The psychology behind transitional objects and why they’re crucial to dealing with trauma
The entire world is currently in a state of high anxiety and stress. In the United States alone, 22 million people have filed for unemployment as of mid-April. Businesses have been forced to shut their doors; some temporarily and others indefinitely. Our healthcare systems are maxed out and we’re dealing with a collective grief -- grieving the way of life as we’ve known it.
As schools have transitioned completely online and daycare services are no longer available, families are at home with their kids in a way they likely haven’t experienced before. Kids are intuitive and have a keen awareness that major changes are happening all around them. Not only are they feeling the strangeness of these transitions, but at the same time, they’re also distanced from their friends, stripped of their normal activities, and even closer to the stress emanating from their caretakers.
In times of trauma, grief, and/or stress, children need to be connected to some sense of comfort. A child’s ability to self-soothe is incredibly important when they’re experiencing these emotions. Transitional objects (or comfort objects) can be great tools for these times, especially when they’re separated from the other outlets they usually have access to.
We consulted with some experts in child psychology to find out more about how lovies, stuffed animals, and security blankets are important to a child’s development during traumatic events.
The purpose of transitional objects
Comfort objects can be used both as a defense against stress and as a neutral space in which to play freely with a child’s experiences. These objects provide a safe space to develop emotional wellbeing and a means to cope with and understand the outside world.
As Colleen Goddard, Ph.D. writes, “the usage, availability and consideration of such objects can enhance the connectedness between child and adult and amongst children themselves”.
These stuffed toys and blankets teach children how to self-soothe and are what a baby reaches for when they wake in the middle of the night -- the trusty companion that’s always by their side, going through life experiences with them.
In particular, stuffed animals also contribute to a child’s independence and autonomy. In addition to the fact that their lovey helps separate them from complete reliance on their mother, they’re the first companion that they can have some authority over. These are significant factors to consider in times of high anxiety when it’s important for your child to feel like they can establish some sense of control.
Texture plays an important role
Reliance on transitional objects is strongly influenced by the senses. Texture, smell, and appearance of the lovey or plush toy determine the ability of the object to provide comfort to a child.
Of the sensory elements, touch is one of the most important. Most little ones prefer soft, cuddly companions. In a study on attachment to inanimate objects, only 7% of children developed an attachment to a hard toy. On the other hand, 88% of these children’s preferred comfort objects were soft items: fabric, a blanket, a soft doll or teddy bear.
Stuffed animals are some of the most favored transitional objects. Their soft texture and facial proportions are designed to provide comfort and evoke feelings of nurturance. Once they’ve been part of the family for some time, they’ll pick up the familiar smells of home. These sensory subtleties provide much-needed soothing that can lighten the weight that is felt in times of crisis.
Children use play to experiment with different emotions and scenarios
Emily Griffin, LCPC, is a play therapist who sees children who are experiencing anxiety and trauma. She helped us to understand why it can be so important for kids to use play while they’re going through difficult times.
As Griffin explains:
Stuffed animals are used by children to communicate their worries, and to self-regulate when they are feeling overwhelmed. Children use toys and play to express their inner thoughts and feelings, as they usually do not have the capacity to do so verbally. Through play with stuffed animals, they can experiment with different emotions, and scenarios, which help them process what is going on for them psychologically.
While our communities are experiencing such significant changes, it’s helpful for our kids to have a way to try to conceptualize what’s happening and how they feel about it.
Lovies can help to normalize stressful situations
As children use their transitional objects to address what’s going on in the world around them and explore their feelings, these items can be used as tools to make things feel more comfortable.
Kids learn to mirror actions taken by their parents and other adults they look up to. When children have a favorite cuddly companion that goes everywhere with them, they want that companion to be a part of everything. In our current global health pandemic, this might mean including their stuffed animals when it’s time for everyone to put on a mask.
Just as dolls and toys that are multicultural, or represent disabilities, a stuffed animal with a face mask can normalize what is going on for the child. The child may be feeling isolated, or anxious, so having a toy that represents themselves with the current crisis can be a helpful learning tool as well as a way for them to explore how they feel about having to wear a mask.
-Emily Griffin, MA, LCPC
So, should your child’s stuffed animal wear a mask?
If your child is experiencing anxiety about our current situation or refusing to wear a mask,
having their favorite toy join them may help them to feel more comfortable and inspired to wear one. You may find that it feels best to have your little one put a mask on their lovey when your family leaves the house when everyone else is putting a mask on.
If you’re considering the positive benefits this may provide your child, be sure to check out our brand-new line of stuffed animals and lovies with face masks. We’re also making adorable face masks that kids actually want to wear and dolls with masks to help calm fears and become a teaching tool for children. During these unprecedented times, we continue our mission of bringing comfort, kindness, and Glad Dreams to all those we can, and making a mask that can bring happiness and smiles (even if hidden) is just another way we hope to continue along this path.
Written by Karie Kirkpatrick