By Ruth Lovett
Our adoptive family began nearly a decade ago and pets have had a large part to play in our life over those years. It has not all been positive and easy going but the rewards of having various animals in our family has been largely beneficial for all. Our menagerie has included guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, chickens, button quail, rats, a horse and not forgetting our fish, caterpillars and stick insects!
Care and nurture
As our adopted children were neglected in their birth family and have some attachment issues, looking after animals has been a good way for us to show love and care for basic needs. We have been able to model this care and encourage them to do likewise (under close supervision and guidance, of course). We have tried not to make the cleaning out of their guinea pigs too much of a chore, by emphasising how warm the guineas will feel in their “clean fluffy bedding”.
We still clean them out far more than our children do, but we always tell them that we have done so and encourage them to thank us for caring for their animals. It is helpful for the children to see the pets relying on us and depending on them for some of their needs.
Acceptance and comfort
Animals do not judge and are often pleased to see various family members. This is good for self-esteem; many animals show unconditional love and trust and the children enjoy having some responsibility for them. Our older dog is especially good at listening to woes, including from Mum and Dad!
Most of our pets are furry or feathered and stroking any of these is soothing and calming (again, Mum and Dad included!)
Exercise and fresh air
Dog walking is a great time for our child with ADHD to let off steam and for our quieter, more self-conscious child to open up and talk whilst walking along side by side and not face to face with a parent.
Going in the garden in all weathers to feed the animals puts colour in our children’s cheeks. Going for a dog walk or going to visit any of the small animals can be a useful distract tactic or can help to diffuse a situation.
Loss and grief
Our children have learnt much through losing their beloved pets. Hard though it is at the time, we have helped them to express their sadness, name their feelings and ultimately to remember and celebrate the good times that they had shared with their pet. We have had many mini funerals for sweet souls and often we have laminated a special photo for our children to have as a comfort.
In a wider sense, this helped to prepare them for the loss of their dear Gran as they had some understanding of death. There have also been times whereby the death of a pet has been a “peg” on which our children were able to hang other griefs and losses. One notable example was the death of our first chicken, when our son was aged 4. He missed his foster carers terribly and we are sure that much of the “chicken tears” were also for them.
Communication and interaction
We have been able to encourage our children in their awareness of others by observing the behaviour, sounds and body language of their pets. We have had chats with the children about what the animals might be thinking or feeling and spent time watching how they communicate with each other and with humans. Our pets display a wide range of feelings that can help with developing the children’s emotional literacy.
Even chickens have fabulous expressions, including: inquisitive, confused, contented, tired and determined. We have one very determined hen that loves to see us in flip flops and runs to peck our feet. We move very fast when we see that face!
Two of our children have difficulty understanding “personal space” and they have poor awareness regarding how heavy their touch is. Drawing their attention to how the guinea pigs prefer to be stroked gently has been one helpful way in encouraging their use of lighter, softer touch. Our current rats are quite timid and therefore the children have had to learn to be quiet and calm around them, without sudden movements, if they would like them to come out and play.
Fun and laughter
There is always a funny tale about our pets, like the time that a chicken of ours escaped the garden and ran across an ‘A road’ twice then took refuge under the wheel arch of a parked car! Luckily neighbours came to the rescue and she was safely extracted!
Another time, years ago, the fox scattered our flock and most hens were found safe in a nearby tree, however our cockerel, which we had raised from an egg, remained missing. We were all delighted the following morning to hear him crow at breakfast and he too was safely retrieved from another tree. He is now a ripe old age of 9, still doing a good job of protecting his hens.
Our older dog, a Staffie, has been dressed by the children in a cape and sunglasses as Superdog and has participated in little plays that they have performed, such as when she was a third king in a nativity.
We have some great photos and happy memories, including when baby flying stick insects hatched and managed to escape through the gaps in their tank lid and were found in various places, like on the curtains and in Dads hair!
Therapy and learning
Our children have gained much through some Equine Therapy and riding in general. Likewise, when our older dog joined our family at 6 months, we used her as an example to enable some therapeutic conversations. We talked with our children about her loss of her other family and how she learnt to trust us. There are also some patterns of behaviour that she held onto from her other home that were not needed or beneficial to her here, in our home. It has been helpful to draw parallels with how some of our children’s coping mechanisms or behaviours developed in response to their early difficulties, for example, their experience of domestic violence. explain that it takes many years for new patterns of response to form and that there will be triggers that make them feel vulnerable again.
Emotional impact on the animals
In our household, this mainly relates to our older dog. She is very sensitive and doesn’t like shouting. Our youngest, with ADHD, has episodes of aggressive behaviour, sometimes with hitting, shouting and throwing items, including chairs. In these times, or indeed, when he only slightly raises his voice now, she goes to hide. We always make sure that she has a “safe refuge” that she can go to. There is no doubt that his behaviour has affected her, especially as some of his episodes used to last up to an hour. He has never ever directed his anger at her thankfully, but we do sometimes feel guilty that she worries so.
Physical impact on the animals
We have always tried to supervise the children with the animals closely. As explained before, sometimes our boys are not fully aware of how hard their touch is. They are also “sensory seekers” and like to feel feedback.
Our adopted children have shown a large array of attention needy behaviours over the years. With regards to pets, this has involved the children putting their hands in our dogs’ mouths and touching around their private areas in order to attract attention to themselves. The dogs, understandably, do not like this sort of touch and are very good at moving away, however we make sure we supervise well to limit these uncomfortable experiences for them. We encourage strokes, pats and cuddles with all the animals and the horse in particular is great, due to his sheer size and calm nature. He helps them to learn to be more aware of their inner state as he can reflect back their emotions.
Our oldest son, with attachment issues showed his need to be “in control” (in order to feel safe), in many ways. Unfortunately we saw him, aged 4, holding a plastic spade into his guinea pig’s side until the poor thing squeaked. When asked why, he said he wanted it to make a sound. Thankfully the guinea was unharmed and our son never did this again. In fact, he is a very kind, caring boy when he feels safe and secure.
Overall our pets have brought our family much shared joy and happiness. We hope that the feeling is mutual, the animals certainly look well and contented. Looking after them together is great for teamwork. As parents, it has given us a warm glow to see the children cooking up pet birthday cakes or treats together, mashing animal bran and food scraps together and baking it the oven!