I was at the park yesterday and a mom of a 4 year old and a new baby asked me what to do about her son’s “lovey,” or transitional object. Her son attends a wonderfully progressive school and they have allowed him to bring it with him to class each day. He is starting kindergarten next year and both of his parents (especially his dad) want him to drop the blankie. From the conversation, it sounded like this little guy’s mom was not as concerned as his dad that the attachment to a squishy, comfy blanket would be problematic for him as he got older. As she put it: “He’ll stop using it when he doesn’t need it anymore.” His dad is worried that having an object like this to use for comfort is thwarting his son’s ability to “learn to cope.”
The practical matter of shifting his use of his transitional object from all the time to just at night is relatively straightforward. I recommended that they not use a graduated approach (cutting off access a little at a time), but for some kids a schedule like this would work really well. I felt like this little guy would be so worried about what the next day would bring that he would be more upset.
I recommended that, after a structured discussion (via a social story with LOTS OF PICTURES), he could give up his lovey during the day and have free access to it at bedtime. The goal of a social story is to provide an alternate “script” that the child learns to help them get through a difficult situation. It works great to script out when mom and dad are traveling, someone coming to visit, a new babysitter/nanny, etc. Here is a template of the text that might be used (note that anything aimed at “correcting” or predicting a negative response is said in the third person, and the rest is from the perspective of the child).
My name is ___________. I LOVE to go to school. Next year, I am starting Kindergarten. I am so excited. I will play with my friends and learn to do all sorts of new things. Kindergarten is different. One thing that is different is that I will not bring my blanket to school anymore. Some kids feel sad and cry if they can’t bring their blanket with them. I know that I can have my blanket at night and it will help me sleep. I know that Kindergarten is different and I can be brave and leave my blanket tucked in my bed so I know it is safe and waiting for me. I am so excited for school.
Another strategy that some people use to get rid of “baby” things is to have their kids bring them to the pediatrician to “give to the other babies.” This helps to activate a child’s sense of “doing good” and might make them more open to getting rid of these objects. It also takes the pressure of the parents and makes it seem like something that EVERYONE IS DOING (using peer pressure to your advantage!). If you make that choice, incorporate it into your social story.
I also recommended starting this during the summer, so that any challenges encountered (or, really, any extra comfort and attention that he needed in order to adjust) would not be made worse by a rigid school-year schedule. Nothing feels worse than dropping a sad, exhausted kiddo off at school…actually, maybe that might feel OK!
As for dad’s concern that the object was preventing his son from “learning to cope,” it should come as a relief that there is no correlation between needing a transitional object for a longer period of time and later problems with self-regulation and coping. Coping is a complex process and one that is different for all people. The thing that really alters (in a negative way) a child’s abilty to cope is exposure (over and over) to events that teach him that there is no hope or help available for him. Kids who are neglected or abused develop atypical coping mechanisms and often use compensatory strategies that are extreme or designed only with protection—not engagement—in mind.
However, some kids, no matter how careful and loving their environment is, react as though they are constantly under duress. These kids, the finicky, prickly pears that I LOVE to work with, need to be “re-taught” how to cope and self-regulate, as their systems (designed to observe coping in others and then utilize those strategies AND to be able to assess what makes them feel better). Some of the things (there are many) that promote the development of self-regualtory skills in kids are:
- Having good coping and regulatory role models
- Close reciprocal relationships
- The ability to “get things wrong” without falling apart
- A good memory (in order to use previously observed strategies in situations that are a “fit”
The nice thing about using strategies like the social stories is that it goes a long way to “fill in the gaps” for kids who are struggling with self-regulation/coping. There are lots of tools that I use in my work every day that focus on the development of these skills. — Liz Schwandt