Pets Help Children Cope With Divorce

Second in a series of blogs about Children and DivorceThe first was “Helping Toddlers Cope With Divorce.” The third is “The Positive Side of Pre-Teen Smartphone Use.”

Children Coping with DivorceWhen divorcing, some couples fight over who gets the dog or cat. When elementary school-age kids are involved, the arguments for the pet staying with the children are strong. Keeping the kids and pets together benefits both the children and the animal. “Typically, the pet goes where the children go, and that usually means staying in the family home where the surroundings are familiar and a routine is kept,” according to a Huffington Post article, “Who gets the Pets in a Divorce? What You Need to Consider When Fighting Over Fido.”

One of the top suggestions to help elementary school-age children through the divorce transition is keeping a consistent routine. Six to nine-year old girls and boys need their routines even more so that other age groups. Younger children may not be as aware of the time or the calendar and so are more short-sighted in their outlook. Pre-teens and teenagers have a broader world-view and a little bit more control of their daily schedules and social or activity calendars. Those in first through fifth grades are at the scheduling mercy of their parents. They may feel like everything from bedtime to visitation is out of their control.

One routine responsibility they can have control over though, is pet care. It is a perfectly manageable responsibility for a second-grader to measure out dry food and fill the water bowl every morning. A third-grader can brush the dog after school and a fourth-grader can throw tennis balls in the backyard. A fifth-grader is able to help a dog practice basic training commands like sit and stay. The side benefit to passing along pet care responsibilities to the children is that it takes one task off the parents’ list.

Besides giving children a sense of control of their environment and a dependable routine, a pet provides a sense of security when moving to a new neighborhood. There might be unfamiliar noises at night, strangers on the street or new families at the bus stop. A dog can help a child feel safer and protected.

A MovingPastDivorce article, “6 Ways Pets Can Help Families Through Divorce” suggests a pet can be a perfect confidante for a child’s divorce worries. “Children like to talk to their pets. They are a trusted friend who they can confide and share their deepest fears. This is truly a gift to children and greatly helps with emotional resiliency. Pets are nonjudgmental. They listen attentively.”

Milford Counseling‘s Rhett Reader says he has seen that happen lots of times. “If you have somebody who’s shy or guarded, a pet can be a wonderful ice breaker.”

If at all possible, allow the child to bring the pet with them to both parents’ houses. It can be one more consistent presence in an unsettling situation. Dogs, especially, are known to be loyal and dependable and give children a sense of constancy and security.
In the age of email and texts, most messages can be conveyed electronically between parents but for paperwork/school records/documents/etc., a pet’s supply bag can allow the non-confrontational method to transfer documents from one parent to another. It is out of the child’s sight. It takes the burden off the child as the middleman for passing information from one parent to the other. The article “Children and Divorce” highlights a study done at the University of Missouri that revealed the top items that children of divorced families wished their parents knew about the experience. One of those items is the stress caused by a child feeling stretched in two directions trying to be the messenger. The article quoted one child as saying, “Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.” University of Missouri

If you didn’t already have a pet before the divorce, consider getting one. Although adding pet care to your list of divorce stresses may seem illogical, the benefits can outweigh the hassles for everyone involved. Besides a dog’s unconditional love, just petting a dog is proven to have calming effects on all family members.

“Walking and talking to your dog or petting your cat can actually lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, not to mention overall stress,” according to the MovingPastDivorce article. The article suggests that if you are not able to fit a dog or cat into a single-parent household, try to borrow or visit friends’ or family members’ pets.

Local libraries and hospitals sometimes have “Read to a Dog Day”. These organizations bring in licensed therapy dogs that are trained to sit patiently as a timid child reads to them. This could also be a chance for a child of a divorced-family to talk to and pet a dog that is guaranteed to be well-behaved and attuned to their emotional needs.
Therapy dogs are great sources of compassionate and unconditional understanding for anyone going through a stressful life event such as divorce. At Milford Counseling in Milford, MI, Molly the Therapy Dog, helps children and adults through the course of their therapy.

Years ago, she started out as a family pet, Rhett Reader explained. “We used to have our office in the Presbyterian Church and one day I was going to get a cup of coffee and I saw a bunch of people training their dogs. They invited me to join them with Molly.” From there, Molly received training and certification to assist the counselors as they helped clients deal with stress. Rhett explained how Molly is able to intuitively sense when a client is having a bad day and will go lay at their feet or put her head in their lap. This gives the client comfort and also helps cue the counselor that this person is having a challenging day.

Liz Reader reports, “The clients are always very happy to see her and she plays a huge roll in cheering them up. Molly is very good at sensing the emotions of our clients and helps them during tough sessions. Molly helps build rapport and trust between the Milford Counseling Team and their clients.”
For any human, but especially children, loving and caring for a pet can be a great coping strategy during an unsettling family trauma like divorce.

As Erika Mansourian wrote in AKC FamilyDog magazine, “For most of us, chief among the reasons we keep them around is the silent but palpable gift of compassion they bring us in times of need – in a worried gaze, an insistent prod with a muzzle, a soft, commiserating whine…Dogs can, and do, pick up on very subtle cues in their humans and express concern for our well-being.”

Sources:

DivorceNet, “30 Tips for Divorcing Parents,” Lina Guillen. http://www.divorcenet.com/states/florida/fifty_tips_for_divorcing_parents

Huffington Post, “Who gets the Pets in a Divorce? What You Need to Consider When Fighting Over Fido,” Maria Moya, January 25, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/02/divorce-pet-custody_n_4533193.html

AKC FamilyDog magazine, “ They Feel Our Pain,” Erika Mansourian, March/April 2013. http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/2d9e33e6#/2d9e33e6/35

Rhett Reader, Milford Counseling, 120 S. Main Street, Milford, MI, 48381, 248-390-5791, elizabethreader@yahoo.comwww.milfordcounseling.com.