Updated: Jul 5, 2018
Children have an innate fascination with animals. From very young crawlers, they are drawn to them, often to unfortunate consequences as they explore the animal with their senses, touching, stroking, grabbing, sniffing and getting their faces alongside the animals!
And therein lies another marvellous thing about animals~ they show us instant feedback as to how they are feeling, not with elaborate words and phrases, but in every fibre of their being. As Bessel Van Der Kolk, the trauma specialist puts it..."The body keeps the score" (Van Der Kolk, 2015)
As adults, we become quite adept at managing, masking and hiding our emotions. We learn when it is 'appropriate' and safe to show emotions, and how to moderate feelings of joy and wonder that as youngsters we may have lavishly demonstrated. When we have lost control, we discharge in all manner of ways, usually involving both body and words. Fear in particular can be manifested in numerous unhelpful ways~ shouting, swearing, avoidance, aggression, with inappropriate humour, or hidden almost entirely....Animals, have more basic and thus readable responses to fear and as such, children, without all the sophistication of adult communication and miscommunication are especially attuned to reading these responses (It's that Limbic to limbic connection again!...see earlier blog posts for more on this!)
I witnessed this first hand when working with troubled and troubling children. To ask a child to moderate their anger or other strong emotion as they were frightening other children, had little response. However, when a child was privy to the fear response of the dog in the room~ cowering, folding his ears back, tail folded between his legs and slowly retreating to a covered space~, they were somehow able to 'read' that feeling and in turn manage it. All the words in the world could not communicate the same impact.
Repeated experience of this, with a trusted adult supporting children to add language to those communications and thus understand and internalise the experience, allows children to develop their own sophisticated and socially acceptable means of expressing their feelings. Emotional Literacy in a nutshell.
Equally, some animals are the source of fear for children (Maybe a purple cat I wonder?!). In the presence of some animals, children will demonstrate fearful behaviour, freezing, becoming rigid, screaming, shaking or running away. Animals provide instant feedback to this behaviour. Some stay steady (I have seen this with some large and steady horses), others mirror the behaviour (chickens will flap and squawk), still others, run away (I have seen a donkey bolt at the first indication of fear). Indeed, my earliest experience was an utter terror around dogs. My parents dealt with this head-on (Never ones to shy away from a challenge) and went out and bought the family, a raging whirling dervish of a terrier! Opportunity to watch 'Jock', the Cairn terrier, from the safety of the sofa, gave me abundant experience in watching, learning through behaviour and feelings (his and mine) and slowly to take small steps in developing the capacity to be around dogs.
Zoom forward a few years (eh-hem...we won't say how many...) and now, I find such comfort in animals, I would struggle to be without one!. If we as adults can be alongside children in these situations, and provide the steady regulated calming support to stay, and survive the encounter, the next time will be a whole lot more manageable~ not because of the words, but because of the internal experience of conquering (even just a little bit) that fear.