A comfort object, transitional object, or security blanket is an item used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or unique situations, or at bedtime for children. Among toddlers, comfort objects may take the form of a blanket, a stuffed animal, or a favorite toy, and may be referred to by nicknames.
In child psychology
In human childhood development, the term transitional object is normally used. It is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place of the mother-child bond. Common examples include dolls, teddy bears or blankets.
Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the concepts of "transitional objects" and "transitional experience" in reference to a particular developmental sequence. With "transition" Winnicott means an intermediate developmental phase between the psychic and external reality. In this "transitional space" we can find the "transitional object".
When the young child begins to separate the "me" from the "not-me" and evolves from complete dependence to a stage of relative independence, it uses transitional objects. Infants see themselves and the mother as a whole. In this phase the mother "brings the world" to the infant without delay which gives it a "moment of illusion", a belief that its own wish creates the object of its desire which brings with it a sense of satisfaction. Winnicott calls this subjective omnipotence. Alongside the subjective omnipotence of a child lies an objective reality, which constitutes the child’s awareness of separateness between itself and desired objects. While the subjective omnipotence experience is one in which the child feels that its desires create satisfaction, the objective reality experience is one in which the child independently seeks out objects of desire.
Later on the child comes to realize that the mother is a separate entity, which tells the child that they have lost something. The child realizes that they are dependent on others, thus losing the idea that they are independent. This realization creates a difficult period and brings frustration and anxiety with it. The mother cannot always be there to "bring the world" to the baby, a realization which has a powerful, somewhat painful, but ultimately constructive impact on the child. Through fantasizing about the object of its wishes the child will find comfort. A transitional object can be used in this process. The transitional object is often the first "not me" possession that really belongs to the child. This could be a real object like a blanket or a teddy bear, but other "objects", such as a melody or a word, can fulfill this role as well. This object represents all components of "mothering", and it means that the child itself is able to create what it needs as well. It enables the child to have a fantasized bond with the mother when she gradually separates for increasingly longer periods of time. The transitional object is important at the time of going to sleep and as a defence against anxiety.
In a later stage of the development the child no longer needs the transitional object. It is able to make a distinction between "me" and "not-me", and keeping inside and outside apart and yet interrelated. This development leads to the use of illusion, symbols and objects later on in life.
Winnicott related the concept of transitional object to a more general one, transitional phenomena, which he considered to be the basis of science, religion and all of culture. Transitional objects and phenomena, he said, are neither subjective nor objective but partake of both. In Mental Space, Robert Young has provided an exposition of these concepts and has generalized their role into psychic phenomena in adult life.
Research with children on this subject was performed at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee by Richard H. Passman and his associates. Among other findings, they showed that security blankets are appropriately named — they actually do give security to those children attached to them. Along with other positive benefits, having a security blanket available can help children adapt to new situations, aid in their learning, and adjust to physicians' and clinical psychologists' evaluations. Passman's research also points out that there is nothing abnormal about being attached to them. In the United States, about 60% of children have at least some attachment to a security object.
Comfort objects for therapeutic use
Often charities will provide comfort objects such as blankets and quilts to survivors of disasters.
Weighted blankets, and other items like vests and shoulder wraps, have also been used by occupational therapists to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, especially on autistic patients, by promoting deep touch stimulation as a way to increase serotonin production, thereby providing a soothing sensation of security and comfort.
After the September 11 attacks, writes Marita Sturken in Tourists of History, "the Oklahoma City National Memorial sent six hundred teddy bears and then the state of Oklahoma sent sixty thousand stuffed animals to New York, which were distributed to children in schools affected by 9/11, family support organizations, and New York fire stations."
Use by adults
Adults may also use comfort objects. Many adults consider the comfort that security blankets provide as essential to their mental and emotional well-being. Additionally, according to a 2011 survey by Travelodge, about 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear.
