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New research finds that dogs can help young children get a paw up on developing important social skills. Getty Images
  • Kids everywhere are missing out on social opportunities because of the pandemic.
  • This can affect their social development and also contribute to increased behavioral problems.
  • Previous research has highlighted the benefits of pet ownership for older children, which include increased responsibility and empathy.
  • New research suggests even toddlers can benefit from pet ownership with improved social development skills.
  • Adopting a dog may be one way parents can help their kids mitigate the negative social development effects of physical distancing.

Social isolation and physical distancing have become necessary measures for eliminating the spread of COVID-19 and preserving as many lives as possible.

Following those guidelines hasn’t proven easy, though, with adults and children alike facing loneliness as they aim to keep a distance from those they love.

Experts have voiced concerns that prolonged physical distancing measures could have a negative impact on social development for kids.

But new research points to a possible way to address those concerns: getting your kids a dog.

COVID-19 has completely changed the way we interact with each other and live our lives.

Plenty of adults are feeling the weight of that, and most parents recognize the impact our current global situation is having on their children as well.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

She says that while children are naturally more resilient than adults, they’re still struggling right now — and how that manifests may vary from child to child.

“Societal trauma may impact children by heightening their sense of uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, and worry,” Mendez explained. “Children may show signs of emotional and mental health impact by increasing questions reflecting feelings of fear and distress.”

Mendez says parents may be noticing increased behavioral problems as well.

This might include outbursts, irritability, poor sleep behavior, and difficulty concentrating and problem-solving.

And younger children may exhibit increased intensity and insecure feelings. They may express this by clinging more and resisting time alone.

Beyond all that, childhood is a prime time for social development. There are reasons for concerns about how physical distancing measures will affect that.

“Some potentially negative implications of long-term social distancing for children could be that it results in limited educational and mental stimulation due to narrow and diminished availability of enriching social interactions,” Mendez said.

While virtual methods allow for some interaction, it’s not the same as in-person engagement.

It’s through playing together that children learn important social concepts like sharing, taking turns, problem-solving, and understanding nonverbal communication cues.

That’s where the latest research comes in.

Published in the July issue of Pediatric Research, the study examined 1,646 families to determine whether having a dog helped toddlers with social development.

The results were extremely positive. The researchers found that parents in dog-owning families were 30 percent less likely to report conduct and peer problems with their toddlers in comparison to families that don’t own dogs.

“The powerful message delivered in the research referenced in the article is that pet ownership supports and enhances social-emotional competence in children as young as toddlers,” Mendez said.

“Interactions with pets are as powerful in building relational skills and bonding as the interactions young children have with their parents,” she said.

But it isn’t just owning a dog that helps. It’s also how often the children engage in the care of that dog.

The researchers found that kids who helped their parents walk the family dog at least once a week and played with the dog at least three times a week exhibited greater benefits in social development than those who didn’t.

This makes a lot of sense, says Lisa Pion-Berlin, PhD, ACHT, ACSW, president and CEO of Parents Anonymous Inc.

“In caring for and loving a pet, all family members thrive and feel better through this personal connection: unconditional love,” Pion-Berlin explained. “Even teaching children how to care for an animal creates an emotional connection and enhances our purpose to give to others.”

While this particular research focused on toddlers, previous studies have found older children in dog-owning families benefit from increased responsibility, positive identity, empathy, and trust.

“Pets are great mental health promoters of all ages,” Mendez said. “They are used as therapy tools as pets help people relax, laugh, play, and de-stress. Pets stimulate happy feelings, positive thoughts, and instill hope and trust.”

While the pandemic has forced so many to take a step back from their social relationships, pets offer an opportunity for kids of all ages to get outside, practice responsibility, and experience and share empathy and love with the animal in their care.

The research gives parents plenty of reasons to consider dog ownership during the pandemic, but Mendez says there are truly countless benefits to having a pet for kids during less stressful times as well:

  • Children learn and practice responsibility.
  • They learn selflessness.
  • Having a pet promotes empathy and capacity of caring for another life.
  • Interacting with pets reinforces global developmental skills for children.
  • Pets help children think and problem-solve through interacting and playing.
  • The process of teaching the pet tricks and positive behavior provides children with opportunity to practice clear, accurate, and meaningful communication skills.
  • Having a pet to interact with also helps children with stress management.
  • Playing with a pet releases tension, allows for the opportunity to engage in companionship, and builds capacity for reciprocity and give-and-take.
  • Pets promote physical and active exchanges and play.
  • Playing with pets increases agility and motor competence.

Beyond all that, Mendez added, “Studies have shown that children who have pets maintain better mood stability, emotional regulation, and overall better health.”

With shelters having to close or limit staff across the country, Pion-Berlin says there are a lot of dogs and cats in need of homes right now. But she encourages parents to still thoroughly think this decision through.

“First, sit down and make this a family decision, and recognize that kids of all ages may say they will do the work to care for a pet but, in reality, parents have to ultimately take responsibility for the care of any animal,” Pion-Berlin said.

In considering that, Pion-Berlin encourages parents to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do you have the time?
  • What benefits do you see for all your children?
  • Can your family afford the costs (food, medical, etc.) of caring for a pet?

If you’re thinking about getting a puppy or kitten, she says it’s important to consider the additional responsibilities of training.

“Also realize everyone gets attached to a pet, and they may get sick or die at one point, which will impact your family,” Pion-Berlin says. “That is life, but given the age of your children and the age of the pet, exploring this issue as adults is important.”

The pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon, but pet ownership may be one way to add some joy to these difficult days.

And while your kids benefit socially, you may just find you benefit from those canine cuddles and kisses as well.

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