How Pets Can Help Kids Process Divorce

Pets Help Kids Process Divorce
Dena Landon

By Dena Landon | Jan 30th, 2019

Back in November, I decided to get a dog. I’ll admit that it was somewhat of an impulse, but I’ve been working on trusting my gut more and more post-divorce. A friend had just adopted a small dog and had been sharing on Facebook about how much he helped with her depression. And I’d just written an article about how animals can help children going through a tough time. The research I’d done spoke to me, and apparently, I’m a good salesperson even to myself!

At first, my son was upset that we weren’t going to Target to buy another Lego kit. He pouted in the car’s backseat on the drive to the Humane Society until I handed him my phone and told him to start looking at dogs. When we walked into the room holding the dogs, he made a beeline towards Patchy, sat down by her kennel, and announced that we were taking her home. I insisted he hold two other dogs but, nope. He wanted her.

On the drive home I had a moment of pure panic. I’d forgotten we had an upcoming vacation scheduled, and now I’d have to fly with the dog! The list of things I needed to buy was long, and my budget was tight. Had I made the right decision?

But then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw C holding her in his lap and whispering how much he loved her already and knew my instincts had been spot on.

Two days after getting her we were all cuddled up on his bed, and I’d just finished reading a chapter from his bedtime story when my son told me, “You can go now, Mommy. Patchy and I will be just fine.” After months of clinginess at bedtime – and sneaking into my room – he kicked me out, just like that!

Animals have been shown to help children deal with anxiety, stress, and depression, so it makes sense that our new family member would help him cope with all of life’s recent changes. Petting an animal lowers blood pressure, which helps with stress. Therapists have observed that kids will confide in their pets, telling them secrets and sharing their emotions. If they feel caught in the middle between two parents, they see their pet as a neutral party and will talk to them about the divorce.

Patchy jumps all over him when he gets home from school and sleeps on his bed. She’ll curl up next to him on the couch when he’s reading, and he likes to wrestle with her. Our nightly walks have been good for all of us. Not only do we get exercise, and it’s fun to explore with her, it’s a break from screen time. He and I talk about our days and tell silly stories, and he makes up songs for her about the snow.

Pets also give children a sense of control about their lives, which is invaluable for a child who has had their world turned upside down by divorce. Because he’s seven, one of C’s chores is now to put food in her bowl and change her water every morning. He brushes her coat daily and has taken a role in potty training her.

Having her around is great for teaching responsibility, but also for creating a sense of belonging. Children with pets have a sense of security, and feel less alone and abandoned if one parent is no longer around. They provide calm acceptance and unconditional love.

She’s a part of our family now, and it’s hard to imagine a time that we didn’t have her around. She’s been good for me, too, because on the nights I don’t have him I still have someone waiting for me at home.

If you’re going through a divorce or are dealing with the aftermath, you might think that the last thing you need is more responsibility. But if it comes in the form of a warm dog burrowing under the covers next to you, sloppy kisses and a wagging tail, I’d say it’s worth it. I know my son would agree.

Dena Landon

Dena Landon

Dena Landon's bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Salon and more. The proud mom of a boy, she specializes in parenting and divorce.


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