Animal abuse or cruelty has been associated with a variety of childhood psychological and/or emotional issues, including negative childhood exploration, depression, anger, a sign of future violent behavior, or a signal that a child is being abused. Identifying early signs of childhood animal abuse is a signal to seek help.
Animal cruelty qualifies as any behavior that harms animals, whether intentionally or unintentionally, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Examples of abuse include depriving an animal of food or water, torturing, maiming, or mutilation.
An estimated 30 percent of children who witness domestic violence will perpetrate violence against animals, according to Psychology Today. Witnessing domestic violence is a scary experience for anyone, especially a child. A child may try to cope with feelings of insecurity and lack of control by hurting another animal to express their fears and anger. They may act in this way to identify with the animal’s pain or to feel like they have power. Children who may be depressed or angry about other life circumstances may take to hurting animals as a way of coping with their feelings. Though an inappropriate way of dealing with stress, children who abuse animals may feel like they are disregarded in life by their most significant others.
A theory known as “graduation hypothesis” also exists surrounding animal abuse. This means that children may start abusing animals at a young age, then graduate to abusing people as they age.
However, animal cruelty can sometimes be the result of a child’s misunderstanding of an animal’s feelings and viewing an animal as a toy instead of a living thing. This is why it is important to consider a child’s animal cruelty behaviors in the context of their age.
- Children ages 1-6: Children this age or a child who is developmentally delayed may not understand how to treat an animal or may see the animal as a toy. Just as parents must teach a child to play well with others, parents must also teach children to care for their animals.
- Children age 6-12: At this age, children should understand the differences between right and wrong in the treatment of animals. Animal abuse at this age is a likely indicator of possible physical or sexual abuse. It can also be a sign of dysfunctional coping skills that warrant professional psychological help. While this can be a difficult topic to discuss with a child of this age, enlisting the help of a mental health therapist or psychologist can help both the parent and child effectively deal with the situation.
- Children older than age 12: Children who abuse animals at this age are likely to exhibit other abusive behaviors, such as violent behaviors towards others, substance abuse, or destruction of property. While the animal abuse may be the result of peer pressure, the abuse is a sign of an underlying antisocial personality or other concerning condition. Seek immediate professional psychiatric help if this occurs.
Stopping animal cruelty in a child who has the ability to understand right and wrong is vital to preventing a future escalation of violence, possibly against another person. These symptoms should not be ignored. A school counselor, therapist, or psychologist may be a good place to begin. When speaking to your child about animal abuse, use a nonjudgmental tone. If you have observed this behavior in another child, contacting a child protective services agency or school may be a good place to start.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Animal cruelty in young people can indicate a misunderstanding of animals, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or psychological issues, and/or be a future predictor of interpersonal violence.
- Children who commit violence against animals and who can identify the behavior as harmful should receive immediate professional help to prevent future violent episodes.
- School counselors, therapists, or psychologists are good places to start getting your child help.