Children strongly linked to pets during COVID felt more anxiety

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has caused immense disruption to the lives of millions of people around the world. Businesses and schools were closed, travel routes blocked, lockdowns imposed and social distancing was enforced. Many companies also transitioned their employees to remote work as childcare simultaneously became unavailable.

Amid these changes, families have struggled to adapt, as they have been forced to develop new routines to support their activities, while ensuring they remain emotionally, mentally and physically healthy. In a recent PLOS A A journal study conducted in Australia, parents’ and children’s attachment to pets appears to be a barometer of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Study: Mental health of parents and children during COVID-19 in Australia: the role of attachment to pets. Image Credit: Ground Image/Shutterstock.com

Introduction

Young people are more likely to experience isolation, whether physical or emotional, as well as to feel bored, lonely, anxious and depressed. For many people, pets seem to offer an alternative and easier way to feel loved and have a sense of belonging than human relationships.

Companion cats and dogs have become extremely popular over the past century, especially in the West. However, these animals need food, shelter, exercise, medical attention, and training, which can be demanding and expensive. Their deaths also cause great distress to many owners.

Pets can improve the mental and physical health of their owners, as well as their level of physical activity. Such benefits can ease parents’ concerns about their child’s mood, behavior and learning ability.

For children, owning a pet is associated with better emotional control, higher self-esteem, and a sense of having a friend who doesn’t judge or condemn them, but is always willing to show some kindness. love. This is especially helpful for those who already suffer from mental insecurities or have a history of trauma, as well as single children, as pets can prevent social and emotional problems.

However, the evidence for these benefits of pet ownership is conflicting. Owners who are very attached to their pets show more signs of mental distress and, when their pets are older, show lower levels of mental health. The same goes for those in risky jobs.

More pets have been adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before. Australia, for example, has the highest number of pet owners in the world relative to its population. With two out of three households owning a pet, more than five million dogs and about four million cats are domesticated in this country.

Australian parents showed a decline in their well-being with the onset of the pandemic, especially if they already faced poor mental health, were financially stressed, were from a lower social class or suffered from adverse effects related to the work due to the pandemic.

About the study

The present study deals with the effect of attachment to pets on an individual’s sense of mental well-being. In a relationship, attachment refers to the “deep and lasting emotional connections in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when the attachment figure is present.”

Evidence from the United States indicates that attachment to pets protects owners against psychological symptoms in people with moderate or high distress, but not severe distress. Conversely, greater attachment to pets has been linked to greater mental distress in the UK.

In the current study, researchers sought to understand how attachment to pets helps families cope psychologically during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a time of great and widespread uncertainty. The data was acquired through the Parents, Pets & Pandemic Survey, which was administered between July and October 2020 and corresponded to the second wave of the pandemic on the continent.

The survey was conducted online by families who had at least one child with them and at least one dog or cat. Most of the participants were non-indigenous Australians, mostly from Victoria, with almost 80% of respondents being women. A third of the children in these families were only children.

The majority of study participants lived in better residential areas within a metropolis, mostly in two-parent families. About 25% of study participants had adopted a new pet during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including the health and well-being of the children or parents, at the request of the children, or for the children to learn about themselves. empower. Few of those families had a history of COVID-19, with most having been tested at some point.

Study results

Parents who were attached to their pets said the same for their children. This was not associated with the parents’ psychological distress and instead showed a strong correlation with their emotional closeness to the animal. Parental attachment to pets was not related to mental health.

Parents who described themselves as emotionally close to their pets were more likely to be more worried about the pandemic, as well as to suffer from poorer mental health and greater distress. Children who were attached to their pets were also more likely to be anxious.

In families harder hit by COVID-19, parents worried more about it and also suffered from greater psychological stress. However, this was not reflected in the children’s anxiety. The most worried parents also report more psychological distress and are more attached to their pet.

Consequences

The slight increase in parental concern about COVID-19 may be due to individual families experiencing different situations and perceiving risks differently. The associations observed in the present study suggest a direct effect of the pandemic on mental health, as well as an indirect effect via parental attachment to the animal.

Children may be more likely to be anxious if their parents are anxious, indicating both natural and nurturing-induced associations. Notably, the more anxious children also showed greater attachment to the animal.

Likewise, parents with greater emotional closeness to the animal appeared to be more distressed by the pandemic. The inconsistent lack of association between parental attachment to pets and distress could be due to poor framing of the survey questions.

It is possible that anxious parents and children sought solace from their pets, or those who grew more attached to pets became more anxious. In fact, these two factors can work in combination.

That is, in the absence of many customary social support systems and the inability to access these systems, family tensions likely increased, especially since the children studied and the parents worked in the same environment. , contrary to before. When added to pre-existing mental or physical constraints, the difficulty is heightened and may be associated with strong attachments to pets.

The ability to bond with pets can mean great empathy, which could contribute to greater distress. Certain personality types or distinct coping strategies may also result in the use of pets for physical or emotional safety.

The current study may have appealed to pet owners with stronger bonds to their pets, as around 10% of respondents had to be excluded because they had no children but self-identified. like the parents of their pets. Another limitation was the inclusion of only one child and the most recent pet, which meant that relationships between parents, children, and pets were ignored, along with the likely stronger relationship with older pets at home.

The results of the study may indicate the role of a very strong bond with pets as a red flag, thus suggesting either emotional vulnerability or the lack of human social support. Further research may support the use of companion animals to provide comfort and avoid psychological health issues in crisis and high-stress situations.

There should also be more emphasis on the lack of support systems by ensuring the availability and accessibility of other ways to connect with other human companions.

Journal reference:

  • Bennetts, SK, Crawford, SB, Howell, TJ, et al. (2022). Mental health of parents and children during COVID-19 in Australia: the role of attachment to pets. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0271687.

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