July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Helping Our Children Feel Better, One Animal at a Time

One of the things I enjoy most about being a psychologist is helping to educate others about mental health and mental illness. I was recently preparing to give an upcoming presentation to medical professionals about suicide awareness and prevention, and I reached the point in my slide presentation where I discuss depression and how it relates to having thoughts of hurting oneself.

The connection between depression and thoughts of suicide is, I think, very easy to understand. No other mental health problem correlates more strongly with suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than depression. Depression is the second most common mental health problem in America (preceded only by anxiety) and it can be a devastating illness, although it is by no means the only commonly occurring mental illness.

This week, I’d like to talk about something we can do to help those whom we love who may feel depressed, or anxious, or who may be experiencing any other type of strong emotional difficulty. Specifically, I’d like to focus on our children.

My wife (what an amazing person she is…and a talented, gourmet cook, too!) suggested (rather strongly) that I talk with you about pet ownership (I’d never call her a cat fanatic, but…well, maybe a little bit). You may have read a piece I previously authored on this very topic, entitled “Don’t Eat the Cat Food,” which appeared in the July 30, 2015, issue of The Jewish Link. It was a humorous piece (at least I thought so) on the mental-health benefits of owning a pet. The wife (have I said yet how wonderful she is?) was less-than impressed with this initial offering and suggested I write another piece that was more serious.

The truth is, my wife is absolutely correct. There is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence that shows just how much a family pet can help improve a child’s emotional well-being. For example, one young man once shared with me that his family’s dog helped him get through a very abusive and neglectful childhood. He had suffered with depression and had tried to commit suicide several times. Taking care of his dog over the years helped him survive his depression.

A young lady whom I treated many years ago struggled with a very debilitating eating disorder for a long time. When individual- and group-therapy and inpatient- and outpatient-treatment programs didn’t work, her aunt (who raised her) turned to pet ownership and bought her a cat to care for.

One commonality between depression and eating disorders is that they can consume a person, turning their attention inward in a very self-destructive way and shutting out the world around them in the process. People with depression often self-isolate, lose interest in pleasurable activities and become a shell of their former selves. Eating disorders vary in terms of symptoms, but they generally include poor self-esteem and strong feelings of inadequacy, hyper self-consciousness, and a tendency to obsess over body image.

The young man and woman I described above (as with so many others like them) both had great difficulty while growing up. They felt emotionally and physically inadequate, they felt helpless and out of control, and they had few friends. Their world had shrunken to a fine point, of which they were the center; a terribly faulty and insecure center. Caring for their family pets helped ease them out of their destructive self-focus.

Having a family pet requires children to turn their attention outward in a healthy and positive way. Children are given an opportunity to focus their emotional energies on something other than themselves. The wonderful thing about this process is that it addresses one of the biggest challenges that mental-health clinicians often experience in treating children and young adults.

As adults, we have a greater capacity to motivate ourselves to participate in psychotherapy because we recognize it’s good for us, that it can help us feel better. Children (particularly teenagers) can be difficult to connect with in therapy. It can be a challenge to get them to let us into their inner world and to have them buy into therapy as a helpful thing. Owning a pet, however, is therapy in a much more subtle and less threatening way.

Many children with emotional difficulties (particularly depression and eating disorders) feel insecure around others, including peers and adults. They may feel inadequate and fear rejection or have a distrust of other people. When it comes to caring for a pet, children don’t have to worry about rejection or abandonment; family pets are sociable and provide children with unconditional acceptance regardless of how they look, how popular they are or how good they are in sports.

Caring for a pet requires a certain degree of responsibility and, while this can be a positive thing for children to take upon themselves, it can also be a challenge. To be sure, not all children have the emotional maturity or are in a healthy enough place to fully care for a pet. Therefore, parents will need to help to one degree or another.

As I wrote in my earlier article on pet ownership, Orthodox homes tend not to have family pets. Aside from any religious beliefs about such things, many parents are either uncomfortable around pets (more than a few of our friends are uncomfortable around our cats), have few funds to spend on a pet or have little time to care for one (even the most serious and responsible of children generally end up relying on their parents to help care for an animal).

These issues are certainly understandable. But, the good news is that owning a pet doesn’t have to place a huge financial burden on a family or require an enormous time commitment. And, any cost and effort associated with owning a family pet might be well worth it when one considers how much it might help a child struggling through an emotionally difficult time.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental-health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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