For the first time in his short life, my son developed his first attachment to an object. As many parents have already learned, this phenomenon isn’t uncommon in young children. It’s not unusual for tattered teddy bears, stuffed animals, blankets, and pacifiers to become glued to a toddler. For Rocket, it was this blue guitar-shaped flyswatter that captured his heart:
He first saw it when it was hanging up on the wall at the front desk where I go for my prenatal appointments. Oh wait… I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet on this blog that I’m expecting, so I guess this is my official announcement… Rocket is going to be a big brother!
And he’s been coming with me to my prenatal appointments for every check-up. As a music fanatic, he was immediately drawn to this fly swatter which is in the shape of one of his favorite instruments: the acoustic guitar.
The receptionist assured us that it had never been used to kill flies, that she kept it up as an inside joke with her co-worker. She’s been letting him play with it every time we come in and he asks about it as soon as he realizes where we are, as we walk into the building through the front door. She has been so tickled watching him “strum” the blue guitar and “tune” the pegs while he sings that during our last visit, she made his day by telling him that he can have it!
Since he brought it home, he’s been carrying the blue guitar around with him everywhere he goes. He strums along to any music that he hears and makes up his own tunes, rocking this fly swatter like a band frontman. I mentioned his blue guitar in our train theme post, where you can see numerous photos of him with it clenched tightly in his hands.
Well, the inevitable happened this week. We lost the blue guitar.
We’ve turned the house inside out trying to find it, but it has gone completely AWOL. It just disappeared off the face of the planet. The next morning, of course he asked for it first thing. I reminded him that it’s lost as we ate our breakfast. And then I had a serious conversation with him about object attachment, being very careful to treat him like an adult.
“Sometimes in life, we lose things that we really like a lot. As you get older, you will probably lose even bigger things. Mom and Dad have even lost cars! Can you imagine how we felt when we lost big, expensive cars?” I asked.
He absorbed that thought for one moment and then said in the most ‘I get it’ tone, “Oh yeah.”
“It hurts us when we lose things we like too. But material things aren’t what matter in the grand scheme of life. We miss them, but we have to remember that they’re just stuff,” I continued.
He was silent for a moment and then sadly stated, “But I want the blue guitar.”
At this point, my husband darted up from the table and I knew I had to handle this one on my own. He had 5 minutes before he had to rush out the door and get to work.
“I know you want it,” I said. “It was a good guitar. But you know what? It wasn’t even a real guitar, like Daddy’s guitar. One day, maybe you will get a real guitar instead! The only reason you could play the blue guitar and tune it was because you used your imagination and pretended that it was a real guitar. You can do that with anything, you know!”
“Oh yeah!” He said, perking up significantly. ‘Oh yeah’ is his favorite phrase, by the way.
“We’ll keep looking for it and who knows, maybe we’ll find it. But if we don’t, that’s okay too. We will find other things to use as guitars. Don’t you think that will be fun?”
“Oh yeah! Bye bye, blue guitar.”
Right at this important point of closure for him, my husband returned and I couldn’t believe what he had with him! He had cut a guitar shape out of a cardboard box and drawn strings and a pick guard onto it with a marker. He handed it to his son, whose face lit up as he checked out his new toy.
Strumming his new guitar.
Tuning the brown guitar.
It took no time for Rocket to begin strumming and tuning and falling in love with his “brown guitar.” Sure, it got “floppy” pretty fast, but luthier Dad will be reinforcing the neck with more cardboard soon. Rocket is holding on to his brown guitar right now as I type this, strumming along to The Laurie Berkner Band.
Traveling with the brown guitar.
Every once in a long while, he does ask where his blue guitar is. When I remind him that it’s lost, he simply nods and grabs his brown guitar instead.
The disappearance of his blue guitar also opened a new door to his creative imagination.
One day as I was doing the dishes, he insisted on holding the wooden slotted spoon that I’d just cleaned. I gave it to him and he started to play it like a guitar! It has now become his “spoon guitar.”
Discovering that the spoon guitar also works as a drumstick!
He has gone from being attached to one clearly guitar-shaped object to using his imagination to make guitars of many things in our home. I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of his first loss of an attached object!
Playing the “brush guitar.”
He doesn’t know it yet, but I ordered a few of these guitar fly swatters on Amazon. Now that he’s gotten over his original blue guitar, I’m excited to see his reaction to a blue, yellow, AND red guitar!
Rocket overcame a great hurdle this week and learned a valuable lesson for a 2 year old. Let’s face it, many grown adults are just as attached to material objects and have a hard time letting go. So the lesson he learned was valuable not only for a 2 year old, but for people in general… and it’s one we must keep re-learning as life goes on.
As a result of this experience, I want to write this week about object attachment in toddlers.
Understanding Toddler Attachment To Objects
First, I think it’s important to recognize why toddlers become emotionally attached to stuff. At first, it’s cute when they insist on lugging their security blankets and teddies around with them everywhere. But it becomes a quick concern to parents when they resist separating from their raggedy items for even long enough to let you wash it.
What is going on psychologically in the mind of the emotionally attached child?
From my research, I have learned that most toddlers develop some type of object attachment before the age of 1, though the peak of their attachment is usually in their second year. The objects help them to transition from a world where they are completely dependent on their parents to a world where they are exploring on their own and gaining their independence.
5 Tips For Handling Toddler Attachment To Objects
1. Supply babies with a strong sense of security.
The toddler personality begins when they are still helpless babies, completely reliant on Mom and Dad for everything.
While a certain level of object attachment in toddlers can be expected as they venture into the world on their own, the degree to which they grow attached and resist separation from the object will depend greatly on the overall sense of security they have developed in life.
