Transitional objects and transitional affiliations often emerge and disappear spontaneously over the course of development, taking on tremendous meaning for a period and then falling into disuse.
A one-year, stained Dalmatian is a three-year-old’s must-have companion at bedtime but, months later, is just another among a hundred torn and tattered plush pets. A first-grader refuses to leave the house without Dad’s broken wristwatch, but by second grade the treasure has been replaced by a hat featuring a superhero character. A twelve-year-old seems to eat and drink and breathe the local football team. He wears the team’s jersey, carries the players’ trading cards, and rambles off their statistics like a Vegas bookie, until he becomes smitten with the red-head in math class.
Each of these transitional objects and affililiations serves as a child’s emotional umbilical cord, connecting him or her to a psychological anchor. They are each a step toward internalizing security and confidence. The tattered Dalmatian and the broken watch and the symbols of the football team emerged spontaneously to help each child better cope with letting go.
When we understand how transitional objects and affiliations work, we can use them to help our kids better cope with anticipated stresses: Marital separation and divorce. Parent-child separations due to an adult’s illness, surgery, military deployment, incarceration, or extended business travel. Anxieties associated with relocation, change of schools, remarriage, or the adoption of a sibling. These and a million other predictable stresses can often be eased by artificially introducing transitional objects and transitional affiliations.
Children who migrate between their parents’ distinct and disparate homes are often forced to manage letting go too soon, too long, and too often. No matter how this child’s schedule of care is crafted, she is always letting go.
Access to the absent parent via distance media can be one part of the solution. Cell phones and Skype and FaceTime; text messages; and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram can all create a digital umbilical cord—a means of feeling connected with one anchor even while living with another. But enabling and encouraging a child’s digital contact with an absent parent has its risks as well. Batteries die. Cell coverage lapses. Schedules and punishments conflict with planned contacts.
Reliance on distance media may become a problem, for example, when the child uses the opportunity to disrupt the family’s routine or to undermine a parent’s authority. If Billy is entitled to call Dad while he is in Mom’s care, he’s likely to discover that he can use this article to avoid bedtime, delay leaving for school, and even to escape punishments.
Distance media can be unfulfilling to young and immature children who need taste and touch and texture contact to be emotionally refueled. These children often find phone and video chats little more than a distraction, sometimes prompting the absent parent to allege that the present parent is undermining the effort. At the other end of the spectrum, older and more sophisticated children may find Face-Time or Skype contacts with an absent parent fulfilling, but go on to abuse the privilege of unsupervised media access.
Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.