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HomesingaporeWhen a child mistreats or abuses animals, is it a sign of...

When a child mistreats or abuses animals, is it a sign of something more troubling?

The first time I walked in on my nephew chasing the family’s pet cat around the house, my first reaction was to tell him not to do that.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, said: “Parents should always be concerned when they observe their children mistreating animals. It might be indicative of underlying emotional distress and maybe a reflection of the child’s difficult or abusive environment.

He added: “Addressing the incident allow for an opportunity to educate the child (to understand) right from wrong in the very least.

“Leaving the incidents alone is detrimental to the child and may result in the behaviours escalating.”

WHY DOES A CHILD ACT LIKE THAT?

To find effective ways to correct the behaviour, it is helpful to first understand the child’s or youth’s motivations or triggers.

In children, the motivation to hurt an animal typically differs from that of adult animal abusers, Dr Lim said.

In adults, the most common reason for animal cruelty is anger, and this is often rooted in power dynamics, a history of violence or even psychopathy.

Children, however, may not know right from wrong, and may externalise their negative emotions and act out on their pets or animals they see, he said. 

Besides curiosity or exploration, a child’s motivations for animal cruelty may include peer pressure, to relieve boredom or when coerced to do so by a more powerful individual (for example, an adult in the child’s life).

Some children may have animal phobia, and pre-emptively attack the animal they fear, Dr Lim suggested.

Dr Cherie Chan, president of the Singapore Psychological Society, said that it is important to distinguish between the types of cruelty to determine how best to intervene.

For example, is there deliberate intention to hurt the animal or is it a case of neglect such as forgetting to feed the pet?

Dr Chan is a clinical psychologist with The Other Clinic, a private practice.

She said: “Educating the child on the importance of relating and respecting living relationships could help reduce neglectful behaviours.

“For deliberate acts of cruelty, it may be helpful to talk about why it occurred and to understand if there are associations in the home or school environment that may have encouraged the display of aggression.”

HOW TO TELL IF BEHAVIOUR IS OF CONCERN?

When asked how to tell the difference between a child’s curiosity and intentional abuse, Ms Sankar from SPCA said that there are several considerations: The type of action, how long it has been going on, intention and the child’s response to signs of distress from the animals.

“For the type of action, there is a clear difference between a child who pokes a cat’s belly with a finger to elicit a reaction, and a child who tries to drive a pair of scissors into the cat’s belly.”

Certain tools, such as a pair of scissors, are almost always used to cause destruction, she said.

“Children who have been exposed to these implements, such as in school, can reasonably be expected to know the dangers of using them and hence understand the injury they can inflict. This knowledge increases their culpability beyond mere curiosity,” she added. 

A child who repeats the action, especially if the animal shows distress, is also more likely to be intentionally cruel than curious.

“However, this is based on the assumption that the child can accurately read the body language of the animal.

“The ability to read such cues tends to be lower among young children and children with certain disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder,” Ms Sankar added.

HELP CHILDREN BUILD EMPATHY AND COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS

1. Sign up for educational events and programmes

These would be those that cover topics such as animal welfare and responsible pet ownership.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) offers youth engagement programmes such as the Youth Ambassador Programme for children aged seven to 16. There is also an upcoming youth animal welfare symposium in October to allow those above the age of 16 to engage in meaningful discussions surrounding animal welfare advocacy issues.

2. Make use of online resources

Check out resources from the National Parks Board (NParks) and the Animal and Veterinary Service on responsible pet care.These can be found on NParks’ website and YouTube channel as well as the AnimalBuzzSG Facebook page.

Other child-friendly online resources suggested by SPCA include the websites of National Geographic Kids website and the World Wildlife Fund.

3. Provide exposure

Building awareness and knowledge through resources should be accompanied by practical experiences that inspire empathy and compassion, SPCA’s executive director Aarthi Sankar said.

For example, parents may arrange for guided interactions where the child is guided to interact appropriately with an animal. During these sessions, parents or an informed adult may explain how to read an animal’s body language and respond in a way that is respectful of the animal’s needs and preferences.

4. Talk about it

In daily conversations, Ms Sankar suggested that parents may highlight the similarities between animals and humans so that their child begins to appreciate that animals are sentient beings who also feel pain and emotions.

SPCA, for example, has had two runs of an event where through the use of technology, the public is invited to feel what it is like to be an animal that is under distress.

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A CASE OF A CHILD WITH ADHD

Dr Lim said that studies show a higher prevalence of animal cruelty in children with developmental delays, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.

He once encountered a primary school boy with ADHD whose impulsive behaviour and hyperactivity affected the way he treated his pet dog. His parents were often frustrated with his behaviour and would physically punish him.

“When the boy became frustrated, especially after a run-in with his parents, he would often lash out at the dog, pulling its tail, hitting or screaming at it,” Dr Lim said.

The boy and his parents were referred to a child psychologist to work through the behavioural issues. Medications were given to help manage the boy’s impulsivity and hyperactivity.

