Move over, teddy bears.
Kids can get attached to anything, it seems — from stuffed animals to toothbrushes, blankets to board books — and experts say even the quirkiest comfort objects serve a powerful purpose.
Etobicoke mom Marianne Theo says her son Jack, 3, has grown fond of a plastic vacuum attachment.
“We got a new vacuum at Christmas and he’s quite fascinated with it — watching us using it, wanting to help all the time — and we gave him one of the attachments with the hose,” Theo recalls. “And he developed an attachment to . . . the attachment.”
Three out of Theo’s four children have developed attachments to certain objects, she adds. For her eldest, it was a blanket, while her second-oldest often snuggled a fake-fur bag. As for Jack, he’s lovingly dubbed his vacuum part “Bacuum,” and tries to bring it everywhere, be it to bed or in the car on the way to school.
Research shows these strong attachments aren’t unusual. Back in the 1950s, English pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott first coined the term “transitional object,” referring to the toys and blankets kids often choose as objects with special emotional value. Studies show the rate of object attachment among children in Western countries is as high as 60 per cent, and according to German research published in 2011, teddy bears are the most popular object, chosen by 42 per cent of 1- and 2-year-old children.
But why do kids develop these attachments — and what purpose do they really serve?
Psychology behind attachment
The answer lies in child psychology, according to New York-based child development specialist Colleen Goddard, who has spent several years researching transitional objects. Teddies, blankets, bottles, baby dolls and, yes, even vacuum attachments, are all among the objects children latch on to, she says.
As kids make their first transition in life — separating from their mother and facing the outside world — Goddard says these objects can provide a sense of consistency and predictability.
“It also gives them a sense of identity, individuation, security,” she says. “It’s really reassuring for a child.”
Pediatrician Dr. Michael Dickinson, vice-president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, says different kids use the objects in different ways, but a common thread is often stress relief. The habit of carrying a teddy bear, for instance, can bring a child comfort. “It’s the same idea of having a daily routine and having meals at the same hour of the day,” Dickinson explains.
Benefits of transitional objects
As the name implies, transitional objects can be particularly helpful for young children during times of transition. Maybe the child is moving to a new city, starting at a new school, or witnessing their parents’ divorce. Whatever the case, Goddard says objects can act as an “emotional buffer,” helping stabilize children during stressful experiences and when they begin socializing with people outside their immediate family.
“A child will be able to successfully move through to transitions in life if they’ve had a solid relationship with their initial transitional object,” she says.
From a parenting perspective, the objects can be helpful in acclimatizing children to new routines — much like bed or naptime — and relieving a child who is upset, Dickinson notes.
And, while the notion of carrying around a blankie might seem foreign to parents, Goddard says even adults rely on transition objects for stress relief. Someone moving to a new house would want to have their beloved mementos, for instance, like photos of their children.
How old is too old?
Sure, toddlers cuddling teddy bears might be typical, but how old is too old when it comes to toting around transitional objects?
Dickinson says the objects are typically most helpful in the first three years of life, and most kids can be weaned off them by the time they go to kindergarten. Others eventually leave them behind without prodding since children can usually soothe themselves by the time they reach school-age.
Still, parents shouldn’t be afraid to set limits around these objects and develop a plan to gradually wean their child away, Dickinson says. That means keeping objects fully out of sight at certain times, while still allowing the child to interact with their beloved transitional object at predictable times of the day.
“If the child knows the blankie is always going to be produced at bedtime, they might find it easier to give up during the day,” Dickinson explains.
A new online registry, Teddy Bear Lost & Found, aims to reunite beloved stuffies with their owners.
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Beloved Bezzie bear
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