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Despite growing awareness of the psychological issues associated with childhood animal cruelty, there is a scarcity of research carried out directly with children. This study investigates the psychological factors influencing the likelihood of a child harming animals, specifically the roles of attachment, empathy, executive functioning, issues related to externalizing behavior, and Callous Unemotional (CU) traits. The sample comprised children at high risk of animal harm referred to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Animal Guardians program (n = 9) and low-risk controls (n = 18) matched for age and school class. A range of assessment techniques was used over three interview sessions for each child. Externalizing problems were measured using teacher reports; attachment was blind-coded using the Child Attachment Play Assessment; executive functioning was assessed using a Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS); and empathy was measured using self-report and picture-based tasks, the Kids Empathy Development Scale. Children at high risk of animal harm were more likely to be insecurely attached (p = 0.002), scored significantly higher on Strengths and Difficulties (U = 1.5, p < 0.001) and CU traits (U = 6.4, p = 0.001) as rated by their teachers, scored lower on cognitive empathy (U = 36.5, p = 0.043), and performed more poorly on the DCCS test of executive functioning (U = 31.0, p = 0.014). No significant differences were found between high-risk and low-risk children on self-reported empathy or emotion recognition. We also found that insecure attachment was related to an increased score for many psychological risk factors. This exploratory study demonstrates that childhood animal harm can act as an indicator of a range of psychological issues and highlights the importance of designing appropriate interventions for this vulnerable population.
Anthrozoös – Taylor & Francis
Published: May 4, 2023
Keywords: AniCare® Child; attachment; childhood animal harm; empathy; executive functioning; human–animal interaction
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