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What should be done about a child who abuses animals?

Question

My 11 yr old granddaughter that has lived with me since she was 2 has been hurting my animals. I show dogs and this is a business so it isn't as simple as re-homing a pet. A year ago she dislocated a dog’s ankle requiring 2 surgeries to repair when in anger she stomped on its foot. I made her tell the vet who talked to her, as did I about the inappropriateness of her actions. I found she's still hitting them but not as severely this past week and took her to the police station. They explained to her this is a felony and she could go to jail for 5 yrs and gave me a few options available in our county including institutionalizing her or some juvenile jail time or a program for troubled youth where she would live at home. We did a lot of therapy years ago, but it didn't seem to improve anything and now it's a mess and I am overwhelmed and don't even know where to begin. I really think each time she does something like this and she's talked to and reasoned with she'll quit but of course she doesn't. This makes me feel completely inappropriate to be raising her and at a loss as to what to do next. It's just her and I. She hasn't even seen her mother since she was dropped off 9 yrs ago. My understanding is that her mother, who is a severe and active alcoholic, was diagnosed as bipolar at 7 yrs and has a history much like this. Please ...Where do I go from here?


Answer

Re: Where do I go from here?

Straight to a therapist! Also, hold her accountable for future animal abuse by calling police and enlisting the help of juvenile probation.

Recognize the severity of the situation. If you think torturing a dog is where it's going to stop, you're wrong. A youngster harming a pet is a precursor to some very serious violent behavior. Research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty against animals don't stop there – many of them move on to hurting people. Kids who harm pets are at risk for other kinds of acting-out behavior and need immediate help. What also goes along with torturing animals is setting fires. If you smell smoke, you'd better take it seriously.

More statistics on animal abuse:
  • Animal abuse is not just the result of a minor personality flaw in the abuser, but a symptom of a deep mental disturbance.
  • Kids who abuse animals most likely are repeating a lesson learned at home from their parents or guardians. They are reacting to anger or frustration with violence.
  • Domestic abuse is directed toward the powerless; animal abuse and child abuse often goes hand and hand.
  • Studies show that acts of cruelty toward animals are the first signs of violent pathology that includes human victims.
  • Studies show that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as kids.
  • The kid’s violence is directed at the only individual in the family more vulnerable than themselves – an animal.
  • The FBI has found that a history of cruelty to animals is one of the traits that regularly appear in its computer records of serial rapists and murderers.

The media has reported on serial killers’ initial practice with pets. Here is a short list of famous killers and their disturbing and sordid beginning:
  • Albert DeSalvo (Boston Strangler) shot arrows into boxes of trapped cats and dogs.
  • Carroll Edmund Cole claimed his first violent act was strangling a puppy …later he murdered 35 people.
  • David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) shot his neighbor’s Labrador retriever.
  • Jeffrey Dahmer is reported to have impaled and killed neighbor’s pets.
  • Keith Hunter Jesperson (Happy Face Killer) began his life of violence by throwing a cat against the pavement and then strangling it to death.
  • Patrick Sherril stole pets, tied them up and allowed his own dogs to mutilate them – later murdered 14 co-workers before killing himself.

Why do some children and teens abuse animals? Here are just a few reasons:
  • animal phobias
  • attachment to animal (child kills to prevent torture by another)
  • curiosity of exploration (usually by a young or developmentally delayed child)
  • forced abuse (coerced into animal abuse by someone more powerful)
  • identification with child’s abuser (victimized child trying to regain control)
  • imitation (copying parent’s discipline)
  • mood enhancement (relieves boredom)
  • peer pressure (peers encourage as part of initiation)
  • post-traumatic play
  • rehearsal for interpersonal violence (practicing on pets before engaging in human violence)
  • self-injury (using animal to inflict pain on his own body)
  • sexual gratification
  • vehicle for emotional abuse (to frighten sibling, etc.)

Types of animal abusers:

1. The Experimenter (ages 1-6 or developmentally delayed): This is usually a preschool youngster who has not developed the cognitive maturity to understand that animals have feelings are not to be treated as toys. This may be the youngster's first pet or he doesn't have a lot of experience or training on how to take care of a variety of animals.

