Most kids love animals and feel protective of them. But harming animals happens. The key is to recognize why your child is doing it and whether or not the harm is intentional.
If a small child accidentally hugs the pet rabbit a little too hard or chases the cat to see what it’ll do, it’s something to address, but not something to worry about.
But intentional harm is different. Hurting animals intentionally isn’t normal — it’s also behaviour rarely seen.
Why animal harm can happen
The preschool years are a time when children imitate others and learn to represent other people’s perspectives in their own minds.
So when your child pulls at the pet’s ears, he’s making sense of actions he witnessed and doesn’t understand — or has yet to experience. Often, children are acting out something they saw on TV. Since that is inevitable, try giving your child safe ways to act out those experiences. They need to learn that they can act that way with a doll or a stuffed animal, but they can’t act that way with another living thing, like a dog or pet.
Helping your preschooler understand his actions
Focus on the context of your child’s violence and help him understand his actions. To illustrate, Immordino-Yang, a human development psychologist, describes how she made it clear to her son that he was hurting the family dog, Sandy. “When my son was about 4, we got our first dog,” she says. “He just loved this dog so much that he’d squeeze him and hug him really hard.” So she explained the situation to her son in simple terms. “If you squeeze Sandy and you’re hugging him, you might think you’re really showing him how much you love him; but if you let go and then he runs away from you, that’s a sign that he didn’t like it.”
That was her test. If the dog runs away when her child lets go, her child needs to find a gentler way to show love.
Signs of trouble
As a parent, you know your child best. Immordino-Yang suggests watching your child with animals and asking yourself the following questions: Are they doing it for a show? Or are they actually engaged in pretend play where they are acting violently? “Trust your own gut as a parent and look at the child and see why you think they are acting that way,” she says. ”It’s a normal reaction for kids who are abused to act that out on pets because they are trying to act out those actions.”
A child who deliberately hurts animals — in play or real life – and shows no remorse should get help immediately. It should even be in the same category as hitting and biting. It’s very uncommon, and it could indicate a serious emotional disturbance. The child needs to get therapy right away.
If children don’t naturally or empathically experience other people’s (or in this case, animals’) pain, then they need to learn rules and acceptable behaviours to keep others around them safe. She suggests working with a child psychologist early on to help your child learn what’s okay — and what isn’t.