I am a big proponent of attachment parenting for this reason (and many others). When babies are young and new to the world, one of our primary responsibilities as parents is to build in them a strong sense of confidence and security. Unfortunately in most modern first-world societies, the push is too often on having them grow up as fast as humanly possible. There should be no rush.
The focus of a parent-child relationship in the baby & toddler years should not be to force them to grow up as fast as we can. There is no race. It doesn’t matter what the Jones’ son is doing. There will be several years for ‘growing up’. Humans naturally have a very prolonged childhood compared to animals and there is no reason to hurry it along. Instead, the focus should be on building a strong relationship that embeds in children unbreakable security and comfort. This will mold their self-image and the confidence that they will gain from it will serve them throughout life.
There are varying degrees of object attachment in children and most cases probably indicate a natural stage in the developmental process. But if your child is experiencing an abnormally tough time being separated from his or her object, it’s worth considering sources of stress in his or her life that may be creating the need for an added sense of security. Is the child having a difficult time at home or with a childcare provider? If so, he or she may be dealing with the stress by attaching to an object. For these children, try to remove them from stressful situations and create a secure environment where they feel safe.
In a situation like this, the object attachment is not the problem. It is merely a symptom or an expression of the uncertainty the child is experiencing. Deal with the root cause and the symptom should resolve itself.
Also, avoid yelling or making the child feel distant from you in any way. Shower your child with love, hugs, kisses, and one-on-one time so that he/she doesn’t feel the need to find comfort in the attachment object instead.
2. Don’t EVER tease your child about being attached to security blankets, toys, or other objects.
This should go without saying, but I’ve seen it happen in playgroups. I don’t think most parents mean any harm when they tease their kids, but they certainly aren’t considering the child’s emotions. Object attachment can be a very sensitive topic for toddlers. The last thing you want to do is make them feel even more alienated.
Remember, they have likely developed an object attachment due to a sense of insecurity. Your focus should be on strengthening your relationship with them and helping them gain a stronger sense of security. Teasing them or making them feel bad about their natural emotional response will do the opposite- make them feel vulnerable, lonely, and anxious. This also means to avoid talking about the object attachment with other adults within earshot of them in a way that will embarrass them. Remember, they can hear you and they ARE listening.
3. Redirect, Redirect, Redirect!
Redirection is one of our most used techniques in this household for handling situations that aren’t going as planned. It can be used for everything from meltdowns, temper-tantrums, resistance, and of course, object attachment.
If you suggest a different activity that will keep him busy, he won’t have his hands free to hold on to his blanket or stuffed animal. Try to engage your child with games, manipulative toys, crafts, cooking projects, etc.
This will be most effective if you are involved in the activity with him. Remember, attachment in and of itself at this age is not unhealthy, but the attachment should ideally be in a relationship with a caregiver rather than an object.
4. Talk to your child.
Talk to them about their object attachment, but always in a way that doesn’t belittle them or make them feel like what they’re doing is “wrong”. What is it that makes teddy so special? Why doesn’t she want to let go of her blanket?
In discussing separation from an attached object, avoid being the authoritarian and forceful adult. Prying the object of comfort out of their fingers like a bully is not the way to make them feel more secure. Instead, talk to them until they understand why it’s important to let go of it themselves. This may take more time, but we have to make time for our children when they feel sensitive or vulnerable. Explain that teddy will be much safer sitting in the car seat while you do your grocery shopping or that the blue guitar won’t get lost if we keep it at home while we play outside.
Explain why. Your daughter knows that the rule is that she can bring her doll with her all over the house, but not to the park. But it’s not enough to just give the rule. Give the reason. You don’t want her doll to get dirty or lost. Children are very receptive to this type of reasoning. If you explain it kindly and show compassion for your child, chances are good that he or she will internalize your reasoning. She doesn’t want her doll to get dirty or lost any more than you do! She just wants to know what’s going on, rather than to be forced into doing things that she doesn’t understand.
5. Empower your child.
I often tell Rocket to say “bye bye” to items he doesn’t want to leave. This gives him control and empowers him to find closure in the moment at his own pace.
For example, say we are about to go somewhere and he is clutching his blue guitar. If I were to grab it forcefully and put it on a table out of his reach, he would cry and become very upset. Instead, I say something to him like, “Okay, now it’s time to go and leave the blue guitar here so that it doesn’t get lost. Can you find a safe place for it and say bye bye?” By doing this, I pass the torch of responsibility to him. It changes the dynamic of everything.
Instead of getting upset, he looks around the room for the perfect location to put his blue guitar down. He decides on the couch. He hugs the blue guitar, strums it one last time, and sets it down on a throw pillow. He turns around and walks towards me while waving and saying, “Bye bye, blue guitar! See you later, alligator!”
Handling situations this way may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. No one wants to feel powerless and a 2 year old is no exception. Giving them some control decreases fuss, builds confidence, and makes life a whole lot easier for everyone involved. Sometimes I have to wait patiently while he says his goodbyes, checking the time frequently as he does it. But I’ll tell you what, it’s a whole lot better than having to deal with a crying, fussy, unhappy child. In the end, it saves time rather than steals time- because he’s happy, willing, and cooperative.
The best part is the lasting benefit, which goes far beyond the moment. As parents, we aren’t just handling one situation at a time. It seems that way when we get caught up in the day to day obstacles, but if we step back and look at the bigger picture, we realize that how we choose to handle those day to day obstacles is exactly what is molding little people who are one day going to be adults.
How can we expect to produce confident, strong adults who are in control of their lives if we are unwilling to let them control any aspect of their lives as children? Treating them with respect, compassion, and love today will build the self-esteem, confidence, and overall security that we hope to see in them when they are ready to leave our nests.