Archive for February 2018

How Pets Can Nurture Children’s Relationships

The human-animal bond is indeed a special bond worth exploring. At any age, children can benefit from the mutual nurturing relationship between themselves and a pet. Whether it’s in the classroom or the family home, the responsibilities of caring for another living creature can foster healthy relationship habits for children.

A few more details on the many ways pets can help establish positive routines:

  • Therapeutic Presence
    The safety and comfort derived from a pet can lessen a child’s stress and anxiety while bolstering a sense of security. Pets are great therapy animals that can aid in the healing process after experiencing trauma or grief. They also can provide a safe outlet for sharing feelings.
  • Non-Judgmental Reading Practice
    Another way animals can help foster good practices is by being a nonjudgmental audience. There are many non-profits dedicated to providing service animals to classroom or extracurricular groups that bring animals in as reading companions. They bring a sense of security and lower the risk of embarrassment and shame many children feel when learning something new.  The classroom guinea pig, bearded dragon or bunny can fulfill the same role every day.
  • Teaching Responsibility
    For all children, pets are an excellent way to instill life skills like responsibility, compassion, and caring within a community. Since pets require daily care, they can be a great tool to teach kids how to participate together and to share duties like feeding, cleaning cages or tanks, or monitoring the animal’s health.
  • Physical Education
    Animals are a great way to get kids outside to play. Since pets need constant interaction, they can be an excellent catalyst to promote physical activities and in turn aid the development of the brain and body.

Other aspects of nurturing that stem from child/pet relationships include lessons about life like birth, illness, reproduction, and death as well as building a knowledgeable connection to nature and respect for the care that living things need.

The positive benefits of sharing life’s moments with a caring animal are priceless in terms of the memories made between a child and their pet.

Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce

Separation and divorce are painful processes that disrupt the lives of Canadian families. A large body of research has mapped out the common reactions to divorce, and identified ways to ease this painful process. For the majority of children who experience the dissolution of their parents’ marriage, the effects are modest and relatively short-lived (1). Within two years of a separation, the majority of parents regain their equilibrium, establish polite but distant communication with their ex-partner, and their children, in turn, adapt to the new living arrangements. Nevertheless, most children report painful feelings about their parents’ divorce, and a significant minority of children suffer extended and prolonged symptomatology related to parental divorce that may include both internalizing and externalizing problems.


Parental conflict before, during and after a divorce has harmful effects on children. However, there is a clear consensus among researchers and clinicians that the child’s best interests are served by maintaining a relationship with both parents, except in cases of severe marital conflict and abuse . Unfortunately, many fathers who face a bitter relationship with their former partner simply drop out of their children’s lives. If that happens, children may suffer the double disadvantages of the psychological loss of a parent, and the loss of financial support. A key challenge that faces divorcing parents is, therefore, how to establish a new co-parental relationship with a former marital partner. Experts advise parents to set aside their own negative feelings, and develop a collaborative and cooperative business-type relationship with the person who they may consider to be the source of great personal distress. In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the benefits for children and parents of alternatives to the adversarial legal system in the resolution of disputes about shared parenting after divorce; alternatives include mediation and assessment services. Valuable information regarding mediation services is available from Family Mediation Canada.

Parents often seek the advice of health care professionals about the timing of their divorce, and wonder whether there is an age at which children are immune to the negative effects of parental separation. Children of all ages are sensitive to parental divorce; their reactions are expressed in ways consistent with their developmental stage. Moreover, children are sensitive to all parental conflict, including suppressed, polite hostility. Parents should be reassured by the research finding that children are also sensitive to the resolution of conflict. Even very young children are aware that a dispute has been resolved. Furthermore, if children have the opportunity to witness the resolution of problems, they also benefit by learning important problem-solving skills. Consequently, the parents’ dilemma is not the timing of the divorce, but how to resolve conflict with their partner whether they stay together or separate. Mental health professionals play an important role in helping parents develop a new co-parental relationship. Parents must learn to establish new boundaries between themselves and the person with whom they were intimate. They must develop effective communication and problem-solving skills.


