Transitional Objects: How valuable is the Teddy Bear to Childhood Development

By: Robyn Cassel, Ph.D.

Items such as teddy bears, loveys, special blankets, etc can be very healthy and positive for young children, particularly to use in early childhood as transitional items to help the child soothe him or herself during new and unique situations. Children can be encouraged to have a soothing item, but the genuine attachment to a transitional object is nearly always created naturally if and when the child is in need. When the infant/toddler begins the natural, gradual process of separating for slightly longer segments of time from the primary caregiver, the child begins to develop a sense of self outside of the parent-child dyad. Though the separations and increased time spent independent of a parent might seem small or insignificant, many toddlers experience anxiety and are eased by developing a symbolic attachment to an object which acts as external representation of the parent. It is a concrete item which symbolizes the comfort of the parent but also allows the child to explore his or her new independence more comfortably. It is helpful to be kind and supportive with your child about the item, as it means that they are beginning to learn the art of self-soothing and they are becoming more comfortable with being independent.

Depending on the child’s age and the object, it might be appropriate to have the object with them most of the time. However, it is appropriate and healthy to establish realistic limits with the child while being kind and supportive development. For example, objects must be washed. Parents can involve the child in the process and provided activities to help the child self-soothe during that time, using it as a learning opportunity to instill belief that the child will be alright for the short period of time away from the toy. Activities which might help the child self-sooth and continue to internalize the object might include discussing fun times they had with the toy or drawing a picture of it. The parent can teach other means of self-soothing such as taking deep breaths or labeling feelings if the child has the language. It is important to validate the child’s feelings about not having the object in hand without encouraging the child to act out.

As the child ages, additional boundaries might be important. For example, the child can be permitted to bring the object on an outing, but they must leave it in the car or with a parent in a bag when the child is on the playground or with a peer. Further, allowing the child to make choices about where to store the item, within limits placed by the parent, can increase the child’s sense of control in the anxiety-provoking situation. Longer periods of time without the object, which occur naturally, will increase the child’s confidence that they can self-soothe without it.

When the child enters preschool, the parent might discuss additional boundaries while being sensitive to the child’s anxiety about entering a new environment. It can be useful to provide the child with information that other children might want to play with the toy. If the child does not want to share the toy, a parent can recommend keeping it safe in a cubby, backpack, or at home in a special designated spot. Additionally, as the child ages, the parent can provide information about how peers might perceive the use of such objects. Then, the parent can allow the child to make a choice about how to proceed. As the child becomes more comfortable with his or her sense of self and more practiced at self-soothing, there will be less of a need for the object. Also, small, realistic limits employed when the child is young can make the transition away from the object smoother. Aiming to eventually find a safe area to keep the object indefinitely in the home might be an easier alternative for the child to cope rather than needing to give or throw away the object.