Affiliative Bonds and Cruel Behavior in Childhood Interspecific Relationships: A Conceptual Framework on the Psychodynamics of Affect Regulation

Selene Mezzalira, Cristiano Scandurra, Antonio Santaniello, Fabrizio Mezza, Claudia Saturnino, Serena Cristiano, Rosa Pizzo, Nelson Mauro Maldonato, Lucia Francesca Menna, Vincenzo Bochicchio


Background: Childhood interspecific relationships can be viewed as a mirror of the person’s capacity to interact with other living beings. The interspecific relationship can involve different attachment styles, affect regulation skills, transitional object dynamics, and self-awareness and mentalization processes. Yet interspecific relationships can also be disrupted, since they can be associated with cruel behavior toward animals, which is in turn related to possible psychopathology.

Method: We provided a conceptual framework based on the literature addressing the interspecific relationship in both its adaptive and positive features as well as in its disrupted aspects.

Discussion: Pets have often been regarded as attachment figures that can aid children in socialization and growth processes. They have been deemed to represent “social catalysts” that tend to facilitate human relationships, thus increasing prosocial behaviors. On the dark side of the pet-child interaction, childhood abuse of animals tends to be associated with behavioral and emotional problems that have been thought of as underlying psychopathology (e.g., conduct disorder and antisocial personality traits). Childhood cruelty to animals seems to accompany emotion dysregulation, poor social information processing, and low empathy.

Conclusions: Since the child-pet relationship has substantial implications for the individual’s mental health and for the potential development of psychopathology, addressing children’s attitudes toward animals can aid in understanding the affective and emotional dimensions of their interpersonal experience.


Affect regulation; Childhood interspecific relationship; Conduct disorder; Antisocial traits; Clinical psychology.

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