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Teddy bears.

When we look at an image of a teddy bear or a small collection of alphabet blocks, our synapses flash "early childhood." We categorize someone who still reties on his teddy bear as childish, but maybe it is time to phase out that stereotype.

In an experiment conducted by researchers in Singapore, undergraduates were told that on the basis of a bogus test they had taken, either they were almost certain to have "rewarding relationships" or they had a personality type of someone who was likely to end up alone (Soc. Psychol. Personal Sci. 2011 [doi: 10.1177/1948550611404707]).

The subjects were then asked to consider a teddy bear that was alleged to be for sale. Half were encouraged to hold the bear; the others were only allowed to view the bear from a distance. They were also offered the opportunity to volunteer for more studies that would offer them more interactions with people in a lab setting. Of the subjects who had been given the bad news about their risk for social exclusion, those who had handled the bear were twice as likely to volunteer for more personal contact as were those who had not.

Teddy bears and their cuddly cousins, whether they be bunnies or blankets with satin binding, go by a variety of names. Some people refer to them as "security objects," others as "transitional objects." If you have been a regular reader of this column, you would correctly guess that I generally refer to soft cuddly favorites as "sleep aids," because from my perspective it is during the transition from awake to asleep when they are most valued by child-owners.

I can remember watching with surprise how many of my preteen daughters' friends unpacked fuzzy sleep aids at the one and only slumber party we hosted. One girl's must-have object was a man's white under shirt. I was afraid to ask how that attachment began.

But I am willing to admit that teddy bears can fulfill a wide variety of needs for children, and now I learn that they can provide encouragement for adults as well. It is clear to all of us who continue to see our patients through adolescence that many of them are troubled. And often their concerns revolve around social exclusion. Either they have been rejected by a girlfriend or boyfriend, or they have been excluded by a peer group, or they feel they don't fit in and worry that they may never develop the skills and courage to make social connections. Our cultural norms may be robbing some adolescents of powerful and cuddly support during their rocky ride toward adulthood.

A plush ursine with button eyes may never replace good and empathetic counseling, but I am going begin asking my troubled teenage patients if they know where their teddy bears are.

And when I do a precollege physical I am going to modify my exit speech. "Please call me if you have any problems. And pack your teddy bear. He may come in handy."

WILLIAM G. WILKOFF, M.D.

DR. WILKOFF practices general pediatrics in a multispecialty group practice in Brunswick, Maine. E-mail him at pdnews@elsevier.com.

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Title Annotation:LETTERS FROM MAINE
Author:Wilkoff, William G.
Publication:Pediatric News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
Words:527
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