What to do: To some extent, of course, this depends on the age and development of the youngster. In general, though, explain to the youngster that it is not okay to hit or mistreat an animal, just as it's not okay to hit or mistreat another youngster. Humane education interventions (teaching kids to be kind, caring, and nurturing toward animals) by parents and teachers are likely to be sufficient to encourage desistence of animal abuse in these kids,

2. The "Cry-for-Help" Abuser (ages 6 - 12): This is a youngster who intellectually understands that it is not okay to hurt pets. This behavior is not due to a lack of education, instead the animal abuse is more likely to be a symptom of a deeper psychological problem. A number of studies have linked childhood animal abuse to domestic violence in the home as well as childhood physical or sexual abuse.

What to do: Seek professional assistance. While most parents have the ability to weather many of the normal ups-and-downs of child-rearing without professional assistance, this is an exception. It is not "normal" for a youngster this age to intentionally mistreat an animal.

3. The Conduct-Disorder Abuser (ages 12 - 18): Teenagers who abuse animals almost always engage in other antisocial behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, gang activities). Sometimes the animal abuse is in conjunction with a deviant peer group (an initiation rite or as a result of peer pressure), while other times it may be used as a way to alleviate boredom or achieve a sense of control.

What to do: Get professional help immediately. Also, enlist the help and support of friends, family members, teachers, law officials, etc.

Having said all this, it is very likely that your granddaughter was emotionally abused as a young child, and now you are dealing with the aftermath.

Information on children who were abused:

The specific problems that you may see will vary depending upon the nature, intensity, duration, and timing of the neglect or abuse. Some kids will have profound and obvious problems, while some will have very subtle problems that you may not realize are related to early-life neglect. Sometimes these kids do not appear to have been affected by their experiences. There are some clues that experienced therapists consider when working with such kids:

• Aggression: One of the major problems with these kids is aggression and cruelty. This is related to two primary problems in neglected kids: (1) lack of empathy and (2) poor impulse control. The ability to emotionally "understand" the impact of behavior on others is impaired in these kids. They really do not understand or feel what it is like for others when they do or say something hurtful. Indeed, these kids often feel compelled to lash out and hurt others — most typically something less powerful than they are. They will hurt animals, smaller kids, peers and siblings. One of the most disturbing elements of this aggression is that it is often accompanied by a detached, cold lack of empathy. They may show regret (an intellectual response) but not remorse (an emotional response) when confronted about their aggressive or cruel behaviors.

• Developmental delays: Kids experiencing emotional neglect in early childhood often have developmental delay in other domains. The bond between the young kid and her caregivers provides the major vehicle for developing physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It is in this primary context that kids learn language, social behaviors, and a host of other key behaviors required for healthy development. Lack of consistent and enriched experiences in early childhood can result in delays in motor, language, social, and cognitive development.

• Eating: Odd eating behaviors are common, especially in kids with severe neglect and attachment problems. They will hoard food, hide food in their rooms, or eat as if there will be no more meals even if they have had years of consistent available foods. They may have failure to thrive, rumination (throwing up food), swallowing problems and, later in life, odd eating behaviors that are often misdiagnosed as anorexia nervosa.

• Emotional functioning: A range of emotional problems is common in maltreated kids, including depressive and anxiety symptoms. One common behavior is "indiscriminant" attachment. All kids seek safety. Keeping in mind that attachment is important for survival, kids may seek attachments — any attachments — for their safety. Abused and neglected kids can be "loving" and hug virtual strangers. Kids do not develop a deep emotional bond with relatively unknown people; rather, these "affectionate" behaviors are actually safety-seeking behaviors. Therapists are concerned because these behaviors contribute to the abused youngster's confusion about intimacy, and are not consistent with normal social interactions.

• Inappropriate modeling: Kids model adult behavior — even if it is abusive. Maltreated kids learn that abusive behavior is the "right" way to interact with others. As you can see, this potentially causes problems in their social interactions with grown-ups and other kids. For kids who have been sexually abused, they may become more at-risk for future victimization. Boys who have been sexually abused may become sexual offenders.

• Soothing behavior: These kids will use very primitive, immature and bizarre soothing behaviors. They may bite themselves, head bang, rock, chant, scratch, or cut themselves. These symptoms will increase during times of distress or threat.

Help for Parents with Oppositional Defiant Children and Teens

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