How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Transition Object
When a mother (or carer) leaves an infant, they can easily become upset by the disappearance of their primary care-giver. To compensate and comfort for this sense of loss, they imbue some object with the attributes of the mother. This item is called a Transition Object.
This is a form of splitting as the mother is divided between the actual mother and the transition object.
Use of transition objects starts to appear at around 4 to 6 months, when the infant is moving towards the external world, but has not quite separated it from the internal world.
The transition object is typically something soft, such as blanket or soft toy, that is reminiscent of the mother's warm arms and breast. By cuddling the object, they feel that they are cuddling the mother and thus feel comforted. Around 60% of children adopt such objects.
Taking away the object from the child can cause great anxiety as they are now truly without their mother and suffer great feelings of loss and aloneness.
The transition object also supports the development of the self, as it is used to represent 'not me'. By looking at the object, the child knows that it is not the object and hence something individual and separate. In this way, it helps the child develop its sense of 'other' things.
However the object is now intimately bound up with the identity of the child. Taking away the object now is also taking away something of the child itself.
The idea of the transition object can also now be applied to the mother, who becomes identified as separate from the infant, and who can be a significant representative of the external world.
Key attributes of the transition object include:
The creation of a transition object is perhaps the first truly creative act of the child as it uses its imagination to create reality out of nothing.
The transition object is a tool that allows the child to let go of the mother and develop a more independent existence. It can take the object anywhere and receive a quick dose of comfort whenever it feels anxious.
The object also facilitates the transition from a 'magical' sense of omnipotence to control through physical manipulation.
It may have some relationship with the first object, typically the breast. It may also anal-erotically stand for faeces (which may explain why it may be preferred as unwashed and smelly).
Winnicott noted that the transition object allows the child to enter the paradoxical feeling that they have simultaneously created and discovered the object.
Providing the child with a soft object such as a teddy bear can encourage them to transfer affections to that object and thus become more independent and less clinging. A problem can occur when the object becomes a pacifier on which the child fixates rather than using it to transition to independence.
The object may also be the subject of the child's phantasies, for example where a teddy bear is spoken to, hugged, punished, etc. It thus becomes a tool for practicing interaction with the external world. By giving the bear a will of its own, the child is also phantasizing that it is not omnipotent and can yet survive this initially scary state. Play thus provides a pathway to independence.
The use of transition objects continues through our lives as we imbue objects with meaning and memories that are associated with other ideas, places and people. Photographs, mementos and other memorabilia are used to remember good times and friends. Transition objects may also translate as fetish objects.
Virtually all possessions have a value in creating the self. What is 'mine' is that with which I have a defining relationship, that not only defines the object but also defines me. Possessions can vary in the degree to which they have this effect, and 'treasured possessions' have a far more significant effect on the ego if they are lost.
Use of the transition object is related to Klein's description of the depressive position.
Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97