The notion of a comfort object may be expanded to include representations of one’s family, home, and culture. It is significant to the person and gives psychological strength and assistance by representing their emotional attachments. These objects can include photographs, memorabilia, music records or even artwork made with family members. With the increase in movement away from home and consistent movement from one place to another for job opportunities or immigration, it is very common for people to carry these items with them. People may look to these objects for emotional support during transitional periods, such as assimilating to a new area or when experiencing trauma or a significant loss.
Inventor Richard Kopelle created My Therapy Buddy (MTB) in 2002 as a self-described transitional object to benefit "one's emotional well-being". The blue creature speaks to you when you squeeze it and says any of a number of phrases that include "everything is going to be alright." The invention was rejected in the first season of American Inventor, but went on to become a semi-finalist in the second season. My Therapy Buddy also appeared on Shark Tank but did not receive any offers.
Researchers have observed that the incidence of attachment behavior toward inanimate objects differs depending on the culture in which the infant was raised. It is suggested that infants’ attachment to inanimate objects would be less frequent in societies in which in an infant may spend most of the day in close contact with his mother. In particular, in Western countries object attachments were indeed found to be common, with rates reaching as high as 60%. In a study conducted by Michael Hong, it was found that around 50% of American children and only around 20% of Korean children developed an attachment to a blanket or an equivalent type of primary transitional objects. A similar study by Renata Gaddini found that around 30% of urban Italian children and only 5% of rural Italian children developed attachments to comfort objects. The interpretation of multiple studies suggests that child-rearing practices influence both the incidence of infants’ attachment to inanimate objects and perhaps the choice of attachment objects.
In popular culture
The term security blanket was popularized in the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz, who gave such a blanket to his character Linus van Pelt. Linus called it his "security and happiness blanket", in Good Grief, More Peanuts printed in 1956. However, the concept of a comfort blanket existed prior to Peanuts. In a November 1954 Review Report article, writer "Bev" wrote about her daughter: "Security blanket. My younger child is one year old. When she finds a fuzzy blanket or a fleecy coat she presses her cheek against it and sucks her thumb." Since 1920, blankets which clipped onto sleeping infants to prevent them from rolling out of bed and keep the body covered were dubbed "security blanket fasteners".
In the film The Producers, Leo Bloom is prone to panic attacks and to keep himself calm, he carries a fragment of his childhood blue blanket everywhere he goes and goes into hysterics when someone takes it from him until they give it back to him.
In the film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, Elmo loves his fuzzy, blue Blanket more than anything else, to the point of not wanting to share it, as it is very special to him and setting out on an epic quest to get it back when it is stolen.
In the book The Giver, "comfort object" is used as a term to refer to all stuffed animals. The comfort objects are described as being "imaginary creatures with funny names" because the utopian community where the book takes place has no animals.
- Young, R. M. (1994). Mental Space. London: Process Press. ch. 8
- Young, R. M. (1989). "Transitional phenomena: production and consumption", in B. Richards, ed., Crises of the Self: Further Essays on Psychoanalysis and Politics. London: Free Association Books, pp. 57-72.
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- The recent history of such comfort objects, particularly teddy bears, as well a critique of their comfort-providing function can be found in Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumption from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), here p. 7.
- Do You Still Have a Security Blanket? Dr. John Grohol, PsychCentral, 13 October 2010
- 35 percent of British adults sleep with bear United Press International, 21 February 2012
- "Objects of Affection: And the Students Who Won't Leave Home Without Them". www.fdu.edu. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
- Ben-Moche, Erin. "Is it OK to hold on to your childhood comfort object?". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
- "Official site of My Therapy Buddy". We have the original talking My Therapy Buddy. Retrieved 2015-12-20.
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- O'Halloran, Barbara Collopy (2002). Creature Comforts: People and Their Security Objects. Photographed by Betty Udesen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780618118649.
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- Young, R. M. (1994). Mental Space. London: Process Press.