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Pet Ways to Ease Stress
with Jessica Loftus, Ph.D. & Jack Murray

Grow up or Remain Dependent: Another Polar Dilemma

This adorable polar cub basks in the secure warmth provided by Momma. But soon, this little bear must learn to swim and start facing the harsh realities of the world. Even human adults can learn valuable lessons on growing up from this little bear.

Time for the Bear Cub to Grow Up

Years ago, I attended an event at a large zoo in Chicago, which three TV news networks covered. During this event, a tiny, male polar-bear cub, was scheduled to take his first swim. Rumor had it that Momma would plop baby into the pool of water, and he would either sink or swim.

When the gate of the polar-bear den opened, Momma raced out to experience her first spring day outside of the den where she had remained all winter. But the little cub could not yet be seen. Several minutes later, a tiny white ball of fur emerged from the den with wide eyes and cautious steps. Slowly, he moved toward the pool. Then Momma made a huge splash as she dove into the water. Little baby cub scampered back into the safe den as fast his tiny legs could trot.

Time to Hide from Growing up

Baby hid during most of Momma’s several-minute swim. Finally, he poked his tiny head out of the den to watch. Carefully, he ventured out of the den, making his way within a few feet of the pool. Momma then climbed out of the pool and shook off several gallons of water, prompting little one to race back into the den again. This drama repeated for over two hours.

Although the tiny cub eventually worked up the nerve to plop his adorable little face into the water, he ran back into the den every time Momma approached him. Finally, the press and scores of visitors gave up on watching the cub’s debut swim. The zookeeper later reported that the little baby quite successfully made his first swim with Momma the next day – without spectators.

Time for Humans to Grow up

The polar bear cub instinctively knew his ultimate fate – to grow up by learning how to swim. However, he managed his stress about growing up by pursuing this task at his own pace and on his own terms.  Similarly, in my private practice, most of my clients struggle to grow up and become more independent.  Many young adults remain home with their parents long after securing stable, livable employment.  Mothers often resist returning to school or work after raising children. Far too many spouses tolerate unspeakable abuse to avoid living alone.  Countless parents enable their children’s dependency to meet their own dependency needs.

Tips to Ease the Stress of Growing up

So often the case, much can be learned by watching pets – in households, captivity or in nature.  In this situation, the baby bear succeeded in achieving his first growing-up task of learning how to swim. His obviously avoidant behavior suggested that he dreaded this task. But, in a fairly short time, he faced his fears by employing these strategies.

  1. Observe

The little cub watched his mother pursue his feared task. His anxiety and stress probably reduced by noticing Momma’s lack of fear and obvious pleasure in swimming.

  1. Retreat

When the anxiety about swimming became too overwhelming, the tiny polar bear ran back to the safety of his den, where he could shore up his resources.

  1. Take Baby Steps

Each time the bear cub left the comfortable den, he moved a little closer to the pool where Momma was swimming. Once he gained confidence, he even plopped his little face in the water to experience it.

  1. Keep at it

The little bear did not just simply hide in the den.  He kept facing his fear task in small doses.

  1. Proceed on Your Own Time Table

Little baby wisely chose to perform the expected task of swimming when he was good and ready.  He allowed himself a night to sleep on it and a whole day to mentally prepare for his first swim. However, here are words of caution — procrastinating or avoiding the challenge is not the same as proceeding on your own time table.

  1. Perform on Your Own Terms

The polar-bear cub clearly did not want to perform such a scary task in front of TV cameras and a huge audience. Therefore, he wisely asserted himself and chose not to perform under those circumstances. When he saw an opportunity to learn to swim with only his trusted mother present, he agreed to swim -quite successfully.

Truth be told, we all have some fear about growing up.  It’s just so much more comfortable living life in the safety and security of familiar surroundings. But then we often regret not taking those risks to live our lives more fully. In the future, when you need to make a significant life change, learn a few lessons from our animal friends.

Image is under license from Shutterstock.



Grow up or Remain Dependent: Another Polar Dilemma

Jessica Loftus

Jessica Loftus has worked as a licensed clinical psychologist and national certified career counselor for more than 20 years. She currently offers counseling sessions via telehealth in Illinois. Her website,, outlines steps for making a career decision. details. See her retired blog, "Pet Ways to Ease Stress,"

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APA Reference
Loftus, J. (2019). Grow up or Remain Dependent: Another Polar Dilemma. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.