Security blankets (or teddy bears or any object) are a familiar feature of childhood. Known as “transitional objects,” these objects serve an important developmental purpose. Children rely on them to transition between the affection supplied by parents and primary caregivers and self-soothing.
Transitional objects are a natural and normal part of development. Most children will outgrow the need for them on their own between the ages of 2 and 5 and most experts recommend letting that process happen naturally. But there are ways that parents and teachers can help things along.
1. Have an understanding, tolerant approach—Having a transitional object is a sign of your child’s attempt to adapt to new situations and become more independent. Don’t be ashamed or allow your child to feel ashamed of their attachment.
2. Avoid putting a clock on the process—Have a strategy and apply it consistently, but be prepared to change the pace depending on how your child adapts. Deadlines will only add stress to the process, increasing the child’s need for the transitional object.
3. Give the object a home—It could be a hook on the wall just for Blankie or a special basket for Teddy to rest in. Make a permanent place for their treasured item to be when it isn’t in your child’s arms and somewhere the child will always know when to find it when it’s needed.
4. Let your child use the object whenever they want—but encourage them to leave it back in its place when they are done. Knowing they can always get it when they need to will help them let go—and their growing confidence will help them need it less and less.
5. Have specific times the child can have the item with them—such as the ride to school, nap time, and bedtime. As your child seems to detach successfully, lessen these to, say, only at bedtime.
6. Distract rather than remove—A child who’s hugging a blanket can’t stack blocks higher than their head or mush Play-Doh between their fingers. Offer the child activities that encourage the use of two free hands so relinquishing their object becomes a choice, not a punishment.
7. Offer a “travel size” substitute—This technique might work for some children who have already started to detach. For example, a child who is about to start kindergarten has a favorite teddy as a transitional object. Buying a small look-alike to clip to their backpack might “remind” them of Teddy when they are stressed without them needing to bring Teddy along.
8. Talk with your child’s teachers—If the child attends school or daycare, have a special place there for the transitional object too (like a cubby or backpack). Also talk to the child’s teacher about your strategy and goals. Most preschools and kindergartens have experience with transitional objects and policies in place to support children and parents.
9. It’s ok NOT to share—The exception to the rule, children should not be expected to share their transitional objects with playmates or siblings. Other children may be curious and ask to see or hold it, but your child needs to be able to make that decision. Parents and teachers should help children protect that right. Explain to curious playmates that some things are meant to be shared and others are not (then distract them with another toy or activity).
10. Enlist your child’s natural creativity and empathy—Give the object a story and a reason to stay put. Maybe Blankie is needed to help keep a child’s doll warm. Or Teddy is curious what it’s like to sleep in the child’s school cubby. This can help some children to feel better about that initial separation.
It’s important for parents to remember that a child’s attachment to a transitional object is real, valid, age appropriate, and beneficial. Any approach you take to help children detach should be measured and gradual. Abrupt removal of the object or cutting access too much, too fast is likely to backfire and make the process take much longer.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- “Security” blankets are really transitional objects that help the child learn to soothe themselves without a parent’s help.
- Transitional objects are a normal part of development, and there is no set age when a child should no longer need one.
- Most children start to detach from transitional objects on their own between 2-5 years old.
- If you decide to help your child to detach, take a slow, gradual, and tolerant approach.