Children who have experienced their parents’ divorce display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions in the months following the event. Following their parents’ separation, children may regress, display anxiety and depressive symptoms, appear more irritable, demanding and non compliant, and experience problems in social relationships and school performance. Parents often feel troubled by and unprepared for their children’s reactions to a separation and divorce. Children need to know that they are not responsible for the separation, that they are loved by both parents, and that their needs will be met. Children’s expression of distress differs from that of adults. For example, compared with adults, children may be more open to communication through books, workbooks, stories, play and drawings. Parents must achieve a balance between acknowledging and accepting the expression of negative feelings on the one hand, and providing clear, consistent rules and structure on the other.


After a separation, parents must decide about their children’s living arrangements and parental roles. Joint physical custody occurs when both parents share parenting decisions, and the child lives not more than 60% and not less than 40% of the time with each parent. Joint legal custody occurs when both parents retain rights to make parenting decisions; however, the child may live primarily with one parent. Sole legal custody occurs when one parent loses parental rights to make decisions, but still has parental obligations to support the child financially. Sole legal custody may be appropriate if one parent has shown a gross inability to parent or is abusive toward the other parent. Joint physical custody may present the best or worst of all worlds. It appears to be most successful when parents have a fundamental respect for one another, communicate in a clear fashion about their children’s needs, can afford to live in the same school district, and are able to provide the child with two sets of essentials so that the child is not burdened by carrying many possessions from home to home. Joint physical custody may be a nightmare of tense transitions for the child whose parents have a conflictual relationship.


During the divorce process, adults experience a roller coaster of emotions to which their children are extremely sensitive. It is crucial that parents avoid overburdening a child with their own unhappiness or irritability. Furthermore, during the transition period of separation and divorce, the parenting skills of adults are at a low ebb. Unfortunately, at a time when children especially need support, warmth and firm, consistent control, many parents are least equipped to provide it. Parents are encouraged to activate their adult support systems and, if necessary, to seek professional help in their new parenting roles. Seeing a parent coping well with the challenges of divorce may alleviate children’s sense of burden or responsibility, and provide an effective model for handling distress. Problem-solving interventions for parents are effective in helping them cope with divorce. Children’s groups show some positive effects, but when recovering from divorce, children take their lead from their parents – if the parents are functioning well, the child is more likely to do well. Thus, interventions focused uniquely on children may be of limited usefulness.


Although divorcing partners debate the fairness of how much time children spend with one parent compared with the other, the quality of the parent-child relationship is more important than any ratio of time spent with parents. The importance of the child’s relationship with both parents, and the value of being nurtured by both parents, cannot be overemphasized. Each parent brings unique qualities to the parent-child relationship, and the child’s life is enriched by involvement with parents with differing styles, backgrounds and values. The challenge for divorcing partners is to develop a new relationship that is focused on shared parenting. Children benefit from the same kind of parenting whether their parents live in one household or two (ie, they benefit from warmth and structure).

Several strategies can be helpful to parents who adopt a shared parenting role. Children benefit when there is regular communication between parents that facilitates the exchange of information regarding the child. For parents who find verbal interaction with one another difficult, this may take the form of a communication book or e-mail messages. Additionally, parents are encouraged to view their parenting plans with flexibility by recognizing that their arrangements will require adaptation and revision as their children grow older and circumstances change.


For the majority of families, separation and divorce provoke a time of crisis and destabilization. Yet, research demonstrates that after an initial period of distress, most adults and children are able to adapt effectively to new family structures and dynamics. Health care professionals are well placed to assist families in making the adjustment to a new set of demands and challenges. Parents are typically concerned about how divorce may affect their children; thus, it can be very reassuring for them to learn about the common reactions that children have to divorce, and to learn that strengthening their own support systems, developing a non adversarial co-parenting relationship and maintaining a quality parent-child relationship will help their child adapt.

