Sunday, November 6, 2011

Transitional Objects

Transitional Objects are most often identified as those preferred comfort items of childhood - usually a special blanket or stuffed toy. A child will usually begin to favor a special item during the first year of life, and will stay attached to that item throughout preschool (and sometimes longer).

A transitional object is an "object" in that it's a tangible thing, but more importantly (from an Object Relations perspective) in that it's a stand-in for important attachment figures (i.e., parents or guardians). At an age when the child has trouble maintaining a sense that the parent exists and will return when the parent is out of sight, the transitional object represents the soothing continuation of the parent's love. Having such an object allows the child to be more independent, explore, go to daycare...basically, tolerate separation from safe people and places, by carrying a piece of these safe "objects" along with them. As children age, they begin to feel safer in the world, and also become able to maintain a sense of connection to important people in their lives even when those people are absent. As a result, the transitional object gradually fades in importance until it's just a nostalgic memento.

My transitional object in childhood was a stuffed duck named BP. I carried him around everywhere, as long as my parents let me. I slept with him every night as a child. He's on his third beak (yes, I still have him, set aside in a safe place). Once, when I was 3 or 4, my mom packed him in checked luggage when we went to visit family...and the luggage was lost. I had a back-up stuffed animal, but couldn't sleep without BP. I remember sitting on the stoop at my relatives' house, waiting for the airport to deliver the luggage as it got dark. Thankfully, it hadn't taken them long to track down those bags!

However, transitional objects aren't only for children. In other ways, we find them at work in therapy. Not long ago, one of my colleagues expressed discomfort that a client was "hearing" my colleague's words to self-soothe during periods of distress. I thought it was a great sign - that the client's internalization of an attachment to the therapist, and ability to use that internalization to cope with difficulty, represented good therapeutic work. However, when the internalization of the therapist as a good object isn't as strong, a tangible object can serve as a bridge, and help the process of recovery along.

Transitional objects may be particularly useful when there are interruptions in the work - for example, when the therapist goes on vacation. It can also serve as a bridge during and after termination - a link to the therapist, to help the client venture forth independently, a tangible symbol of their growth, or a representation of the attachment until an attachment to a new therapist can be established.

Do you ever use transitional objects in your practice? When do they seem helpful, and when less so?

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