What Do Teenagers Need? Ask the Family Dog

People of all ages become deeply connected to their pets, but in the lives of teenagers, animals often play a special role. Indeed, pets provide comforts that seem to be tailor-made for the stresses of normal adolescent development.

To start, animals don’t judge — and teenagers are generally subjected to a great deal of judgment. Adults tend to harbor negative stereotypes about adolescents, and even those who feel neutral or positive about young people often engage them with the aim of cultivating their growth in one way or another.

“Pets are, by their nature, nonjudgmental,” notes the developmental psychologist Megan Mueller, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Tufts University. “A lot of teenagers will report that as a very important aspect of the relationship. If the teenager is upset the dog won’t tell them ‘maybe you shouldn’t have said that to your friend.’”

Even when adolescents aren’t being critiqued by adults, they are often aware of being sized up by their peers. Dr. Andy Roark, a veterinarian in Greenville, S.C., and the father of tween daughters, often thinks about “social media and adolescence and young girls — about affirmation and the withholding of affirmation.” As Dr. Roark notes, “we’re all looking for validation, and that’s what pets give to us. You have this being who is 100 percent in your corner.”

Further, pets give young people opportunities to enjoy sharing their warm and affectionate feelings. Most adolescents yearn for emotional intimacy, but are often understandably worried that their attempts to seek it will be ignored, misunderstood or rebuffed. According to Dr. Anne Downes, a veterinarian in Westport, Conn., animals give adolescents a way to be “caring and loving without the fear of a complicated or hurtful reaction.”

Sadie Radinsky, a 17-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, carried her aging dog outside when it could no longer move comfortably. “I’d hold her like a baby and she would lay her head on my shoulder,” said Sadie, who felt fulfilled by the arrangement. “She was in need, and I was meeting her needs.”

Relationships with pets not only offer teenagers a safe space for emotional intimacy, but they also often provide adolescents with salutary physical contact as well. Psychologists have long known that touch can play a powerful role in improving mood and reducing stress. For teenagers, however, hugs can be hard to come by. Even when shouldering intense emotional pain, adolescents are usually reluctant to be cuddled by their parents. And while some teenagers flop all over each other, seeking physical comfort from agemates can sometimes be a complicated move or one that gets mistaken for a sexual overture.

In my own clinical practice with adolescents I’ve been struck by how often they describe rolling around on the floor with the dog, or snuggling with their cat, guinea pig or pet rabbit as a reliable strategy for recovering from a terrible day. Their accounts of the stress relief gained from nuzzling animals aligns with research showing the positive impact that physical contact with animals can have on the human nervous system.

This stress-relieving power of animals inspired the Whitfield School, a private school near St. Louis for grades 6 through 12, to base a golden retriever named Sunshine in its main office. Ruth Greathouse, the principal and the one who takes Sunshine home each night, finds that the dog gets more visitors than usual during high-pressure times of the year. She reports that during the recent final exam period, “a lot of kids that don’t normally come in came to see Sunshine to give and get affection. Then they were ready to go on to their next thing.” In a similar vein, some colleges now offer students the chance to play with puppies as a way to ease their end-of-term stress.

Ms. Greathouse has also observed something many pet owners report: animals recognize when there’s a heightened emotional need. Sunshine, who always wears a leash when roaming the school hallways, “sometimes walks past 15 kids, and then makes a decision to go up to a particular student.”

Dr. Downes likewise confirms that animals are especially attuned to body language in people and that “you are likely to get attention from a dog if you are emotionally upset, or just not yourself.” While the animal may simply be curious about why we seem different, Dr. Downes notes that it’s easy for humans, and perhaps teenagers in particular, to read its interest as a welcome source of sincere concern.

For teenagers who struggle with emotional difficulties, animals are sometimes formally recruited into a therapeutic role. In my practice, I have witnessed the important, if less designed, support that animals sometimes provide to adolescents facing ongoing challenges. For instance, one patient of mine grew up in a family that was materially comfortable, yet relationally impoverished. Cleareyed about her situation, yet still trapped within it, she developed a powerful bond with her cat. She described the cat as the only member of the family she could count on — always available, always ready to listen, always keeping her secrets. It was clear to me that the young woman’s cat helpfully buffered the privations of her upbringing.

While that particular teenager relied on her relationship with her cat to move past a painful present situation, animals can also support young people by grounding them in the moment.

Dr. Downes, who is also the mother of two teenagers, appreciates that animals can help young people to focus on the now, “which is not what teenagers usually get to do. They are always having to think about the futures, having to worry that everything they do might hold implications down the line.”

Sadie, the teenager who carried her aging dog outside, agreed. “We’re hardly ever present,” she said. “We’re always wishing we had done better on that Spanish test last week.”

Her younger dog, a poodle named Mikey, is “so happy when he’s just looking at the wind and letting it hit his face, just smelling the smells of right now. He’s not thinking about what he’s going to be doing later, which is something my dogs have taught me a lot about.”

Needless to say, not all teenagers are able to have pets, want them or develop strong attachments to animals. But recognizing what pets do for the young people who love them serves to remind us of what all adolescents need and deserve: reliable connections that are attuned, affectionate and fully present.

Lisa Damour is a psychologist and the author of the New York Times best sellers “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.” @LDamour Facebook

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