The Benefits of Therapy Animals

We can all attest to the mood lifting and stress relieving benefits of having a pet around. We can’t help to smile when our dog cuddles up to us or our cats crawl into our lap. There are proven physical and mental health benefits to owning a pet and being around animals. Therapy animals are a way for people in lonely, stressful, or traumatic situations that might not be able to own pets to share in the health benefits. Therapy animals, often dogs, are used in retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, for veterans, and people with disorders or disabilities. Some people even have therapy pets, specifically for the health benefits that animal companionship provides.

Therapy pets are different from service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the United States, “A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This includes tasks like pulling a wheelchair or reminding a person to take medication. For more information about service dogs and how they differ from emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs, check out the ADA’s guide to Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.

The Physical Benefits of Therapy Dogs and Cats

  • lowers blood pressure.
  • improves cardiovascular health.
  • releases calming endorphins (oxytocin).
  • lowers overall physical pain.
  • the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, which is believed to reduce the amount of medication needed by some people.

mental health benefits therapy animalsThe Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals and Comfort Pets

  • lifts spirits and lessens depression.
  • lowers feelings of isolation and alienation.
  • encourages communication.
  • provides comfort.
  • increases socialization.
  • lessens boredom.
  • reduces anxiety.
  • aids children in overcome speech and emotional disorders.
  • creates motivation for the client to recover faster.
  • reduces loneliness.

Uses of Therapy Animals

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy is becoming a common way for health professionals to improve patient’s social, emotional, and mental functioning with the support of animals. These therapy animals range from cats and dogs to horses and dolphins.


Many colleges and universities bring therapy dogs to campus, often around mid-terms or finals, to help students relax and destress. Students say that interacting with these animals can be very mood lifting, especially if they have family pets they don’t often get to see.

In Hospitals

Many hospitals have formal or information programs to bring animals in for patients. Cedars-Sinai has a program called POOCH, where volunteer dogs visit patients that have requested a visit.

After a Disaster

Some organizations work both locally and nationally to send therapy animals to tragically affected areas. These therapeutic animals help people recover from physical ailments and emotional trauma.

Want Your Pet to Become a Therapy Animal?

Your pet can become certified through organizations like Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. While Pet Partners’ team of therapy animals is 94% dogs, they register eight other species too (including cats, guinea pigs, llamas, pigs, and rats).

While it might sound like a fun and fulfilling activity for you and your pet, there are many qualifications that have to be met. Being well-behaved and well-trained is a must for your pet, and they must enjoy and voluntarily approach strangers.

Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell notes that although “a therapy [animal] must be able to tolerate all manner of rudeness, it’s your job to eliminate as much stress as you possibly can … as the human half of the team, you play several roles, and one of them is to be your [pet’s] advocate.” You must be able to read your pet’s body language at all times to access their mood and intervene as you can.

Therapy work can be stressful for many animals, but if you believe that your pet has the right temperament and would enjoy the work, look for a local or online class about volunteering for animal therapy.

What’s ADHD (and What’s Not) in the Classroom

Many children with ADHD show signs of the disorder before they reach school age. But it’s in school, when they are having trouble meeting expectations for kids in their grade, that most are referred for diagnosis.

ADHD is one of the first things that’s suspected when a child’s behavior in class, or performance on schoolwork, is problematic. A child who can’t seem to sit still, who blurts out answers in class without raising his hand, who doesn’t finish his homework, who seems to be daydreaming when the teacher gives instructions—these are well-known symptoms of ADHD.

But these are also behaviors that can be a result of other factors, from anxiety to trauma to just being younger than most of the kids in the class, and hence a little less mature.

That’s why it’s important for teachers and parents both to be aware of what ADHD looks like in the classroom, and how it might be confused with other things that could be influencing a child’s behavior. Observing kids carefully is especially important when kids are too young to be able to articulate what they are feeling. And referring struggling kids for diagnosis and appropriate support can help them succeed in school and other parts of their lives, too.

ADHD symptoms

There are three kinds of behavior involved in ADHD: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Of course all young children occasionally have trouble paying attention to teachers and parents, staying in their seats, and waiting their turn. Kids should only be diagnosed with ADHD if their behavior is much more extreme in these areas than other kids their age.

