levels of cortisol in our bodies.

For this study, researchers randomly assigned the children to complete the stressful tasks. They had either their dog present, their parent present, or no one there to support them.

To assess their cortisol levels, Kertes and team collected saliva samples from the participants before and after completing their task.

Interacting with their dog makes children feel less stressed

The results revealed that the children’s stress levels did vary depending on the kind of social support they received, but also on how much they engaged with their pet. The study’s author explains the results:

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less. When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

Darlene Kertes

The results shown by the cortisol tests were also backed by children’s accounts. “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support,” Kertes says.

She also points out that how we cope with stress as children set the stage for how we cope with stressful situations as adults.

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing. Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”

Darlene Kertes

Pets Provide Key Social And Emotional Support

Pet owners appear to fare better than other people with regard to physical fitness, self-esteem, being conscientious, being more socially communicative, not worrying so much about things, and being less fearful in general, researchers revealed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors added that pet owners did not bond to their animals at the expense of relationships with other humans.

It is a myth, the authors revealed, that pet owners rely more on their animals when their human social support is weak.

Psychologist Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., of Miami University in Ohio and team carried out three studies aimed at evaluating the potential benefits of owning a pet among what they termed as “everyday people”.

McConnell said:

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

Before this study, others only looked at the relationship (correlation) between two variables and did not demonstrate whether one was caused by the other.

The first study included 217 participants, 79% of them female with an average age of 31 and a mean annual household income of $77,000. They responded to surveys aimed at determining whether those who owned pets differed from others in their well-being, attachment style, and personality type. Their findings revealed several differences, and in all of them pet owners enjoyed better health, appeared to be better adjusted, and were happier than those who did not have pets.

The second study involved 56 people who had pet dogs – 91% of them were female and their average age was 42 years. The average annual household income was $65,000. The aim was to determine whether the dog owners benefited when their dog was perceived to fulfill their social needs better. Among those whose dogs enhanced their feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence, there was a greater sense of well-being.

The third study involved 97 university students, average age 19 years. They found that after experiencing rejection, pets can make their owners feel better. The participants were asked to describe in writing how they felt when they were excluded. They were also asked to write about their favorite pet, friend, or to draw a map of their university campus. The authors found that writing about a pet had the same beneficial effect as writing about a friend for reducing feelings of rejection.

The authors wrote:

“The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support. Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges ..the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets.”

“Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership”
Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., Miami University; Christina M. Brown, Ph.D., Saint Louis University; Tonya M. Shoda, MA, Laura E. Stayton, BA, and Colleen E. Martin, BA
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 6. 10.1037/a0024506