“Coming-of-age” books try to address emotional and social challenges that all children face. Children are buffeted in overwhelming directions during their formative years. There are so many options and expectations from society that often children founder in trying to discern how grow up to be the best they can be. Despite supportive adults, some children learn to bury their insecurities under an inability to articulate discomfort. Children with unsupportive or absent adult leadership are even more hindered.
Children mimic the kindness or the cruelty they see and experience. In the case of the latter, they often turn to violent “acting out,” such as animal abuse. Animal abuse usually begins in frustrated, non-verbal, unsupported children in the middle-grade years. Around this time children first discover their own power over those “below” them in the family food chain, which are often pets. Multiple studies have shown that without intervention, animal abuse always escalates into violence against people when these troubled children become adolescents and adults.
According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) “data on domestic violence and child abuse cases reveal that a staggering number of animals are targeted by those who abuse their children or spouses.
“There are approximately 70 million pet dogs and 74.1 million pet cats in the U.S. where 20 men and women are assaulted per minute (an average of around 10 million a year). In one study of families under investigation for suspected child abuse, researchers found that pet abuse had occurred in 88 percent of the families under supervision for physical abuse of their children.”
In another survey, 71 percent of domestic violence victims reported that their abuser also targeted pets. One of the major propositions being made within the research (https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/animal-abuse-child-maltreatment-summary.pdf) and professional community has been that “child and animal maltreatment do not merely co-exist, but are ‘linked.’ It has been suggested that the existence of animal cruelty in a family may be an indicator that children in that family are similarly at risk.
“Pet abuse by children was often a manifestation of children’s responses to their own victimization, a re-enactment of the dynamics of their own abuse on powerless creatures. An early study (DeViney and colleagues, 1983) explored the link between child abuse and animal abuse within family environments. They found pet abuse to be a feature in 88 per cent of 53 families where various forms of child abuse had taken place. In two-thirds of these families the animal abuser was the father figure; in one third it was a child.”
Flynn (1999) explored “the link between physical punishment inflicted by parents and children’s perpetration of animal Of those perpetrating animal abuse, nearly half (48 per cent) were in their teens when they first abused animals (although 40% were aged 6 to 12 years). Children who hurt or tortured pets were more likely to be preteens. More than half of the male teenagers in the sample who were hit by their fathers were abusive towards animals.
Anti-social behavior can develop from childhood onward, and animal abuse preceded eventual escalation to more violent crimes, due to developmental empathy deficits. Motivations for animal abuse by children include: (Ascione, 2001, p. 6© NSPCC 2007 6) lists the following:
- Peer pressure (e.g. peers may encourage animal abuse or require it as part of an initiation rite)
- Mood enhancement (e.g. animal abuse is used to relieve boredom or depression)
- Sexual gratification (i.e. zoophilia)
- Forced abuse (i.e. the child is coerced into animal abuse by a more powerful individual)
- Attachment to an animal (e.g. the child kills an animal to prevent its torture by another individual)
- Animal phobias (which cause a preemptive attack on a feared animal)
- Identification with the child’s abuser (e.g. a victimized child may try to regain a sense of power by victimizing a more vulnerable animal)
- Post-traumatic play (i.e. re-enacting violent episodes with an animal victim)
- Imitation (i.e. copying a parent’s or other adult’s abusive “discipline” of animals)
- Self-injury (i.e. provoking an animal to inflict injuries on the child’s own body)
- Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i.e. “practicing” violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people)
- Vehicle for emotional abuse (e.g. injuring a sibling’s pet to frighten the sibling).
Teachers, counselors, and other “objective outside observers” can often spot troubled children. Timely intervention is crucial so that a child’s and/or a pet’s safety can be secured. Education of children and adolescents by trusted adults who have the skills to guide their pupil through empathetic life lessons they may not receive at home will save both the child and the pet.
In the next segment of “Humane Education through Storytelling” we will examine the roll of educators, counselors, and humane educators in reaching and turning potential young animal abusers into caring, respectful pet custodians.
For more information on the Pups & Purrs Children’s Humane Educations Series see www.sunnyweber.com and go to the “Books” tab.
NOTE: The National Domestic Violence Hotline expects to see a higher frequency and severity of abuse in homes where domestic violence is already occurring and there is a negative financial impact or added stress, said Katie Ray-Jones, the organization’s CEO, in a statement.
“Abuse is about power and control,” the organization said. “In a time where companies may be encouraging that their employees work remotely, and the CDC is encouraging ‘social distancing,’ an abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control.”