Hug that teddy a little closer tonight.
From the ages of 2 to 5, my best friend was Couchie?—?a ratty corduroy pillowcase leftover from my parents’ old couch. What started off as a full pillowcase with two sides and a zipper became, after years of smelling and face rubbing, a pile of loosely connected light brown threads that I would carry in a ball wherever I went. Couchie smelled like sweat and farts and something burning (smells I still love today). I inhaled so much of Couchie’s being that I believe Couchie is now a part of me on a molecular level. Couchie was my partner in crime, my bedtime buddy, and most of all, my source of soothing calm.
Whether it’s a blanket, a stuffed animal, or any scrap of something soft, comfort objects, also known as transitional objects, are used by many children as a way to soothe themselves without the help of their parents. In 1951, child psychologist Dr. D.W. Winnicott first defined the transitional object as “any material to which an infant attributes a special value and by means of which the child is able to make the necessary shift from the earliest oral relationship with mother to genuine object-relationships.”
In other words, these security blankets enable children to establish connections to the outside world, apart from the mother. Such objects are commonly adopted when children go off to school or daycare as a way to ease the separation anxiety they experience away from Mom and Dad.
Contrary to popular wisdom of the past, children with comfort objects are not defective or overly “babyish.” In fact, their comfort objects may empower them to be more independent than their peers. With the trusty reassurance of a teddy or blanket by their side, children can feel more secure in unfamiliar situations like daycare or school. When you fall on the playground and Mom isn’t there to kiss it better, that teddy or blankie makes it all okay. Studies show that kids with such objects are actually less shy and more focused than children without them. Their lovey objects are like the first training wheels for telling themselves “you’re all right.” With a built-in sense of security, children feel safe enough to take small risks, explore and grow.
Just before my sixth birthday, Couchie went missing on a family vacation. I was heartbroken. How would I ever be able to fall asleep again without the irreplaceable softness and smell of Couchie? My parents told me that the hotelkeepers probably threw Couchie away because it looked like a gross old rag. But even then I suspected that the kidnapping had been orchestrated by my mom and dad as a way to wean me off of my beloved.
As a child’s first chosen “not-me possession,” comfort objects help kids self-soothe and establish themselves as individuals separate from their parents. Because of the deep importance bestowed upon these items by the child, experts posit that any criticism or denial of the chosen toy may lead to attchment difficulties later in life.
So does this mean I can blame the disposal of Couchie for my lackluster love life? Probably not. On the flip side, any respect and consideration parents show for the comfort object “can enhance the connectedness between child and adult and amongst children themselves.” As much as my parents couldn’t wait for me to “outgrow” Couchie, they did treat it like a friend who was visiting for dinner.
After the loss of Couchie, I quickly found a way to self-soothe again, this time with Pillow. Found in an old box of crap my Grandma was giving away, my sister’s old baby pillow was stinky and grey and barely recognizable?—?just the way I liked it. Once we found each other, Pillow stayed by my side for years to come. Despite the soothing comfort I derived from cuddling up with Pillow on Sunday mornings and before bed, I was often teased by my cousins, neighbors, and the few friends who knew about my covert smelling and face rubbing. While my parents grew to accept Pillow, my peers labeled me with the cruelest of all elementary school insults: “baby.”
Statistically, it’s likely that even the friends who made fun of Pillow had something similar of their own. Comfort objects are incredibly common: 60% of children have them, as well as 35% of adults. Even my cousin, who was the harshest critic, had a teddy bear she cuddled with every night well into college.
It’s important that children decide for themselves when to reject or put away their comfort object. For me, it was the day before I started middle school. I threw Pillow behind the headboard of my parents’ king-sized bed where I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach it, no matter how hard I tried. Unlike the cheated feeling I had when Couchie went missing, this was my own self-determined way of saying, “I’m a big kid now. If anything scary happens, I have the emotional tools to make myself feel better all on my own.”
That’s not to say that comfort objects must be “outgrown.” Therapist Gerri Luce, LCSW says that even adults can benefit from the presence of beloved items to get them through difficult periods, as long as the the object doesn’t interfere with one’s intimate or professional relationships (it’s probably best not to take blankie to work).
Many adults, whether they realize it or not, adopt other kinds of objects to cope with daily stresses. Journals in which we express our feelings, keepsakes that remind us of a loved one, or even phones that connect us to others when we’re alone can serve functions similar to those of a child’s security blanket. While we may leave behind the beloved teddy bear, the need for a physical object that brings us joy and comfort is not specifically childish.
As psychologist Colleen Goddard puts it, transitional objects “represent the process by which [a person] can navigate life, and experience a homeostatic inner balance, a cohesive sense of well-being at every developmental milestone.” So hug that teddy bear (or iPhone) a little closer tonight, because according to famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, having that kind of basic need met “matters more than anything else in the world.”