Linda Chassman, PhD., LMFT
As the parent of 2 adopted girls, I have experienced many of the challenges of other adoptive families. My older daughter, now 27 came to my home as a foster child when she was 14. Having experienced a range of traumas and repeated abandonment, our bonding was challenged from the start. My younger daughter, now 4 was adopted at age 18 months from China. While she lived in a foster home there, she still struggles with feelings of insecurity and fears of abandonment. One was fearful to get close, the other fearful of letting go.
During my work as a counselor and therapist I have worked with scores of children and teenagers with similar issues to my own children. But while my professional experience didn’t completely prepare me for being a parent of an adopted child, my experience as a parent of an adopted child has helped me greatly as a professional. As a lover, foster parent, and adopter of multiple animals, my natural inclination was to put my two loves together. Could my animals help my kids, and could my kids help my animals? As a result of some of the “experiments” I tried with my own children and pets, I now train other parents.
Animals that are left in shelters often have similar experiences and feelings to children who have been adopted. They have been abandoned, afraid, had multiple homes, and perhaps have even experienced abuse or other emotional or physical trauma. These pets are unwanted. When adopted children are old enough to start to question the reasons for their adoption, this is a common experience they express – why were they not wanted by their biological parents? And while most of us will never have an adequate answer, what we can offer is the opportunity for them to experience, through loving an adopted pet, how much they are now loved and wanted.
As a counselor my therapy animals’ experiences are a vital part of my client’s therapeutic experience. We talk about Norman being left as a kitten all alone in a department store. They hear about how Rupert lived in 5 homes within 7 months before our own, and how he suffers from social anxieties. The kids help soothe my animals’ fears and anxieties; they help problem solve for their social inadequacies, and teach them ways to get along better with other animals. Essentially through helping the animals feel more secure, attached and confident, they are learning the same lessons.
Pets that have been rescued may have behavior problems, but so do all children. If the children are old enough to be able to train the animal they can be part of helping that pet become a happy, secure member of the family. (Even my 4 year old knows how to do Clicker Training with our dog Rupert and set firm limits with him.) As we demonstrate acceptance for the imperfections in our pet, our children see how we accept the imperfections in themselvesl. As they see how we all work to help the animal behave better as part of a family, they understand that our discipline functions the same way.
And there are myriad ways that these pets can interact with our adopted children that can help them with specific behavioral and emotional goals. Our Filial Pet Therapy Program teaches parents how to work with their pet and child to meet prescribed goals. Simple interventions that can be done at home with your pet and child that teach multiple skills include: training the pet to do a trick (even some cats can be Clicker trained); playing hide and seek with the animal (the animal finds your child); and grounding your child through holding the animal in a prescribed way. Each of these simple games with a pet provide help: developing patience and concentration; increasing the ability to tolerate frustration; teaching the ability to plan, and carry out a goal and feel success and mastery when it has been accomplished; learn ways to calm and soothe themselves; and many more. And while you may not always understand how pets and animals help each other, in my experience they always do.
If you would like to adopt a pet, I do suggest that your adopted child be involved in every step, including choosing the type of animal, the size, and meeting the animal. Some smaller humane organizations allow for multiple visits, and this can help everyone feel secure in their choice.
Linda Chassman, PhD., LMFT is the Director of Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, in Denver and has developed Filial Pet Therapy.