My youngest nephew (16) recently opened up to me about being a furry. He hasn't settled on a fursona as of yet but identifies as either a puppy or a kitten.
He has also been opening up about a lot of trauma, bullying and troubles at home under my sister who has been quite abusive, bullying and totally just awful as a parent (see: narcissistic parent, treating child like property/emotional outlet).
I've had a number of conversations with him about boundaries, the importance of recognising appropriate and inappropriate relationships and friendships, and discussed in some small detail why he wishes to be a furry.
It's all very complex and I'm fairly confident, given my nephew has OCD, ADHD and is on the autism spectrum, that the idea of being a furry might be a way to escape awful realities and just feel loved, understood, cared for and so on.
I'm trying to figure out the best ways of helping my nephew deal with his past and current traumas... to be able to process emotions and so on... he has become very attached to me in the last two months and has placed a lot of trust in me opening up about things. I have some concerns about his online friends - especially older ones - and of course worried a little about sexualised language and content he has admitted accessing. I am also a little worried that given he has only ever really been shown love/affection/hugs from his brother and the family pets (a cat and a dog) that everything might blur into one for him i.e. that he is craving a normal family relationship with hugs and support etc but that this might then become confused in his head with sexualised relationships etc.
So I basically just want some advice on how best to approach things, to support him and ensure he doesn't internalise anxieties and embarassment so he doesn't feel like an outsider or a 'freak' or a 'weirdo'.
I also need to know a bit about boundaries myself i.e. how far to I myslef indulge his being a furry... he already asked if occasionally I replace giving him a hug with a back scratch or the like... and I'm comfortable with that so long as in his mind it isn't being sexualised as that isn't appropriate (and I have discussed that directly with him). I just don't want him to become alienated or have a massive freak out about the reality of him opening himself open as he has done if that makes sense? I basically have all of the questions and need comprehensive advice.
Anonymous in the UK
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Dear Kind Uncle,
I applaud you for being such a caring and loving uncle to your nephew and for reaching out to try to find some help for him. As you know, I am not a psychologist or social worker, so it is my duty to first recommend you do a little research on professional services out there for autistic children (you may have done so already, but just to be sure...). A good place to start for UK residents such as yourself and your nephew is the National Autistic Society, which offers advice and resources. OCD Action provides guidance for those with OCD, and the ADHD Foundation is a good place to start for that concern. Fortunately, there is a lot of help available to you in your country.
But you came to Papabear because of my knowledge of furries, and I am honored to try and help you there. Many--not all--people who come to the fandom do so because they feel rejected in one way or another by society or they feel uncomfortable navigating human relationships and the complexities of said society. This is why many who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) find their way into the fandom (about 10% to 15% of furries in surveys indicate they have autism spectrum). The fandom can offer them two things: an accepting community/environment and a way to express themselves through a fursona (or fursonas) that provides them a means to get outside themselves and communicate their emotions and feelings. I recently came across a fantastic article about this very thing. The author, Joey Thurmond, explains how the play and imagination of furry assists people in becoming their true selves and helps them break out of their shells (ironic that wearing a costume can help us reveal our true selves!)
There are scientific studies that help back this up, too. A group of social scientists and psychologists have even created the FurScience website that delves into the social phenomenon of the furry fandom, who is in it, and why they participate. One of the members of FurScience, Dr. Elizabeth Fein of Duquesne University, has investigated furries who report being on the autism spectrum. In this article on the DU website, she notes how the fandom helps with lessening anxiety, building self-esteem, and fostering feelings of being part of a community. A Pittsburgh NPR station elaborated on her findings here.
Although Dr. Fein is talking about ASD, her findings have relevance to ADHD and OCD. While these three conditions are not the same, they share some commonalities, and a Scientific American article noted that they share the same genetic roots or "brain markers." Anxiety is a key trait in all three, and I am confident in saying that the furry fandom can help many people with easing anxiety and stress.
As to what you, personally, can do for your nephew, the biggest thing is to just be there for him and be supportive as you are doing now. Furries with various anxiety disorders are actually treating themselves by discovering and participating in the furry fandom. They are seeking an outlet, and here they may have one.
BUT!!! You are also right to exercise caution. As noted, there are a lot of adult things in the fandom, and there are also some dangerous people, just as there are anywhere on the internet. Trolls and other abusers are not stupid; they discover this entire community filled with very vulnerable youngsters who make easy targets for them to attack. The best thing for you to do here is to monitor internet and phone behavior, educate your nephew about the potential dangers of ALL social media, but do not impose drastic restrictions (e.g., "I forbid you to chat online with furries." Such strategies cause rebellion and resentment.) And the best way you can manage this is by telling your nephew that you support their furriness and you want there to be no secrets between the two of you. Tell him there is no need to be embarrassed about being a furry and that you hope he will talk to you all about it and about his adventures. So, go ahead and "indulge" him in his furriness, but also be on top of things and monitor what he is doing to the best of your ability. The things you can teach him about boundaries and the hazards of the internet will apply to both his online furry behavior and his online behavior in general, so it's all good.
If you feel up for it, take him to a furcon. Unfortunately, because of Covid, this is a bit problematic lately, but some cons have moved online for now, including ConFuzzled and Wild North, which is having an online con in October. Hopefully, next year the cons will be live.
As for your concerns about your nephew becoming alienated or a social outcast--don't worry about it just yet. Allow him to perform therapy on himself through the furry fandom and partner this with traditional help and advice from the resources I provided above. This is a lifelong journey for him (and you), and I think you are just the best uncle ever for striving so hard to help this young man.
Please write again if I have missed addressing any of your concerns or if you have further questions.
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