January 14, 2008

Stuffed Animals Help War-Stressed Children

Israeli researchers have discovered that caring for stuffed animals reduces severe stress reactions in children exposed to war.

"Shifting attention from oneself to others can be very healthy for individuals under stressful times," Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University said in an interview with Reuters Health.  

Sadeh and his associates performed two separate studies to determine if war-stressed children would show improved stress reactions after caring for stuffed animals.  

The first test occurred near the end of a month-long conflict between Israel's Defense Forces and Hezbollah in northern Israel and southern Lebanon.  The parents reported that almost 83% of the children in the study had experienced one or more symptom of severe stress during conflict.  These symptoms included separation fears, nervousness or aggression, strong reactions to noise, excessive crying, nightmares or sleep disturbances.

During the final three days of the fighting, researchers gave 40 boys and 34 girls aged 2-7 years old a stuffed cocker spaniel-type toy called a "Huggy-Puppy".  The toy had long legs that enabled the children to wrap the toy around their arms or legs.  The children, who resided with their families in a shelter camp, were told the puppy was sad and needed care from a friend because he didn't have friends and was far away from home.  The parents were advised to remind the children of their responsibility.  

After three weeks, the researchers found the children with the highest levels of attachment to the toys also had the lowest stress levels.

In the second test, other children in similarly stressful situations were randomly selected.  Some children received and cared for the toy, while the others did not.  

Two months later, 71 percent of the children who received the toy were free of severe stress symptoms, while only 39 percent of the children who did not receive the toy were free from such symptoms.

"This cost-effective intervention requires minimal professional resources and can serve as a strategic intervention in situations where many children are exposed to traumatic events such as war and September 11," Dr. Sadeh said.   

Similar studies by Dr. Sadeh and his colleagues are underway to determine if this type of intervention reduces stress in children undergoing other traumatic events.     

The study appears in this month's journal, Pediatrics.