In first grade, consensus was there was absolutely nothing worse than being called “babyish.” Kindergarteners were babyish. Seesawing was babyish unless you bounced as hard as you could–otherwise a group of six-year-olds would surround you and chant, “bay-bee-ISH” over and over until you bounced so hard it hurt. Crying was babyish unless you had a really good reason. And carrying around a rag doll named Dolly or a pink babydoll who you insisted was a boy would have been babyish enough to get you shunned all year, I thought, so I had limited options when it came to selecting a safety object to get me through the long schoolday away from my mom.
Luckily (well, not luckily), I was the kind of kid who could get attached to anything. (I had, for years, a beloved piece of string named Stringy who lived in an envelope and missed me when I was gone. Parents of similar children should note that I outgrew the quirk even before receiving treatment for my anxiety, and I would actually describe my current relationship with “stuff” as atypically healthy.) I took advantage of my easy attachment by deliberately bonding to a tiny Pebbles figure that came in a bottle of Flintstones vitamins. To keep it safe and out of site, I carried it in a florescent fanny pack; this was 1994, when such things were acceptable even without irony. When I got anxious in class, I’d quietly unzip the pack and touch the figure. Pretty clever, I thought, although even then I knew that a kid my age couldn’t be trusted to keep track of a tiny toy for very long. I had the vigilance of OCD on my side, though, and, when I finally did lose Pebbles, I noticed almost immediately. We’d just gotten back from recess. When I slipped my fingers into my fanny pack and found only tissues and a tiny flashlight (would you believe I was actually popular throughout school?), I turned fear into bravery and managed to explain the situation to my teacher. I thought she’d make me wait until lunch to go look, and she wanted to, but I guess she could see my panic, because she changed her mind. The assistant teacher took me out to the playground, and I sifted sand around where I’d been playing and quickly found Pebbles, dusted her off, and put her back where she belonged. Crisis averted.
Not all anxious kids have comfort objects, and certainly not all kids with comfort objects are unhealthily anxious. “Security blankets” and similar belongings are typically considered healthy and perfectly normal tools for children who are beginning to separate from their parents. However, when children retain safety objects into grade school, it may be a sign of excess anxiety. Making a child give up her or his object “cold turkey” can lead to panic, mistrust, and trauma, so never try to help reduce your student’s dependence by confiscating his comfort object. (If a student is using her comfort object to be disruptive, insist that she pack it away or put it down, and discipline her appropriately for continued disruptions.) If a child misplaces his comfort object, I personally suggest letting him go look for it as soon as he notices it’s gone, assuming this doesn’t become a recurrent situation. Some psychologists warn that the continued use of safety objects and similar rituals can reinforce anxiety. Ideally, a student will practice delaying her use of her confort object until her anxiety begins to wane naturally or through relaxation practices. Talk to parents to create a healthy plan that encourages your anxious student to address his anxiety directly while incrementally decreasing his dependance on his comfort object. Remain supportive, respectful, and positive, and you’ll likely become a significant contributor to your student’s recovery.