Early history, Theoretical underpinnings, Cultural issues, Developmental trends, Advantages of having security objects, Alternatives to blankets
A soft, clingable object that provides the child with security and comfort in mildly or moderately fearful situations.
Security objects are items, usually soft and easily held or carried, that offer a young child comfort. Security objects are also referred to as attachment objects, inanimate attachment agents, nonsocial attachments, comfort habits, transitional objects, not-me possessions, substitute objects, cuddlies, treasured possessions, soothers, pacifiers, special soft objects, Linus phenomenon, and security blankets.
In the 1940s, attachment to a special object was regarded as a childhood fetish reflecting pathology in the relationship between the mother and her child (Wulff, 1946). D. W. Winnicott (1953), however, regarded the object as necessary for normal development: it was a "transitional" experience, intermediate between the infant's ability to distinguish the inner subjective world from outside reality. John Bowlby considered transitional objects to be a "substitute" for the absent mother, and he deemed the child's attachment to them normal and even desirable.
Nevertheless, throughout the 1970s, but progressively less in the 1980s and 1990s, a stigma remained attached to children who hugged a blanket in times of stress. The popular—but now generally discredited— stereotype was that these children, being overly anxious and insecure, were better off without their blanket. As a result, the blanket was often taken away from the child, sometimes forcibly, just when it could have been beneficial. Although some disagreement and inconsistency persist in the research literature, there is no justification for such drastic actions. Evidence does not support ascribing psychopathology to children just because they demonstrate an attachment to a security object. Blanket-attached children appear to be neither more nor less maladjusted or insecure than other children.
Three current theories pertain to nonsocial attachment. Psychoanalytic theory surmises that it is created as a necessary transition between the child's outside and inside worlds once the child has formed a sufficient relationship with the mother. It helps augment feelings of personal control and continuity of the self. Ethological theory argues that the comfort object substitutes for the mother and should form only if attachment to the mother is secure. Social learning theory states that the physical characteristics of the object (softness, warmth, fuzziness, etc.) can be rewarding per se. Furthermore, if the mother's nuturing and distress-reducing presence is associated with the inanimate object, attachment behaviors toward the object may ensue. Because the child is able to control a security object more readily than the mother, attachment to it should begin to develop relatively independently of the mother.
It is not, however, clear from any of these theories why some children engage in comfort habits while others do not. Child-rearing practices are frequently cited as contributing factors, especially children's sleeping arrangements and parental behavior at bedtime, but evidence has largely been inconclusive. Cultural and socioeconomic factors have received stronger support, although, again, the exact mechanisms underlying the differential acquisition of nonsocial attachments remain unclear. A mother's sensitivity to her children's security needs may be relevant, but the quality of the mother-child relationship seems not to be. However, preliminary evidence suggests that the security of a child's attachment to the mother does predict how a security object will be used in novel situations.
One problem in evaluating attachments to objects is the lack of uniformity in definitions and criteria. Divergent theoretical positions as well as cultural backgrounds have brought forth a variety of interpretations. Another complication involves the unreliability of adults' recollections about former treasured possessions. In studies attempting to link older children's or adults' current behaviors with their previous relationships to a special object, they—or their parents—are requested to recall details. However, such retrospective reports may misrepresent actual events. When college students and their mothers were questioned, 24% of the pairs disagreed totally about whether there had been a childhood attachment, and an additional 19% disagreed on what the object was (Mahalski, 1982). In a follow-up study one year later, 18% of the students contradicted their earlier statements about having had a security object! Clearly, mothers' concurrent reports and investigators' direct observations are necessary to generate reliable information about security objects.
Despite current theoretical assertions that attachment to transitional objects is normal and almost universal, it should be pointed out that this attachment is culture-specific. For instance, in the United States, 60% of children have at least a mild degree of attachment to a soft, inanimate object some time during their life, and 32% exhibit strong attachment (Passman and Halonen, 1979). The incidence of attachments to soft objects in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden is comparable to that in the United States. Korean children have substantially fewer attachments to blankets (18%) than do American children, but Korean-born children living in the United States display an intermediate percentage (34%). Only 5% of rural Italian children have transitional objects, compared to 31% of urban Romans and 62% of foreign children living in Rome. However, just 16% of Londoners' children have a special security object.
