‘Saber Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’

March 29, 2024

‘Saber Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’

One of our Family Wellbeing Practitioners recently attended a 3 day course ‘The Dynamics of Relationship Based Practice’ hosted by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk and Children in Scotland. Suzanne Zeedyk is a research scientist and a well known advocate for early years development relating to parent-baby connection. Read on to hear more about the key take-aways from the course.

Part of the course covered Suzanne’s work on attachment theory entitled ‘Saber Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’, as a means to make the importance of parent-child connection more easily understood. At its core, it explains “babies’ innate need to know that someone will share their fears and joys” for healthy development.

Suzanne started by highlighting one of the unusual characteristics of the human species, is that our young are extremely dependent. We are the only mammals that can’t walk independently for a year or more, and we have no hope of defending ourselves from danger. This is the drive that lies at the core of the infant’s attachment system ‘how can I keep myself safe as possible in my world?’. Based on evolution, babies are skilled at keeping their parents close in order to protect themselves from something scary, like a saber tooth tiger. They will cry when you leave to go the toilet because they are trying to keep themselves safe – for adults it helps to explain those meltdowns when you left only for a few minutes. Once she is back in your arms, she has the reassurance of being worthy and safe, and will ‘forgive’ you for leaving, which highlights the core elements of human relationships – how to trust and how to forgive.

It also serves us for our young to be anxious about separation as a child reaches around nine months or so – a clingy stage that can last for months. They are afraid to be away from their caregiver, meeting new people and unfamiliar settings.  This separation anxiety/stranger anxiety can be frustrating and embarrassing for parents, whether being dropped off at nursery or left with a friend. At this age they are starting to gain independence by learning to walk, but because they still cannot comprehend that you are still around even when they can’t see you, they believe their safety is at risk.

As caregivers, the importance of providing comfort is put into the idea of an internal teddy bear. Every experience that a baby has of being comforted helps him to grow the neural pathways that enable him to develop resilience for himself in time.  When parents respond with comfort to their child’s fear, they are helping build an internal teddy bear. The child will be able to call on that teddy bear automatically to help him in handling fear and strong emotions.

The problem is, lots of people end up without a strong internal teddy bear, and this can have a monumental impact on our later emotional capacities. This can happen when the adults around children don’t recognise or respond to their anxieties and don’t provide repeated experiences of comfort. Suzanne notes that you can survive without a robust teddy bear, but you cannot thrive. Fast forward into adulthood when adults struggle to manage distress and struggle to maintain positive relationships and good mental health. In other words, comforting fear is essential to a life or greater ease and joy. As parents our biggest gift to our children is helping to grow the teddy bear inside.

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