Stuffed animals can relieve trauma in children exposed to war and terror, TAU study says


Furry dogs distributed to over 14,000 young children in communities within reach of Hamas and Hizbullah rockets.

Soft, sad-faced, huggable stuffed animals in the form of dogs have been distributed to over 14,000 young children in communities within reach of Hamas rockets from Gaza and Hizbullah missiles in the North to help the youngsters cope with trauma. The Hibuki dolls (called Huggy Puppy in English) were provided by the Ashalim-Joint Distribution Committee as part of a study by Prof. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University on half of a group of 74 five-year-olds to see whether they helped the children overcome their fears. The results of the research have been published in the journal Pediatrics and - to the research team's surprise - a Reuters news story about it appeared in the Iranian English-language newspaper, The Teheran Times. The long-armed stuffed animals, which were patented as part of intervention therapy for children who have gone through extreme stress, were "born" during the Second Lebanon War. They are manufactured by Russ & Berry in the US, and with so much demand, every order takes three months to fill. Their sad expressions and huggable long arms make them suitable for the purpose. The children chosen to receive the dolls had been "labelled" by their kindergarten teachers as "problematic" after having suffered from fears and stress during the war and terror rocket attacks. The training of the staff is "simple," said the researchers, and the first beneficial effects are almost immediate, although the therapy is long-term. The children receive their doll in a formal ceremony after they say they "want to help Hibuki so he won't be sad." They then take responsibility for caring for the dolls. The youngsters express their feelings through the doll, identify with them and - indirectly - treat themselves, says Sadeh. The children also get advice on caring for Hibuki from their teachers and parents. Integrating the doll - which is sold for NIS 120 but provided to Ashalim-JDC for only NIS 39 - in therapy helps adults identify children who need additional treatment; they can then advance to art therapy. The project was initiated by Ashalim-JDC and the Education Ministry's psychological service. The funding came from the United Jewish Communities in the US. Ashalim-JDC decided recently to "sell" the idea to therapists around the world. "Shifting attention from oneself to others can be very healthy for individuals under stressful times," Sadeh told Reuters. Sadeh and colleagues tested whether giving war-stressed children a toy to care for would ease the reactions from their exposure to 2006's monthlong war with Lebanon. During the last three days of the war, the researchers provided 40 boys and 34 girls with the stuffed toys. The children, who were living with their families in bomb shelters, were told the puppy was sad because he was far from home, had no friends and needed help from a friend. A study of parents' testimony reported that nearly 83 percent of the children had experienced one or more symptom of severe stress, such as separation fears; nervousness or aggression; strong reactions to noise; excessive crying; or nightmares and trouble sleeping, the researchers wrote. Three weeks later, the children who had the most powerful connection to their dog showed reduced stress levels compared to children who did not receive Hibuki. A follow-up two months later showed that 71% had lost their severe stress reactions, twice as many as those children who served as controls. Researchers are now studying whether the huggable doll can help children who are suffering from other life crises, such as divorce or illness.

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