Why we should all be like mother rats

rat-grooming-babyI never thought I would want to emulate a mother rat but now I am sold. Hopefully, after you read this, you will be too.

First a little science:
Researchers discovered the significance of rat pup licking by accident. One day, upon returning rat pups to their cages after being taken out to run a maze or some other scientific purpose, a curious researcher noticed that some rat mothers would actively lick their pups. Other mother rats were low-lickers: offering a minimal of licks.

Wanting to know the purpose of this behavior, researchers designed new experiments and discovered that, far from being a casual affair, active licking and grooming upon reunion helped pups formulate the kind of chemical infrastucture to handle stress more effectively as they mature.

The way in which this occurred is somewhat complex but in a nutshell it seems that this ritual turns on certain chemicals that mitigate the distress suffered by the pups caused by these separations and allows them to stay calmer around stress as they grow up.

Of course humans are more complex than rats. Our neurology and temperamental sensitivity, the kinds of traumas that can effect us are much more complicated. And as all parents know, you can't fix everything even if you are perfect! But just as with rats, the 'licking' abilities surrounding each of us matters.

Now if you are like my husband, you're not crazy about the licking analogy. So let's replace licking with caring. And let's replace rat mothers with all of us. Because while there is no doubt that caring well for pups and newborns and children is a great idea, this research offers lessons that we all can apply in every interaction we have every day. Offering a few initial moments or even minutes of caring in just the right amount at just the right time can help us all keep the repercussions from moments of stress and trauma from sticking with us as life goes on.

"So then this big white glove comes and bounces me around and before I know it, I'm in this crazy maze and I can't get out." Having someone around who says - 'that stinks' or 'I'm so sorry to hear that' even if they don't say anything else can go a long way. Just acknowledging that a situation is rough or frustrating or disappointing or bizarre can help. Sometimes it's just your accepting presence that can transfer some calm.

Sure solutions and ideas might be helpful but often a lot less so when the 'licking' step is skipped. In fact not having the opportunity to discharge stress can cause a person to get stuck needing to be heard. Resisting your brilliant solutions and opinions.

The implications for professionals are staggering. Police on the scene of an accident. Medical professionals dealing with trauma victims. Customer service rep dealing with stressed out customers. Teachers dealing with students coming back from recess where all kinds of micro stressors may have occurred. Parents dealing with tired kids. In fact teachers dealing with tired parents. Parents dealing with tired teachers. You get the idea. Anyone interacting with anyone else.

Want to be a good friend, partner, parent or co-worker? Give a minute of care before or even instead of giving your 'I told you so'.

Just remember that there is skill involved in caring. Dealing with those who show distress in challenging ways means it will require more care. Go easy. In fact it may help to give them a little time to lick their own wounds before you jump in. Just ask what would help more and be available if there is an opening to show you care.

Have healthy boundaries and be respectful. Appreciate that this person is in a state of momentarily distress which happens to all of us. Don't over-dote. Don't disregard or dismiss either. Check in to gauge just how much caring feels positive rather than threatening.

Hopefully you have your go-to people. Your rat pack who you want around when life is stressful and you need a little verification that you are not crazy. And maybe now you can pay more attention to these opportunities to give a little lick to someone else who could use one.

Eww. I know. But...