By RUTH LIEW
The age of independence may leave your one-and-a-half-year-old child feeling more restless and confused than ever. It is no wonder then that at this age many children develop a special attachment to objects such as blankets, teddy bears, towels, pacifiers, bolsters or pieces of sarong.
Psychologists call these transitional objects because they represent a transition from the familiar and safe to a wider, unknown environment. If parents are not close by, these objects become their replacements. The tots feel secure and comforted with these items.
Remember the character Linus from the Peanuts comic strip who carries his “blankie” (blanket) everywhere he goes? It is the child’s way of building his confidence. These objects are held close when the children are in their own homes – sleeping at night, playing in the room while mummy is cooking - or when they go to the daycare centre.
I know of one child who did not want to part with his sarong. He would sniff at it before falling asleep every night. He took it with him everywhere he went – to school, to play and even to college when he grew up.
His mother snipped a piece of the fabric for him to pack in his luggage. He said the smell of his sarong could do wonders whenever he was unhappy or needed some comforting.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists agree that children’s closeness to transitional objects is normal and helpful. Parents who are supportive of this attachment allow their kids to feel in control of themselves and what they need.
During this period of toddlerhood when there are conflicts over eating, bedtime and other routines, the transitional objects should not be another tug-of-war. The children are likely to outgrow these things when they are older, by seven or eight, and they will regard the items as babyish.
When I was running a daycare programme, many toddlers and even some preschoolers would bring their comforting objects to the centre. We would let them know when they could or could not take the items out.
Children were allowed to bring their transitional objects to nap time but never to playgroup time as they need to use both their hands for exploration. We used to tell them how their “bohboh” (bolsters) or their “bear-bear” (teddy bears) would get dirty if they were brought out to the sandpit. The transitional objects could perhaps be kept until the daycare session is over. Or it could stay on the child’s bed where it would remain clean and fresh for bedtime.
Children are willing to accept reasonable boundaries, depending on their needs and the particular situations they are in. Sometimes, parents would request that their child be allowed to have their transitional objects a bit longer after drop-off because they had had a rough night. We usually obliged
them because children’s needs for comfort and reassurance came above all else.
One other “transitional object” or habit that many children have is the sucking of the thumb/finger or wrist. The act allows them to establish a sense of autonomy as they can do it anywhere and at any time.
Many specialists believe that thumb- or finger-sucking is a resourceful way for children to handle tension and to relax. When they are busy with both their hands, they learn about different things in their environment. When they are tired or feeling nervous, their thumb or finger offers them solace.
In the past, many parents have tried ways to rid their children of thumb-sucking. They would put medicated oil or bittergourd juice on the child’s thumb or finger. Some even painted the thumb to remind the child not to do it.
The parents worry that they will continue the habit until they are older and end up with misshapen mouths. There is no evidence that any of those efforts reduced the time children sucked their thumb or finger.
In fact, more attention on this parent-child struggle may prolong the duration of thumb- or finger-sucking. The chronic cases of children sucking their thumb or finger occur when they have no means of seeking comfort or when they are feeling stressed out.
In good time children will confidently give up their comforting objects or thumb- and finger-sucking.
Ruth Liew is a child developmentalist, Montessori trainer and examiner. A mother of two teenage daughters, she is committed to supporting children’s rights.