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Tweens and Teens

The Great Pet Dilemma

How Pet Care Helps Teens With More Than Just Responsibility

June 01, 2009
If your young teen has been asking for a pet, this might be the season to relent. At last your child is old enough to do a substantial amount of the work involved—thought certainly not all of it—and to understand the importance of caring for another life. In the process, he will gain life skills and benefit from a relationship that offers his unconditional love. Summer can be an easier season to introduce a new pet to the house and deal with the challenges of housebreaking or trips to the vet for shots.

Pet care can be a chore that teaches young teens how to care for others. Unlike vacuuming a floor or hanging up clothes, feeding a living creature involves the heart. It can cultivate a child's empathy and altruism, and help him demonstrate to himself and others that he is able to love and be loved. Now that he is old enough to realize that he is not the center of the universe, he can comprehend a pet not only as a plaything, but also as an individual being with feelings and needs similar to his own.

A pet can provide a maturing child with a steady companion at a time when relationships with other people are increasingly complex. As their personalities become refined, young teens tend to have bouts of conflict with parents and peers. Sometimes they feel as though they don't have a friend in the world. During times like these, the unconditional love of a pet can provide the solace and nurturing no human can offer.

Young teens may find in a pet everything they are frustrated at being unable to find in people. A loved animal can be loyal, non-judgmental, and a good listener. A pet accepts anger and tears, secrets and dreams, and never betrays a confidence. It pays no mind to test scores or lost games, pimples or broken dates; it loves without question and never has anything more important to do than be with its caregiver. Whether the pet is a cat, dog, or bunny, the relationship can offer a much-needed harbor during an adolescent storm.

A pet can also offer an acceptable family "apron string" for a young teen. During this stage of their life, children are trying hard not to act "babyish." They resist hugs and kisses in public and are repeatedly asserting that they can do all kinds of things by themselves. But they're still nowhere near ready to leave home, emotionally or physically. Interacting with the household pet, which is a part of the family, is a way to continue to give and receive love and open affection and maintain the family bond without embarrassing themselves.

In addition, building a relationship with an animal can extend and strengthen a young teen's sense of identity. When your child says, Look what my dog can do," he may as well be saying, "Look what I can do." The sense of pride that comes when a puppy learns a new trick or when a kitten curls into his lap helps him to feel good about himself, just as if he had kicked a winning goal. A loyal pet makes its owner feel important, and this becomes another building block in a young teen's self-esteem.

Finally, having a pet can offer the maturing child a sense of empowerment. Parents still rule the roost and younger siblings don't like being bossed around. A loved pet, however, will take direction without complaint. After being reprimanded for a messy room or poor grade, telling the dog to "sit" or allowing the rabbit his exercise time can help a child to reclaim emotional balance and realign his ego.

Before you decide to make that pet purchase, be sure to give serious thought to the financial and emotional commitment it will require. Also, be realistic about the ways in which you will inevitably become involved - providing transportation to the vet, vacuuming up dog hair or litter, and pitching in with routine care as necessary.

Keep in mind that caring for a pet will require a young teen to learn some time management strategies, and you may have to help his develop them. It may take a little while for his to figure out how to work the walks, meals and grooming into his already busy schedule, so be prepared for a training period. For this reason it is important to choose a pet that will comfortably fit into your family's lifestyle and your home's space limitations. There are many books and websites that can provide information about the care requirements and temperaments of various types of pets. You can also gain some insight by talking with local veterinarians and other pet owners.

Make sure that you have agreed upon some reasonable consequences in case your child starts to get lazy about his pet-care chores. Be sure he understands that his commitment to an animal must take top priority. If he can't find the time for walking or feeding, it is the drama class or slumber party that will be forfeited, not the pet.

If you can work through these issues with your young teen and arrive at a pet that he can love and you can live with, the benefits for your child can be great.

Note: Due to the overabundance of neglected and abandoned animals, many pet stores are encouraging families to adopt kittens and puppies and are no longer selling them. Check with your local pet shelter for more information.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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