The parents were also taught to manage their child’s behaviour with positive parenting techniques.

Over time, the child developed a healthier relationship with his pet and the abusive behaviour stopped, Dr Lim said.

“This case illustrates the complex interplay between a mental health issue, parenting difficulties and animal abuse.

“The boy’s behaviour was unacceptable but it was rooted in his struggle with ADHD and his parents inability to cope with his ADHD behaviour.”

With the right support and intervention, such situations can improve, he added.

“This emphasises the importance of understanding and address the underlying issues.”

HOW TO TELL IF CHILD ABUSE IS LINKED TO PET ABUSE

In some cases, animal abuse by a child could also be a sign for child abuse or exposure to domestic violence.

While younger children may act out of curiosity, Dr Lim said that animal abuse carried out by older children who are above 10 years old is associated with child abuse, with these children being two or three times more likely to have been directly abused themselves.

“They have also often witnessed family violence, including that of violence towards their pets by family members.

“One study has shown that about a third (32 per cent) of children exposed to domestic violence go on to engage in animal abuse,” he said.

“It is likely that these children are desensitised to violence or are modelling the adults in their lives.

“Moreover, children who feel disempowered in their personal lives might harm animals to exert control or gain a sense of power,” Dr Lim added.

Dr Chan of the Singapore Psychological Society agreed. When asked what could possibly be the motivation behind a young person’s disturbing behaviour, she said that acts of animal cruelty could possibly stem from curiosity as well as experiences of violence or abuse in the child’s personal life.

“There is a possibility that individuals who engage in behaviour (that includes performing obscene acts) may be objectifying animals and fail to feel empathy or emotions towards a ‘less powerful’ (living thing),” Dr Chan added. 

WHAT IS BEST RECOURSE FOR YOUNG ABUSERS?

In changing the behaviour of a young animal abuser, the mental health experts said that the focus should not be to lay blame on the child alone, and that a more compassionate approach may be more appropriate.

“The focus should be on rehabilitation and understanding, not retribution.

“Rehabilitative programmes, if well-structured and comprehensive, can be effective in altering the child’s behaviour,” Dr Lim said.

On the other hand, public condemnation is likely to be more harmful and unhelpful: Threatening or harming the child can reinforce their negative views on adults and society in general, further traumatising the child and worsening their behaviour, he added.

Physically punishing the child may halt the behaviour temporarily, but it does not address the root causes, be it impulse control difficulties or family violence.

Fostering empathy, encouraging open communication and understanding the child’s feelings and motivations, as well as their environment, would be more effective in bringing about long-lasting change, Dr Lim advised.

In the case of the 10-year-old boy who threw the cat off a housing block for instance, he was placed on a “diversionary programme” conducted by the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS), after being assessed by a psychiatrist not to have attained sufficient maturity to understand the nature and consequences of his conduct and taking his age into account.

Ms Jessica Kwok, group director of AVS, said that the diversionary programme was assessed to be the most appropriate course of action in this case because the programme centres on rehabilitation, by getting the offender to understand animal welfare, how to care for animals, living with animals in the community, and why his actions were wrong.

After completing the one-month programme, the boy expressed regret and remorse over his actions, and apologised to the cat’s caregivers.

He was issued a stern warning from AVS, which will continue to work with his school to monitor his progress.

Ms Kwok said that this programme has been conducted before for offenders, with the curriculum of each programme tailored to the profile of the offender.

HOW IMPORTANT IS A FAMILY’S INVOLVEMENT?

Ms Sankar said that continued support and guidance are pivotal in preventing youth from repeating such actions.

In the case of the 10-year-old boy above, for example, SPCA recommends regular follow-ups involving both the parent and the child on a quarterly basis to ensure that a robust support system is in place for the youth’s rehabilitation.

Collaborative efforts among the school, family and the authorities are essential in ensuring a comprehensive approach.

“In addition, we encourage vigilant neighbours to report any suspected animal abuse to the authorities or SPCA.

“By working together as a community, we can take necessary steps to prevent such tragedies from recurring,” Ms Sankar said.

Dr Lim stressed that it is crucial for parents and family to be involved in correcting abusive behaviour.

Parenting training — that is focused on positive parenting and limit setting aimed at helping children develop empathy — has been shown to be effective at improving anti-social behaviours such as animal abuse, he said.

In children, limit setting refers to the process where caregivers establish and communicate boundaries, rules and expectations to guide the child’s behaviour. It helps children understand what behaviours are acceptable and what are not, Dr Lim explained.

My nephew, now 10, is older and better able to rein in his impulsive behaviour. When we asked why he was chasing the cat around, he said that he had just wanted to play with it.

Still, we felt it was important to educate him on how to interact with animals. We explained how his actions were stressing the cat.

He has since learnt more appropriate ways to interact with it, for example, by gently stroking it on the head instead of touching areas such as the tail.

Recently, he worriedly informed me that the cat appeared to be having flu symptoms, and asked that I take it to a clinic for a check-up. Looking at his concerned face, I was relieved that he was showing concern for his pet. 

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