In a cross-sectional investigation surveying the mothers of almost 700 children in the United States through their first 63 months of life, R. H. Passman and J. S. Halonen (1979) examined children's attachments to various classes of objects. The percentage of children who are not attached to any object remains relatively stable throughout the first three years, averaging around 40%, with a low of 28% at three months of age. From 33 months, it rises consistently to a high of 84% at 63 months. The number of children having at least a slight attachment to a favorite hard toy (like blocks or a toy truck) remains steady and low through the first four years, averaging approximately 14%, but then drops swiftly toward 0% through 63 months. Attachment to a pacifier peaks early at three months, with 66% reported as having at least some attachment. Pacifier usage declines quickly through the first 18 months, after which attachments are extremely unusual (averaging under 3%) through 63 months. Attachment to blankets begins at a later age than it does to pacifiers. Mild attachment to a blanket is rare at 3 months (8%), but increases somewhat through 15 months (22%), peaks rapidly at 18 months (60%), stays near this level through 39 months (57%), tapers off to 40% at 48 months, and falls suddenly to 16% through 63 months. Simultaneous attachment to both a pacifier and a blanket is infrequent; it rises from 4% at 3 months to 12% at 9 months, remains at a relative plateau through 21 months, then drops sharply, averaging about 1% thereafter. Passman and Halonen also investigated children's intense attachments to these objects and found similar patterns with respect to age. At three months, 16% are strongly attached to pacifiers. Strong attachment to blankets peaks at 18 and 24 months (32%), stays near this high level through 39 months, and diminishes steadily to 8% through 63 months. Generally in the United States, attachments to various objects are now regarded as conventional throughout the first five years of life.
Advantages of having security objects
Being attached to a security object can be beneficial to a child. Left in an unfamiliar playroom with a supportive agent (mother or transitional object), children played, explored, and refrained from crying more so than did children who had their favorite hard toy or who had no supportive agent available (Passman & Weisberg, 1975). Thus, children's attachment to a special soft object is something qualitatively different from their relationship with a noncuddly toy. The blanket provided comfort as well as the mother did—but only if the children were attached to it; nonattached children entering the room with their blanket adapted relatively poorly, with greater dismay. The security blanket, therefore, is aptly named; it indeed provides security to those attached to it.
Because security objects may serve as a substitute for the mother in her absence, they can be employed practicably by parents, teachers, doctors, babysitters, and other professionals. Besides facilitating separation from the mother or father, the attachment object can promote interactions with strangers. At bedtime, it can soothe and facilitate sleep. A study by G. J. Ybarra, R. H. Passman, and C. Eisenberg found that during a routine third-year pediatric examination, the security object enhanced rapport with the examining nurse. Children attached to a blanket who were allowed access to it were rated as less distressed and experienced less physiological stress—as evidenced by heart rate and systolic blood pressure— than children undergoing the medical evaluation without their security object. The comfort provided by a blanket in novel situations has even been shown to enhance children's learning (Passman, 1977).
Alternatives to blankets
A variety of soft objects besides the blanket (e.g., diapers, pillow cases, sheepskins, soft toys, stuffed animals, dolls, napkins, handkerchiefs) may also provide security. Furthermore, research has shown that representations of the mother (e.g., films, videotapes, photographs, audiotapes of her) can also help children's adjustment. Although most children are thought to respond to their special object through touching or sucking, merely seeing (or hearing) it seems sufficient. Even an object as tactile as the security blanket does not have to be touched; visual contact alone evokes its soothing effects. For children too young for an attachment to a blanket, the pacifier seems to share many of the same functional characteristics (although its origins may be different).
The positive effects of an attachment to an object have restrictions. If the situation is particularly arousing or threatening, the attachment object can be less effective in providing security than the child's mother.
Richard H. Passman Ph.D.
Greenberg, Mark T., Dante Cicchetti, and E. Mark Cummings, eds. Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research, and Intervention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
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——. "Attachments to Inanimate Objects: Are Children Who Have Security Blankets Insecure?" Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55, 1987, pp. 825-30.
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