These symptoms of ADHD are divided into two groups—inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive. Some children exhibit mostly inattentive behaviors and others predominantly hyperactive-impulsive. But the majority of those with ADHD have a combination of both, which may make it very difficult for them to function in school.

Here are behaviors you might observe in school in those two categories.

Inattentive symptoms of ADHD:

  • Makes careless mistakes in school work, overlooks details 
  • Is easily distracted or sidetracked
  • Has difficulty following instructions
  • Doesn’t seem to be listening when spoken to directly
  • Has trouble organizing tasks and possessions
  • Often fails to finish work in school or chores in the classroom
  • Often avoids or resists tasks that require sustained mental effort, including doing homework
  • Often loses homework assignments, books, jackets, backpacks, sports equipment

Hyperactive or impulsive symptoms of ADHD:

  • Often fidgets or squirms
  • Has trouble staying in his seat
  • Runs and climbs where it’s inappropriate
  • Has trouble playing quietly
  • Is extremely impatient, can’t wait for his turn
  • Always seems to be “on the go” or “driven by a motor”
  • Talks excessively
  • Blurts out answers before a question is completed
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others conversations, activities, possessions

Serious impairment

It’s important to keep in mind that not every high-energy or impulsive child has ADHD. Children are diagnosed with ADHD only if they demonstrate these symptoms so often that they are causing real difficulty in at least two settings—i.e. at school and at home. And the pattern that’s causing them serious impairment must persist for at least 6 months.

Age matters

It’s also important, when considering a child’s behavior, to compare it to other children the same age—not to the range of kids in his class or grade. Within any given grade, kids’ ages can differ by almost a year, and a year can make a big difference in a child’s ability to self-regulate.

Two studies in the last few years concluded that kids who are youngest in their class are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD. A Michigan study found that kindergarteners who are the youngest in their grade are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest in their grade.  And it doesn’t affect just kindergarteners: a North Carolina study found that in fifth and eighth grade, the youngest children were almost twice as likely as the oldest to be prescribed medication for ADHD.

Other causes

When children exhibit behaviors that we associate with ADHD, it’s important to keep in mind that they could be caused by other underlying factors. A child who is inattentive could be distracted by chronic anxiety, by a worrisome or painful situation at home, or because she’s being bullied in the playground. These are all things a child might be embarrassed by and go to some lengths to keep secret.

Another thing children often hide is undiagnosed learning disorders. If a child is fidgeting when she’s supposed to be reading, it may be that dyslexia is causing her great frustration. And if she bolts from her chair, it could be because she is ashamed that she doesn’t seem to be able to do what the other kids can do, and intent on covering that fact up.

Girls are different

The stereotype of ADHD is boys disrupting the classroom by jumping up from their seats, getting in other kids’ business, or blurting out answers without raising their hands. But girls get ADHD too, and they tend to be diagnosed much later because their symptoms are more subtle. More of them have the only inattentive symptoms of ADHD, and they get written off as dreamy or ditzy. If they have the hyperactive-impulsive symptoms they are more likely to be seen as pushy, hyper-talkative, or overemotional. Impulsive girls may have trouble being socially appropriate and struggle to make and keep friends.

But a big reason that many girls aren’t diagnosed is that they knock themselves out to compensate for their weaknesses and hide their embarrassment about falling behind, losing things, feeling clueless. The growing awareness, as they get older, that they have to work much harder than their peers without ADHD to accomplish the same thing is very damaging to their self-esteem. Girls who are chronically hard on themselves about their lapses may be struggling with thoughts that they’re stupid or broken.

Red flags

Keeping a keen eye on kids’ behavior in the classroom is important not just because it affects their learning—and potentially the ability of other kids in the class to learn—but also because it’s a window into their social and emotional development. When kids are failing or struggling in school for an extended period of time, or acting out in frustration, without getting help, it can lead to a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that gets harder and harder to break.

That’s why it’s important for parents to get a good diagnosis from a mental health professional who takes the time to carefully consider the pattern of a child’s behavior and what it might (and might not) indicate. Being not only caring but precise about defining and treating a child’s problems when he is young pays off many times over in the long run.