The emotional benefits of animal companionship are well-documented. Beyond the popularity of having specified and prescribed emotional support animals, even having animals as pets can foster positive emotional relationships, compassion, empathy, and responsibility in teens. For teens with mental health disorders, particularly in this time of grief and isolation during a global pandemic, the benefits of pets include helping provide structure, companionship, and healing. However, parents and caregivers must weigh the emotional costs and benefits for their teens before bringing a pet into the family.
The onset of COVID-19 created a growing market for what have been coined as “pandemic pets.” According to the American Pet Products Association, over 11 million American households welcomed new pets into their homes during COVID-19 between March and October of 2020. Particularly during social isolation and remote schooling, pets offer teens an opportunity to develop a relationship with another being that helps decrease feelings of loneliness and allows for an increased capacity for empathy and compassion.
How Animal Companionship Benefits Teens
One of the most challenging parts of being a teen struggling with a mental health disorder is feeling alone. With stigma so strong, many teens lack important peer friendships or anyone they trust to talk about what is happening to them. Hence, pets can offer emotional support and unconditional love.
Studies have shown that animals can boost mood, decrease loneliness, and create feelings of social support. Physiologically, human interaction with animals has been shown to reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Pets can also give teens purpose and an increased desire to live.
How Pets Cultivate Teen Responsibility, Compassion, and Empathy
Some teens with mental health diagnoses such as depression or anxiety struggle to take care of themselves, let alone fulfill other responsibilities. However, the emotional relationship between teens and animals can be the impetus for enhanced motivation to take responsibility for the pet. Owning a pet creates some structure in the teen’s life without overwhelming them with excessive responsibilities.
Moreover, pet ownership can increase empathy and compassion in teens, qualities that some adolescents with mental health diagnoses have difficulty developing. Seeing pets react to human’s expressions of emotion can help teens learn how their words and actions impact others. When a teen struggles with human interactions, an animal’s physical contact and interaction can teach them to look outside of themselves and develop compassion for others.
Combatting Isolation and Grief Through Animal Companionship
Pets offer people companionship at a time when human companionship is increasingly diminished or unavailable. This is particularly helpful for teens, for whom social interaction is essential developmentally. With the pandemic reducing the quantity of normal peer interactions in school and extracurricular activities, pandemic pets have been able to offer a substitute for peer interaction.
Additionally, while teens may be experiencing grief due to the loss of social interaction and important milestones and activities, animals’ companionship affords them support and consolation. While nothing can replace the loss of these social opportunities, developing a close relationship with a pet can help ward off further consequences of these stressors, such as increases in depression and anxiety.
Weighing the Positives and Negatives of Pet Ownership
Many families already owned pets prior to COVID-19. Teens with established relationships with a pet may have experienced increased opportunities for animal companionship as they spend more time at home. However, for families considering adopting a pet, particularly to benefit a teen with a mental health diagnosis, it is essential to weigh the benefits of pets and the negatives.
Some of the negative aspects of pet ownership can include:
- Financial costs
- Physical ability to care for pets
- Appropriate living conditions
- Allergies to animals
- Potential pet-related injuries, such as bites
- Possible pet behavior issues that can cause stress
- Interruption of school or work
- Possible loss of a pet.
The emotionally impactful effects of a pet running away, becoming sick, or dying should be considered. For some teens, this could represent an opportunity to learn about grief and loss. However, for others, such a loss could trigger an episode with severe mental health repercussions.
Animals as Therapy for Teens
An alternative to pet ownership is to seek out therapy for your child that involves animals. Equine-assisted therapy is an excellent way for teens to experience the benefits of pets without the potentially negative stressors surrounding pet ownership. Animal-assisted therapy provides healing for mental health issues in an experiential environment and is great for less verbal teens.
Animal companionship offers many benefits to teens struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. Particularly during this time when a global pandemic has created and exacerbated mental health crises, pets can offer companionship and emotional support. Ultimately, building a relationship with an animal can be a very healing experience for your teen.