As you well know, children often have a teddy bear or some other fluffy animal or lovey to which they become very attached. You probably had one yourself.
These are significant objects in a child’s development. They share intense feelings and experiences with the child—love, anger, sadness, comfort. They provide tension-regulation and soothing.
The child attaches to the lovey, talks with it, shares feelings and events of the day with it. And there is no need to urge the child to give it up – they will gradually give up their lovey when they are ready to.
The pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, M.D., was the first to help us really understand the importance of these loveys to the child. He called them “transitional objects,” and his pioneering article about them is well worth reading (see below).
And what are these loveys? Here’s Winnicott himself:
“Perhaps some soft object or cot cover has been found and used by the infant, and this then becomes what I am calling a transitional object. This object goes on being important. The parents get to know its value and carry it round when travelling. The mother lets it get dirty and even smelly, knowing that by washing it she introduces a break in continuity in the infant’s experience, a break that may destroy the meaning and value of the object to the infant” (p. 232).
When does this process start?
“I suggest that the pattern of transitional phenomena begins to show at about 4-6-8-12 months. Purposely I leave room for wide variations. Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bed-time or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens. In health, however, there is a gradual extension of range of interest, and eventually the extended range is maintained, even when depressive anxiety is near. A need for a specific object or a behaviour pattern that started at a very early date may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens” (p. 232).
And what are some of the qualities of this relationship?
“The infant assumes rights over the object, and we agree to this assumption…
The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated…
It must never change, unless changed by the infant…
It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating, and, if it be a feature, pure aggression…
Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (p. 233).
And these fluffy animals, or whatever, become real in their own way and necessary for the child—and to the parent also! My son had a little black and white puffy dog as his transitional object. He named it Pinto. One evening we went to a toy store and, a few minutes after leaving, we realized Pinto was still back at the store. My son was distressed—and I was distressed! We hurried back—but now the store was closed! We went around to the back and, fortunately, the owner was still there—and opened up the store so we could get Pinto. We thanked him profusely, and my son said Pinto was okay and had enjoyed the extra time playing with the trains!
Pets: Living Transitional Objects
Do adults have transitional objects? Some adults keep their childhood loveys forever. But, yes, adults do have transitional objects—they are called pets! Our dogs, cats, guinea pigs, horses, and so on! Pets are living transitional objects. And, needless to say, our pets have almost unimaginable significance in our lives as human beings.
References for Interested Readers
Winnicott DW (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: A study of the first not-me possession. Int J Psychoanal 34. In DW Winnicott Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992, pp. 229-242.