Mums pass on mother of all worry

31 July 2014 - 02:00 By Beverley Turner, ©The Daily Telegraph
A new study suggests a link between certain personality traits and your likelihood of having a child.
A new study suggests a link between certain personality traits and your likelihood of having a child.
Image: ©Ventura/shutterstock.com

It pains me to depress mothers out there who are trying not to spoil, neglect, molly-coddle, under- or over-stimulate their children, but things just got worse for mums: we are literally scaring the heeby-jeebies out of our kids through our scent.

Try as we might to hide fears, anxieties or phobias, they make us emit a different smell that children - even newborns - detect. And thus we pass on neuroses to generation after generation.

Researchers were baffled about why the children of Holocaust survivors suffered nightmares and flashbacks to events they never experienced. Now scientists in Michigan in the US have engineered an association between an electric-shock reaction and the smell of peppermint in mice - telling us more about the power of maternal fear.

Psychiatrist Dr Jacek Debiec began by teaching female rats to fear the smell of peppermint.

The rats were then mated and the minty smell released again, this time in the presence of the mothers and their babies. The newborns picked up on the mother's fear and, even when 'teenagers', avoided the mint smell, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported.

The newborns were deaf, blind and could barely move, so it is thought they picked up on a smell that mothers gave off when scared. Young rats are usually unable to learn about dangers.

Dr Debiec states: "Infants can learn from maternal expression of fear very early in life. Before they can even make their own experiences, they acquire their mothers' experiences. These maternally transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."

He also found evidence of human babies "inheriting" fear from parents while working with the grown children of Jews who survived the Nazi death camps.

From an evolutionary point of view, caution to danger is a good thing. Before Cavewoman could shout, "Pebbles, get away from that woolly mammoth!" an unspoken warning about something that could trample one to death would have been useful. And as young infants would have been close to their mother most of the time, her scent would have been a vital communication tool.

This research makes a mockery of our attempts to protect children from our individual anxieties.

My own mum is scared of dogs and I can remember the way she'd try to hide her fear every time we visited my aunt with her friendly, but boisterous dogs.

Despite mum's best efforts to lower her high-pitched voice, telling us to "Just calm down!", my siblings and I would cling to her legs as though facing a pack of lions. Naturally, I'm repeating this pattern with my own daughters who will now cross the street to avoid a floppy Labrador.

To be honest, I'm happy about that. They can live without canine companions; a half-eaten leg is tougher to live with. (You see, the irrational, evolutionary imperative is strong!)

And so visceral is my fear of cars they will leap like Spiderman at the sound of a key in an ignition. They'll be given freedom when I know they have a healthy fear of a souped-up Golf driven by a teenager.

These minty-rat findings may be focused on transmission of fear, but the study also taps into worries about other bad habits we may pass on to our kids.

For instance, do you bite your nails and watch in horror as your children develop stubby fingertips? Do you hear your own pessimistic world view emanate from a seven-year-old who shouldn't be worried about rain?

And there are mums who wouldn't wish their shyness on their children but who are powerless to stop the contagion.

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