Learning from squirrel monkeys
One of the most challenging aspects of parenting is dealing with stirred-up emotions when we see a child challenged to adjust to a new situation. Of course, we want them to learn to cope, but we also don’t want the stress of a unique situation, such as starting school, to be overwhelming.
It is worth reminding ourselves that how a parent responds to a child’s transition significantly influences how they cope. A parent can best help when working to be a calm presence – who is not over-protective or over-pushy and dismissive.
There are some excellent lessons from research with squirrel monkeys, infants and their mothers. These cute little monkeys move through developmental stages much faster than humans, enabling a unique longitudinal view of the effect of separations on their stress management as adolescents.
The clear findings are that brief intermittent exposure to stress promotes the development of arousal regulation and resilience for monkeys and humans. Lyons and colleagues exposed baby monkeys to short separations from their mothers and compared their stress levels (cortisol) with non-separated infants and mothers and a control group.
The researchers expected to find that regular separations would increase emotional instability. Instead, they found that “monkeys exposed to early intermittent separations showed fewer behavioural indications of anxiety, diminished stress levels of cortisol” compared to age-matched monkeys not exposed to intermittent separations. In addition, the exposure to separations improved emotional regulation and behaviour control for adolescent monkeys.
What are the implications for parenting younger children? For parents, it points to the value of allowing children to experience moderate separation stress and learn to manage it. In addition, the parent similarity works to manage their own separation stress being away from their child.
Or course, monkeys are not humans; however, recent neuroimaging studies of humans support results from animal research. Adult humans have better-coping strategies for dealing with loss, illness and accidents if we have experienced and coped with stress in childhood.
None of us enjoys the discomfort of adapting to change. However, learning to manage life stressors is vital for resilience. So parents do well to consider ways they enable an environment where children regularly get practice at dealing with challenges and managing the emotions that appropriately are stirred up. Remember that parents also do well to get practice at managing their emotions, that instinctively are activated when we separate from loved ones.
Dr Jenny Brown
Lyons DM, Parker KJ, Schatzberg AF. Animal models of early life stress: implications for understanding resilience. Dev Psychobiol. 2010 Nov;52(7):616-24. doi: 10.1002/dev.20500. PMID: 20957724; PMCID: PMC6716163.
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