The Wonders of Transitional Objects
Have you ever wondered why your baby is so fixated on one particular blanket, or stuffed animal? Perhaps you’ve found yourself trekking back to a restaurant or playground to collect this object – knowing full well that the grubby blanket isn’t worth much – because it would be the end of the world to your little one if they lost it.
These much-loved items are known as security objects, or transitional objects, and babies normally form an attachment to them at some point between eight and twelve months.
This blog will explain the psychology behind transitional objects, and give you some examples of how you can use this concept to support your child – to give them a sense of security, whilst helping to build their own resilience and wellbeing.
The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Transitional Objects
A transitional object is a particular item that a child develops an attachment to, providing comfort during times of transition or stress. This physical object acts as a replacement for the mother-child bond, as the child begins to distinguish between what is 'me' and what is 'not-me' in the world. The concept was developed by Donald Winicott, building from his broader foundational theories of object-relations.
Parents might instinctively worry that such intense feelings towards an object is unhealthy, and feel that they should wean their little one off their dependence on the object. In fact, attachment to a transitional object is a great sign of growing independence!
These early years are times of massive change, happening quickly and constantly. It makes sense, then, for babies to seek a source of comfort that’s consistent, throughout all this change. That’s what transitional objects can provide. They’re so important, because they help to reduce anxiety, and provide a sense of security. They can act as a substitute for the comfort of physical touch from loved ones, as children have to face longer periods of separation from their parents.
Embrace the Attachment!
So – the first lesson here is, there’s no need to worry about your little one’s attachment to a transitional object. Please don’t ever shame them for the attachment, or use the object as a form of punishment (e.g. “No Blanky until you’ve eaten your breakfast!”). This will only increase their anxiety.
Embracing the transitional object means finding ways to use it to increase your little one’s sense of security. This might mean buying a spare one, so that you’re able to put the object in the wash without causing upset.
It also means allowing your child to bring their object with them to new environments, such as school or nursery, wherever possible. This will help to reduce their anxiety and make the transition smoother. If not (schools might not allow for personal objects to come into the classroom), try to ease the separation between your child and their object. You might bring the object on the car journey with you, and make sure you have it with you at pick-up.
Think ahead to moments of potential anxiety, when they might need their object with them – doctors appointments, for example, or extended periods away from home, like a sleepover or vacation.
Introducing Transitional Objects to Ease Separation Anxiety
If your child is old enough, and hasn’t discovered an object by themselves, you can help them to create their own security object, such as a special pillow or stuffed animal, and encourage them to turn to the object when they’re feeling anxious about separation.
Otherwise, if your child chose an object when they were very young, and is starting to outgrow it, you can take them shopping for a new stuffed animal or blanket, or let them pick out a new pacifier.
You might also introduce new transitional objects for specific kinds of separation anxiety.
Here are a couple of examples of great ways to use security objects to support your child through difficult transitions:
· A Stone Full of Kisses
This works especially well if your child isn’t allowed personal objects at school, and isn’t able to bring anything as large as their stuffed animal or blanket.
Ask your child to pick out a stone in the park, and decorate/imbue it with some physical reminder of you – your nail polish, or perfume, for example. At the start of each day, ask your child how many kisses they’d like from you, to last them throughout the day. ‘Load’ the stone with kisses (if they ask for five, give eight just in case – a few extra will add even more comfort), and give it to them to keep in their pocket at school or nursery. Remind them that when they miss you, they can reach out to the stone and charge several kisses from it.
It doesn’t have to be a stone – anything that’s small enough to be accessible to them when they miss you at school. You could use a photo of yourself, or a scarf of yours.
· A Goodbye Mantra
This isn’t a physical object, but it provides the same sense of grounding that an object does. It works equally well for night-time separation anxiety, as it does for school separation.
Together with your little one, come up with a mantra to repeat when you say goodbye or goodnight. Something like: “Have a lovely day, I’ll think about you and see you at pick-up.” Two kisses, one hug, a high-five.
Over time, this will become a code for safe separation. You’re giving them the comfort they need ahead of time – once you get to the school gate, or to bedtime, there won’t be the need for a lengthy reassurance and explanation of how much you’ll miss them. Their mantra will act as a shortcut to remind them that they’re safe and loved. For more tips for separation anxiety in the morning have a look here.
Transitional objects are about connection and comfort, but they're also about resilience and independence. Understanding the reasons behind children's attachment to them can help you as a parent to support your child, as they develop greater independence, and use their security object to do so.
Written by Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a senior parenting and relationship expert with 20 years of experience empowering parents throughout their parenting journey. She is also psychologist, speaker and author, who is passionate about giving families access to trustworthy advice. She runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London, and in addition to running parenting workshops, she is the author of Small Steps to Great Parenting, The Essential Guide for Busy Families, and is the chairperson of Imago UK, an internationally-recognised approach to relationship therapy.
Dr Ben-Ari’s expertise are regularly been featured by the BBC, Stylist, Metro, Evening Standard and Refinery29 and has been a guest on podcasts like Cosmopolitan UK and The Parent Hood.