Is my son overly dependent on his teddy?
Children become emotionally attached to objects but it is a natural phase that will pass
Children grow out of using transitional objects such as teddies in their own time and there are no emotional problems associated with their use.
Our four-year-old boy has a special teddy that he cuddles every night when he goes asleep. Recently, he has been taking teddy out during the day, when he is sitting relaxing and now he asks to take it with us when we are going out somewhere. I know lots of children have special comfort toys and that this is normal. I just worry if my own son is becoming overly dependent on his teddy, especially now with his increased use. I also worry what would happen if he ever lost it – as he seems to need it to go asleep. What do you advise? Should we try and wean him off his beloved teddy or leave it with him?
Lots of children have comfort objects such as soft toys, dolls, pillows or items of clothing which help them relax and feel secure. Some studies estimate that nearly two-thirds of children can go through a phase of using such comforters particularly when they are stressed or in new situations. Within developmental psychology, such comforters are usually named “transitional objects” and they are seen as a perfectly normal phase of growing up and moving to independence. Instead of relying on the parent for comfort and security, the child uses the “transitional object” as an intermediate source of security. Sometimes the object is directly associated with the parent, for example, being an item of mum’s clothing and sometimes it is indirectly associated, for example, the teddy mum gave them as a baby to help them sleep. Children grow out of using transitional objects in their own time and there are no emotional problems associated with their use. I don’t recommend removing the object abruptly as this can cause an unnecessary loss or even trauma for your child when it is better to simply wait and let them move on in their own time.
Comfort objects for adults?
In many ways comfort objects are universal and part and parcel of everyday life even for adults. Lots of people have possessions that invoke comfort and security when they are surrounded by them. For example, lots of people have special jewellery or items of clothing that have special meaning. One person I knew used to wear a special fleece when they were sick which gave them a sense of being cared for. Other people might have special items such as photographs that invoke special memories of home and comfort. Think of how people create a little shrine of photographs and mementos at their work desk to create a sense of security and a “home away from home”. People who practise meditation describe the importance of creating a shrine that contains one or two objects such as a candle, a religious photo or even a special type of music that can invoke a relaxed and meditative state.
When are comfort objects a problem for children?
Usually, it is only the practical problems associated with comfort objects that cause problems for children. For example, a genuine concern is losing the comfort object when out of the house or sometimes the object becomes dirty and unhygienic (this is a worry especially if the child puts it in their mouth). Sometimes it is an inappropriate object for the child to take out with them (one two-year-old child I worked with liked to use his mother’s bra as his comfort object!). These practical problems can all be addressed with a little bit of creativity. For example, one parent I knew split her preschooler’s “blankie” into two so one could be washed and be substituted when the other was dirty. Another used to wash half the blankie one day and the other half the next day – so the child would still have familiar smells and sensations.
If you are worried about the comfort object being lost outside the home you can have a rule about it staying in the home – “it is best if Ted lives in your bed, then you always know where he is”. Or you can encourage your child to transfer their comfort to another related object. For example, you could introduce a second teddy as “Ted’s brother” that your son can take out with him.
Expanding the range of comfort objects
It can be a good idea to help your children to have more than one special comfort object which they can draw upon at different times. This breaks any rigid patterns, helps them them cope with change and reduces overdependency on one single item. New comfort objects are best introduced gradually. For example, at night time you can introduce other soft toys alongside his favourite teddy or even other multi-sensory items like a special lighted lamp, scented soap or gentle music, all of which your son can begin to associate with relaxation and sleep. You can also begin to teach your son relaxation strategies not dependent on any one object. These can include learning to lie and snuggle into the blankets, counting his breaths, remembering happy things that happened during the day and using his imagination to visualise a happy place he likes to go to. The goal is to get to the point where you show your son he has power to make any object a comfort object and that he can learn lots of soothing and self-relaxation techniques he can take with him anywhere he goes.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will deliver a workshop on Parenting Young Children in Cork on Saturday, April 1st,and a talk on Promoting Positive Self-Esteem in children in Dublin on Wednesday, May 10th. See solutiontalk.ie for details