Updated: Feb 21, 2021
What is a Transitional Object?
A “transitional object” most commonly refers to an object used in early child development, which helps the infant to find independence. The physical item, such as a favourite cuddly toy or blanket is seen as an extension of the child’s primary caregiver (usually a parent or carer). Such objects enable infants to re-establish feelings of safety in unknown or uncertain situations, when the primary caregiver is absent. Transitional objects can ease transitions away from the primary caregiver, for instance beginning nursery or school.
The transition in Winnicott’s “transitional object” refers to the shift every young child must inevitably make “from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate” (Winnicott, 1953). As Winnicott says, it is the child’s first “not me” object. In the beginning, young infants are unable to make a distinction between the self and the other. As they begin to learn they are separate from the primary caregiver, this can cause a level of distress or anxiety. The transitional object helps to ease this realisation and transition. It acts as an extension of their caregiver and reminds them of the love, warmth and care provided by their caregiver, allowing them to learn to self-soothe. The meaning of these objects can still resonate with us beyond childhood into adulthood. You may fondly remember a favourite toy or blankie you had in your childhood which held special significance for you over and above your other possessions.
Transitional Objects for Children
There’s a beautiful story “entitled “A bedtime Yarn” written by Nicola Winstanley (2017). A little bear named Frankie has difficulty getting to sleep at night, as he is scared of the dark and being alone. To comfort him, his mother gives him her ball of yarn to hold, as she holds the other end of the yarn, knitting in the next room. As one ball of yarn disappears, Frankie’s mother hands him a fresh ball of yarn. Each new ball has a new colour, and every colour has a story. Each night, Frankie dreams in the colours of the yarn; from swimming in a beautiful turquoise sea, to playing with an adorable marmalade kitten. When Frankie tells his mother he is ready to sleep by himself, his mother hands him a wonderful surprise made of all the different colours of yarn. Through this, Frankie realises he is always connected to the ones he loves and who love him even when he is alone in the dark.
Psychological Benefits of Transitional Objects
Transitional objects aren’t just important in childhood, they can provide psychological comfort during any transitional process. For example, when a loved one passes away, we may choose to hold onto a significant object which provides us with fond memories associated with that person, for example a book or a piece of jewellery.
Transitional Objects in Therapy
Transitional objects can also be a useful concept in therapy. In therapy for children and young people, for example play therapy, it may be appropriate to allow the child to take away a toy they have particularly become attached to in that therapeutic process. In adult art therapy, the client and counsellor may co-create pieces which can serve as visual representations and reminders of their therapeutic journey. Or, the client may create pieces of work that have special significance for them. Usually the art therapist keeps these pieces of art whilst the counselling is ongoing, which allows the therapeutic process to be contained in the counselling room while it is ongoing. The client is then able to take these pieces with them, as a reminder of their therapeutic process and therapeutic relationship. If you’re drawing towards an ending with your client or counsellor, perhaps you’d like to write an ending letter together, to summarise your therapeutic process, to remind you of your progress. Such transitional objects can allow clients to remember the support and growth whenever they feel they need it.
Winnicott's transitional objects are an important therapeutic concept and their relevance extends throughout our lives. I hope this post has helped to make the concept of transitional objects more understandable and accessible to my all!
Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34: 89-.
Winstanley, N. (2017). A Bedtime Yarn. Penguin Random House.