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Pillows, Comfort Objects, and the Elephant in the Room

How objects comfort you and me.

By Eileen DavisPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 6 min read
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Pillows, Comfort Objects, and the Elephant in the Room
Photo by Stephanie Harvey on Unsplash

At my last counseling session, I asked my counselor for a throw pillow perched on a chair. As she handed it over, she called it her "elephant in the room" pillow, so clients can acknowledge hard issues in their lives. The elephant pillow is one large blob with flappy ears and a stuffed trunk. It has soft fabric that's soothing to rub too.

"I have always found comfort in blankets. I kept using my baby blanket until almost a teen. I still struggle to even nap without a blanket of some sort. I’m also very sentimental about my blankets and I have way more than we [a family of 5] need."

-S.P.

Childhood Objects

I have a certain affinity for crinkly plastic and velvet textures, which began before I can remember. I carried around plastic diaper covers or a pillow with a plastic case while I sucked my thumb, similar to my mom who "sucked 2 fingers and rubbed anything silky". Eventually, I only slept with a plastic pillowcase (we used it to prevent lice). I still have nightmares that I am back snuggling plastic while sucking my thumb.

As I pondered my love for certain textures, I researched why infants and children first develop a love for a favorite blanket or stuffed bear. Childhood development specialist Colleen Goddard explains that a favorite blanket, toy, or other object are "transitional" objects that infants and children use to transition to different spaces and to self-soothe. Each of my sons had a different item they preferred: pacifiers, bottles, stuffed animals, and a character pillowcase. Asking friends and family "What comfort items from childhood or adulthood you use(d)?", they responded that they preferred blankets, stuffed animals (one named Shaun), and sucking on fingers.

Noticing a pattern in their comments on my Facebook post, I recognized that several "transitioned" their transitional object as they matured. For example, comfort blankets or stuffed animals gave way to a pet, a leather bracelet, or a new blanket. Even adults need a transitional item sometimes, like my uncle who "curl[s] up in [his] slightly undersized grey blanket on the couch".

Do you remember what your transitional object was?

Comfort Spaces

"I loved crawling under a fern and rose bush in the backyard that formed a small cave. I was still safe at home but felt like I could be alone for a bit."

C.G.

Even though I hadn't mentioned a comforting space in my questions, C.G. still mentioned retreating to a "cave" in her childhood flower garden. Personally, my brothers, cousin, and I built forts with couch cushions and blankets in our formal living room. My mom often greeted guests in this room but was often surprised by a dismantled room.

Not thinking I needed Barnard's article "The Nesting Instinct" about childhood dens, I didn't bookmark it. But when I read C.G.'s comment, I realized this idea of a comforting space applies too.

So why is building a fort or little house important to children? According to developmental psychologist David Sobel, as quoted by Barnard, "The den is the child's sense of self being born" mostly for preteen children 7-11 as a "home away from home that is secret". Urban planner Maria Kylin studied children aged 9-13 from a small Swedish town and learned "[Dens] allow children to experience danger in a secure environment. They are places in which children can challenge themselves, mentally and physically, in preparation for the rigours of adulthood."

What spaces constituted your "home away from home"? (If you want, answer in the comments.)

Coping with Trauma

"I was strangled in my sleep, so the pillow was more of a safe space provider from a boundary pushing ex [than a comfort item]."

W.

I noticed that certain stuffed animals or blankets helped my children cope after my third son's accident. My third son says he doesn't remember anything about his fatal accident (he was revived), but he clung to two stuffed animals that he still goes to bed with today--one from his Sunday School teacher and the other from the hospital. I also value his stuffed animals from that period because they represent the love that neighbors, medical staff, and family proffered after the accident.

Several friends and family who had traumatic experiences listed comfort items such as stuffed animals or a pillow. For my friend I quoted above, that pillow represented a safe space during an abusive relationship.

I view toy and blanket donation drives as impractical. But after studying about comfort items, I have concluded that these items play a role in the healing process, especially in hospitals and shelters.

If taken in context as part of human development, if the object thought to make one stronger and more resilient in the face of difference and trauma, is removed or denied access to, it can actually create more anxiety and discourse.

-Colleen Goddard

In the Schoolroom

In "More than a Teddy Bear", Goddard narrates her journey through a classroom where transitional objects, like stuffed animals, go with children from one activity to the next. I often hear from other teachers from school to church not to bring a favorite toy so children don't fight over it. So I was surprised when I substituted in a special education class and they let the students bring comfort items on the bus. Now I know how useful transitional objects are because my nonverbal son transitions better from home to the school bus and from one Sunday meeting to another when he has a toy, food, or water bottle.

Since working as a teacher's assistant, I view comfort objects and fidget toys as another tool in the classroom. For example, one autistic student carried around different objects which helped them* endure the school day. Sadly, other children teased them about it. Many of the younger students carried around objects, which could sometimes be distracting. I tried to judge whether it interfered with reading instruction or helped the student pay attention.

My workplace recognizes the importance of transitional items because we have an assistant in an entire room with a large bouncy ball, stuffed animals, toys, and other games. The teaching assistant helps struggling students transition throughout the day.

Does your child have a transitional item that they use for school, maybe one you may not have recognized?

Accepting Comfort Items as Normal

Sometimes we tease each other about our comfort objects, especially among older children. Or we limit comfort items in certain settings. Quoted previously, Goddard discusses that "remov[ing] or den[ying] access to" transitional objects "can actually create more anxiety". As we age, we can find age-appropriate comfort items. Yet can we broaden our acceptance of them in more settings (without creating overdependence)? Possibly, this could help us cope better as a society.

I'd love to hear your answers to my questions in the comments.

For more comforting takes on life, subscribe to my Vocal page, or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or my personal blog. And if you have a comfortable financial cushion, consider tipping or pledging. Thank you!

*I used them to disguise the student's gender, but they use cisgender pronouns.

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About the Creator

Eileen Davis

Wannabe linguist. Wannabe novelist. Blogger. Poet. Avid reader. Boy mom. Have bipolar 2. Experience bisexual attraction. Love America. Love China. English language BA from BYU.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (3)

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  • Winter Justice7 months ago

    A child in my life is struggling with big changes with their parents recently divorced and both moving on in different states. They have been struggling with regressive behavior. I will share this article with their parents in hopes that embracing the concept of comfort items may help the child cope with all the big changes. Thank you! Extremely well written, by the way, and the formatting helped me to stay engaged (untreated ADHD makes it very difficult for me to read all the way through an article even if it interests me).

  • Jennifer True7 months ago

    I think many adults still have comfort objects, and the example you used of your uncle with a throw blanket is a good one. Perhaps many of us do not think of our favorite blanket, slippers, or pet in this way. This is a wonderful discussion/conversational subject. I would be interested to know how a majority of teachers feel about the comfort objects. I would think a special needs child, teen, or adult, has the right to have/use this kind of object if it soothes anxiety, fear, or makes them more comfortable. Thank you for sharing. :)

  • Sasha Austin7 months ago

    Really interesting, I enjoyed reading it.

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