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Tweens and Teens

The Benefits of Pet Adoption

How a Pet Can Benefit Your Teen

December 01, 2009
If your young teen has been asking for a pet for the past several years, this might be the perfect time to relent. At last, your child is old enough to do a substantial amount of the work involved — though certainly not all of it — and to understand the importance of caring for another life. In the process, she will gain life skills and benefit from a relationship that offers her unconditional love.

Pet care can be a chore that teaches preteen children 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 also can provide a young teen with a steady companion at a time when relationships with other people are increasingly complex. As their personalities become refined, children 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 owner. Whether the pet is a cat, dog or bunny, the relationship can offer a much-needed harbor during a preteen storm.

A pet can also offer an acceptable family "apron string" for a young teen. During this stage, children are trying hard not to act "babyish." They resist hugs and kisses in public, and are 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 child'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 give your preteen an animal as a gift this holiday season, 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 pitching in with routine care when 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 her develop them. It may take a little while for her to figure out how to work the walks, meals, and grooming into her 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 her pet care chores. Be sure she understands that her commitment to an animal must take top priority. If she 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 preteen and arrive at a pet that she 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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