When we understand how transitional objects and affiliations work, we can use them to help our kids better cope with anticipated stresses: marital separation and divorce.
These are symbols that represent the child’s emotional anchor in its absence. They are pieces of Mom (or Dad or Grandpa) magically vested with powerful emotional meaning. A transitional object allows Baby Billy to let go and to go farther, confident that he’s carrying something that makes him feel held tight.
When that toddler wanders away to explore a new environment, looks back, and is reassured by Mom’s voice and dramatic wave, he’s associating those two symbolic — her voice and the gestures — with the comfort and security she provides. That’s the magic. It is compacting actual safety and nurturance into something remote and abstract. This ability means that the child can begin to manage longer and greater separations.
Transitional objects allow us to feel like we’re being held tight even while we’re letting go. They are the hand that we imagine holding while we cross the street; and the water wings we wear when we first let go of the side of the pool. They are the lockets and amulets and keepsakes that remind us of home; the extra dose of medicine, spare tank of gas, and just-in-case change of clothes we may never need but we keep on hand anyway.
Children often spontaneously create their own tangible transitional objects. Mommy’s scarf or Daddy’s watch or a special blankie serve as an invisible umbilical cord, carrying an absent parent’s felt- love and easing the transition from holding tight to letting go. Transitional objects tend to become smelly and filthy over time. They may be plainly disgusting to anyone but the child who carries them. Rough and worn out by overuse, torn, and mangled, they are irreplaceable and too precious to risk washing or scrubbing. They are as well-loved as The Velveteen Rabbit and just as proud. All good sense and hygiene aside, the scars and the dents and the smell become part of the object’s magic.
Anything associated with a loved one can become a transitional object. Special pieces of clothing or jewelry are common choices. The most powerful transitional objects communicate to our least mature senses: smell and taste and texture. The synthetic fur of a stuffed animal. A handkerchief or scarf that carries the scent of a parent’s cologne or perfume. The shape and taste of a particular pacifier, food, or drink.
Visual and auditory associations demand more sophisticated cognitive processes —more thinking. A handwritten note from Mom, a special photo, or an audio or video recording can each work as a transitional object for a more mature child. These have the advantage of being more socially acceptable among the child’s peers than a pacifier or a stained and stinky stuffed animal, but may be less emotionally evocative.
Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.