To an adopted child, a new family can signal opportunities for love, bonding and acceptance. But alongside the joys of this newfound life, adopted children — especially older ones — can experience profound feelings of grief, loss and insecurity as they adapt to the unfamiliar. One key for helping many adopted children to adjust may be the presence of a pet, either in the home or in a therapeutic situation. Sue Wartman, a member of the board of directors and a volunteer dog handler at Caring Canines Visting Therapy Dogs, Inc., based in Boston, Massachusetts, provides canine therapy at area nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, hospitals, schools and residential programs in the hopes of improving the quality of life and emotional health of children and adults in need. As she notes, "Animals help children to feel more comfortable...dogs are unconditional and make them feel supported. An adopted child is facing a new situation, so they might really need a companion to help them through it."
The Comforting Nature of Animals
It's little wonder pets can be a comfort to adopted children, since they are used in a variety of other situations in which people are experiencing challenging circumstances. Wartman explains that during dog therapy, volunteers visit nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and children's hospitals. "Patients and the elderly are comforted just by touching the dogs...it's been shown if you're petting a dog, it decreases your blood pressure," she says. "The dogs make people who might not have many visitors smile, and provide a diversion." Also notable: A 2008 review of research since 1980 published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education revealed that humans receive a notable health benefit from their interactions with animals.
Kids entering a new family are likely to be overwhelmed by the myriad of stuff they must adapt to — from little things, like where their toothbrush goes, to decidedly bigger things, like how they will get along with their new parents or siblings. Why a pet might help during this tough time: Attachment to a pet can provide much-needed psychological and social support to a person going through tumultuous life circumstances, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Jeanne Brouillette, founder and president of Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts in Scituate, MA, and who has a professional background in rehabilitation counseling and special education, notes the power of the human-animal bond. "Dogs accept everyone at face value — expecting nothing while being eager to give their love and affection to whomever wants it," she says. "For a child in a new home, in possibly a new country, this unconditional love could indeed provide a great sense of security. The innocence of both dog and child creates a bond that requires no words between them. For children who do not speak the language of their adoptive parents, a dog can provide an opportunity to speak to something that 'understands' everything they say — and asks no questions, and places no demands."
Helping Children to Cope
Sometimes, adopted children are dealing with more than adjustment to a new family: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, many adopted children experience significant feelings of loss and grief, and may feel rejected or abandoned by their birth parents. They also might have feelings of numbness, anger, depression, anxiety or fear, stemming from perceived rejection, or real abuse or neglect prior to the adoption. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that having a pet present in a therapy session with a child who has experienced abuse or neglect helped therapists to build rapport with nervous or withdrawn children, and provided the child with a source of nonjudgmental acceptance. The animals also provided safety and friendliness to the therapy setting, which encouraged more natural communication to take place. Having an animal present also improved the child's self-esteem, and allowed her or him to practice newfound social skills without a fear of rejection, because of the animal's naturally forgiving nature.
Families with a newly adopted child may want to consider taking a trip to the local animal shelter: Some families choose to adopt a furry friend around the same time as a child, so that the child has a parallel experience with the pet. In a study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, which looked at 20 American families with children adopted from Russia and Romania, all had pets, and more than half had purposely adopted the animals as a parallel experience for their adopted children. One parent noted that her adopted daughter had become interested in rescuing animals, because she wanted them to have a home just as she does. Another family reported that they allowed their children to watch the birth of a litter of kittens — and afterwards, the kids interviewed potential families for them, similar to the home visits before their own adoptions.