Teddies: Comforting children experiencing trauma

With the help of developmental psychologist Suzanne Zeedyk, we look at what it is that makes teddy bears so comforting, and how they can be used to support children experiencing trauma.

Last summer we teamed up with Tayside Police in Longhaugh to start something special that has spread across Scotland. We called on the public to knit us teddy bears that the police and other services could give to children in the moments they need them most. You answered us (in huge numbers!) and we are so grateful.

When we started we called these little bears Trauma Teddies, reflecting our commitment to raising public understanding of why children urgently need support to recover from traumatic experiences. From now on we are going to call them Comfort Teddies, so that the name isn’t about why a child might need a teddy, but highlights how your gift is going to help.

Lots of people know that teddy bears comfort children, and remember being comforted by a special teddy in their childhood. What you might not know is the science that explains why teddies in particular are so comforting. 

Our friend Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, a developmental psychologist, told us a bit about it:

“When children are scared, their biology changes. Their breath is faster and that restricts the amount of oxygen they take in. Their muscles tense. Their digestion system stops working. They can’t take in what others are saying to them. The stress hormone cortisol spikes in their body. They are in the midst of what I call a ‘Sabre Tooth Tiger Moment’. 

“Their body is behaving in the same way it would if they were being chased by a sabre tooth tiger who wanted to eat them. Their bodies are screaming, “Run away! Run away!” If they can’t run, their brain might say, “Freeze! Maybe the tiger won’t see you!” Most of all, their body is saying, “Find help! Who can help me right now?”

“It doesn’t matter that no tiger is there. The human body goes into sabre tooth tiger mode whenever we are scared or confused or uncertain. What we need most in that moment is to find safety. Until we start to feel safer, we stay in sabre tooth tiger mode. That’s where Comfort Teddies come in. They help children to find a sense of safety.“

How do Comfort Teddies help children find safety? Suzanne has identified three top reasons that Comfort Teddies work:

  1. They are soft and squishy.

    The softness of teddies supports children’s sense of touch. If children stroke them, they feel nice. If children grip them, they give. Touch is the very first sense that developing humans acquire, and it remains especially powerful for children. As soon as children hold a teddy they like, it will help them start to feel safe.
  2. They boost the hormone oxytocin.

    Once children are feeling safe, an important hormone in their body will start to increase. That hormone is called oxytocin. Sometimes it is called the Cuddle Chemical or the Trust Hormone. It helps us feel calm and relaxed. We all get a spike of oxytocin every time we are in the presence of someone we feel comfortable with. Comfort Teddies work because they spark oxytocin in children’s bodies, and that will help them to feel safe.
  3. They tell children they aren’t alone.

    Human beings are wired for connection. Once upon a time, in our distant evolutionary origins, we depended on one another for our very survival. Although most of aren’t now at risk of being eaten by predators, our biology is still wired for connection. More than anything else, we need to feel connected to others in order to feel safe. Comfort Teddies help children to feel instantly connected to a companion. That companion will stay with them throughout the confusing events they find themselves in.

By giving teddies to children in a ‘Sabre Tooth Tiger Moment’ we can ease the distress they might be feeling. Comfort Teddies also wear t-shirts that display the Children 1st logo and contact details for our Parentline service. Parents are given additional information about how Parentline can support their family. This means that when emergency services step away, families can turn to Parentline for ongoing support to help their child recover from their experiences.