We know that stuffed animals, security blankets, and other lovies can help babies transition into a sense of being separate from their parents (hence the term “transitional object,”) but the use of these cuddly friends actually evolves as children age and their emotional needs change. Let’s explore some of the ways that stuffed animals and loveys help in your child’s development as they age, and why you maybe shouldn’t take their lovey away until they’re ready to set it aside.
Children Practice Relationships
Despite humans being social animals, children are not born understanding how to develop and manage social relationships. This is a learned skill, and like most skills, it’s learned through both observation and practice. This kind of practice can be really frightening, because children need their caregivers and may be afraid of angering them. Because loveys and other transitional objects will not challenge the experience and action of a child, they become a safe place to practice relating to other people, according to an article on Psychology Today.
You may see children engaging in different kinds of relational modes with their loveys, including nurturing, teaching, and even oppositional. This is fine; the child will need these skills later in life, and allowing them to develop these skills early in life will help them manage these relationships more successfully when they are older.
Loveys Teach Emotional Regulation
Similarly, children are not born with skills for emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is a set of skills that allow us to manage and respond appropriately to the emotions that we feel. As adults, we often employ emotional regulation strategies unconsciously, but for children it’s not that straightforward.
Their relationships with transitional objects allows them to try out emotional regulation strategies without fear of punishment or censure.
When children experience emotion that they don’t have the ability to regulate, they can become overwhelmed by what they’re feeling and they may resort to one of the “three Fs:” Fight, Flight, or Freeze. None of these are appropriate responses to powerful emotions. Having a stuffed animal on hand can offer a safe outlet for these strong emotions, allowing the child to blow off steam, or to cry, and that venting can help them come back to the situation calmer.
Playing Pretend is Good
It’s no surprise that stuffed animals can be a vessel for your child’s imagination, but playing pretend helps to develop important skills.
A child may talk to a stuffed animal, telling them things that they may not feel comfortable saying to anyone else, and the stuffed animal may “respond” in kind and comforting ways. The persona of the stuffed animal was invented by the child, of course, so this dialogue actually represents the child speaking to and comforting themselves. This kind of dialogue can become an internal voice that is affirming and comforting as the child grows, fostering positive self-talk and greater resilience in the face of fears, challenges, and failures.
That’s not all, though. Playing pretend can help children make sense of new and possibly frightening experiences. This can be observed by watching a child play doctor with a stuffed animal. The idea of a doctor’s visit can be intimidating if a child doesn’t really know what to expect. Role playing a doctor’s visit with a stuffed animal can help the child imagine the doctor’s visit (or other stressful situation) with a positive outcome, helping to ease some of the anxiety they feel.
Playing pretend with friends helps to develop skills like communication and cooperation. These skills also lay the groundwork for vital executive function skills, like emotional regulation. Playing pretend also lets children put themselves in someone else’s shoes, developing empathy with others.
Holding on to Stuffed Animals
When you consider the way that stuffed animal friends evolve with their owners, you can see why you may want to let your child keep their favorite lovey even into adolescence. Even after these emotional development lessons have been learned, a beloved stuffed friend can continue to be a source of comfort when things are difficult, and adolescence is a difficult time indeed, full of changes and new experiences.
And if you’re holding on to a stuffed animal as an adult, don’t worry. A study from 2012 showed no meaningful correlation between ownership of stuffed animals and markers for immaturity or mental illness, according to Scientific American. So don’t worry if your child is unwilling to give up their lovey; there is no cut-off age for the use of these comfort objects.