Children require foster care for many reasons, ranging from neglect and abuse to housing insecurity and parent incarceration. While the system is intended to protect and shelter children, the transition and reality of living in foster care can take a massive psychological toll on kids. That’s why a growing number of healthcare professionals are prescribing emotional support animals to help youth in foster care work through trauma and transition more smoothly into their new lives.
Nearly 300,000 children enter the U.S. foster care system each year. Many of these children have experienced emotional and physical trauma, and all of them are being taken out of a familiar environment, however unsuitable.
Some children suffer from anxiety and depression; others struggle with PTSD. The stability of an emotional support animal (ESA) can provide an anchor for children in foster care and help them to recover from past trauma while they adjust to their new living situation.
Real-Life Success Stories
Animals can help ease some of the fear that children face, even once they are in a safe adoptive home. There are many wonderful examples of how animals have made life easier and more secure for children with a range of mental and physical health concerns.
Judah, who was adopted at the age of 8 from China, is deaf. When he arrived in the home, he was non-communicative and had night terrors that kept him from sleeping. His service dog, Aspen, allowed him to begin sleeping through the night and helped him to build essential bonds of trust. Ultimately, Judah began to communicate with those around him because of the love he has for his dog.
Celia, who suffers from Lyme disease-induced anxiety and depression, relies on her cat Isis to get her through panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Not only does the cat keep her grounded, but it gives her something else to focus on—a creature that needs her.
How Emotional Support Animals Help Kids Cope
Kids in foster care or those who have just been adopted often have a lot of psychological trauma. They may have trouble trusting people and if they haven’t had stable relationships with family members in the past, they may have difficulty forming bonds with their foster or adoptive parents.
ESAs can help children cope in many different ways. Service dogs typically have a specific job, like seizure detection or guiding a blind person, but ESAs are more versatile and can help people cope with a range of mental health conditions. While they’re not always allowed in public places, ESAs can help make children feel safe and secure during transitional phases in their lives.
Besides the trauma that many kids are struggling with when they’re placed in a new home, the transition period can be very scary and isolating. Many children feel lonely, have trouble sleeping, or have behavioral issues related to past trauma. ESAs can help kids cope with problems like:
- Panic attacks
- Night terrors
- Limited ability to communicate
Studies Show That Support Animals Make a Big Difference
Anecdotal evidence and success stories of animals helping adopted children suggest that having an ESA can help ease emotional trauma and help children adjust and transition to their new homes. But what does science say?
In one study performed in the UK, researchers followed 8 children in the foster care system who had a history of attachment difficulty and had been placed in 6 or more different homes. During the study, all were living in homes with a dog. Not only did the children form secure attachments to the dog, but the dogs were also able to bridge some of the trust gaps between the children and their foster parents, facilitating better relationships.
Essentially, the findings show that animals, specifically dogs, make a huge difference in children’s lives, even if they have had trouble with attachment in the past. Many children go through multiple placements during their time in foster care, turbulence that does not allow them to form lasting attachments or feel safe and secure.
Giving Children Every Chance to Succeed
We need to give every child a chance to succeed in the foster system. While loving foster and adoptive parents are absolutely essential to a child’s long-term success, animals can sometimes reach children dealing with past trauma when adults can’t. Animals provide the emotional support and stability that children dealing with upheaval need and can bridge the gap between parents and children when kids are having a hard time trusting the people around them.