The question: My five-year-old finds extreme comfort in having her stuffed bear around at all times. Is her attachment to the toy a sign of insecurity or weakness? Is she too old for a comfort object?
The answer: I bet there was a time not long ago when you might have left the house without your wallet but you would never, ever have forgotten to bring that priceless bear. Teddy probably provided comfort to your child through long fevered nights, evenings with the new babysitter, and extended road trips. Now suddenly, that same beloved bear is starting to look more like a liability than the godsend it once was.
Psychologists call objects such as your child’s stuffed bear “attachment objects” or “transitional objects.” They can take many forms with blankets and stuffed animals being the most common. The theory goes that infants become emotionally attached to these familiar and favoured items as a way to provide comfort especially during times when a parent can’t be present.
Having an attachment object in the newborn and preschool years is very normal and in fact it is encouraged as a preferred method of getting a child to sleep at night and providing comfort during times of illness and disruption of routine. Even unfamiliar objects can fill this role in a pinch and it’s the reason that first responders such as police and ambulance attendants carry stuffed animals in their emergency vehicles. Transitional objects have also been found to provide comfort to the elderly and are routinely used in nursing homes in many countries.
Eventually, however, you will want your child to be able to function without her bear. There is no perfect age to attempt weaning, but in my experience five years old (or around the time of kindergarten) is usually appropriate for most children. Don’t expect your child to give up her bear without a fight – so you will need to set clear limits and expectations.
A common first step is to allow your child to have her bear at bedtime only. For the rest of the day keep teddy locked away out of sight (this part is crucial) for safe keeping. Quite frankly, as long as your daughter can function normally during the day without her bear, this may be all that is required. I know many teenage girls, including my own daughter, whose favourite stuffed animals continue to have a place of honour on their beds.
For many items, the problem solves itself when after years of use and dozens of washes, the object simply wears out or disintegrates. Blankets can pose a special challenge as “blankies” are often perceived as less socially acceptable than other comfort items (remember Linus from the Peanuts cartoons), especially as children approach school age.
Although going “cold turkey” is my preferred method for dealing with bottles and soothers, suddenly throwing out a child’s special blanket seems like cruel and unusual punishment. I know some families who have creatively compromised by gradually cutting their child’s blanket into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually the napkin-sized remnant disintegrates or is thrown away.
If your child appears unusually attached to her bear, is unable to separate herself even for brief periods of time, or becomes exceptionally anxious or upset without it, this may be a sign of a more deep-rooted problem. In these cases seeking the advice of your physician or a pediatric mental health professional is strongly recommended.
Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He’s a staunch advocate for children’s health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.
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