Nature Versus Nurture Debate on Child Object Attachment

Who recognizes Angus from Despicable Me or Charlie Brown? (Pause). Do you notice something they both have in common? No, it’s not their super lovable, chubby cheeks nor their adorable personalities. In fact, the characters themselves are not the focus. It is their obsessions with a certain object that should capture your attention. For Angus, it has been the pink fluffy unicorn since the first Despicable Me movie, and Charlie has been un-detachable from his blue blanket. Raise your hand if you remember having such a similar experience (Pause). For those of you who have had a childhood object that you loved, can you recall a specific moment in your childhood when you have decided to place such value on the object? Was it a conscious decision or did it just happen? Have you wondered why you did it? Was it because it was a gift from someone important or was it because it made you feel a certain special way? How did the object play a role in your childhood? All of these questions collectively helped me formulate a focus. I wanted to explore child object attachment and its effect on children.

So what makes childhood so special? Growing up from infancy to adolescence, childhood is a complex and significant period of time where we experience a variety of new information and stimuli. A child’s emotional, social, and physical developments begin to rapidly mature day to day until they reach their peak performance, which is adulthood. The most prevalent sign of growing up is of course physical maturation, followed by the development of strong cognitive behaviors, as well as understanding of logics, dimensions, and other concepts. Within this time frame, one of the most observed characteristics among most children is object attachment. Children tend to develop a strong liking to very specific objects, such as teddy bears, blankets, or other unique toys. In fact, about 58% of children at the age of three demonstrate attachments to soft, non-social security objects in the United States alone.

I was a part of that fifty-eight percent. For as long as I remembered, I carried around a blanket that was a present from my mom. I was practically Charlie Brown; I slept with it, went around the house with it, and brought it with me to school. It is quite ridiculous to think about it now, but then it gave me absolute comfort and security in a unique way that I couldn’t fathom as a child. Similarly, my identical twin sister had an object attachment to a pillow. She could not fall asleep without it, and she would have it with her as much she can when we were home. These fond childhood memories inspired me to explore the psychological reasons that are responsible for children’s tendency to develop strong attachment to inanimate object, more specifically soft objects like blankets. In addition, my twin sister’s own unique and different attachment to her pillow made me consider both the genetic and environmental influences children can be subject to. So, I decided to find out whether the hereditary or environmental component in a child’s life matter more in their development of object attachment. I also wanted to know what child object attachment can inform me about the origins of certain needs or behaviors children constantly display in their upbringings. The study of such repetitive behaviors may help explain children’s thinking pathway, as well as help propose potential medical solutions to inexpensive and faster ways to placate children in distress, especially children with special needs or children with mental disorders.

In my researches, nurture seems to win the debate. Children’s dependency on their security blankets varied depending on exposures to different environmental factors. In an experiment performed by Dr. Evelyn Bartfield and Professor Richard Passman in 2004, they explored this relation with the object being a security blanket. Now, imagine you were six years old again. Your mom told you to follow her to a room with toys and fun things. You happily followed and walked into the room that she described. It had the fun toys and your security blanket, but you also saw a stranger sitting next to them. You started to feel slightly uncomfortable and nervous, and even more so when your mom said to you, “I need to step outside real quick. I will be right back. Be good and stay in this room.”

Now how would you react in this novel environment? A group of children were exposed to a similar situation, with the only changing variable to be the absence or presence of a security blanket. The results demonstrated that the blanket placated the blanket-attached avoidant children the most, as they stayed longer in the rooms with the toys and responded more positively when compared to the absence of their blankets. In other words, for avoidant children who have been attached to a blanket, the security blanket acted as a substitution for maternal security in a room without their moms. This substitution enabled them to explore, play and react positively to a stranger, completely neglecting the sudden change of environment, even though the change initially made them anxious. This can explain a child’s strong reliance, and later, attachment to only one special object. The object encourages them to be brave and adventurous, and acts as a stress coping mechanism in circumstances where their maternal support is unavailable. If a child is constantly placed in a comfortable, familiarized environment, he or she may not need a security blanket. But in the case that the child is continuously exposed to an unfamiliar environment without a maternal figure present, he or she is more likely to need to transpose security onto something else, something that is readily available to them. And what fits this profile would be an inanimate toy or blanket.

Now, nurture is quite a reasonable answer because after all, we spend a good chunk of our lives being exposed to various environmental factors, such as cultures, family background, lifestyles, and so on. Surely our genes cannot define us in every aspect, because everyone is defined by their unique, distinct experiences. However, this does not mean that nature has zero influence. An experiment conducted in 2014 by Adi Abadi, Liora Baor, and other scientists from Israel explored both the hereditary component and environmental factor by studying not just young children, but more specifically, identical and fraternal twins. The goal of the experiment was to evaluate the potential use of attachment to an inanimate object as a coping mechanism in day care centers. The results demonstrated that monozygotic identical twins showed more concordance in having an attachment object than dizygotic twins. What this implied is that since identical twins have identical genes, object attachment may be associated with the presence of certain genes that both of the twins share.

But since this study is purely an observational study, the identity of such gene is not explored. So, there is a genetic component to object attachment. If you happen to be an identical twins, you are more likely to develop object attachment if your twin develops it. But, the experiment also showed convincing evidences for nurture as the influencer. The fraternal twins share more similarities in the objects than the identical twins, which suggested “substantial shared environmental effect” derived from growing up in the same place. What does means is that since the fraternal twins don’t share identical genes like the identical twins, the only explanation for the similarities in their objects is the environment they are simultaneously subjected to. In addition, the researchers found that childcare quantity, which can be considered as a shared environmental effect among all the twins, had been found to correlate positively to children’s tendency of being attached to an object. They found that with increasing stay in a childcare, a child is more likely to be object attached, most likely due to the lack of consistent maternal presence. So, this study allowed me to conclude that the genetic component cannot be 100% eliminated. It complicates the direct correlation between environmental factors and the attachment that the previous researches have claimed, but nonetheless, nurture seems to have a bigger influence in the development of object attachment, as well as the level of dependency a child may have on the object.

 

All of these explorations on the dependency children have on objects for comfort and security surprised me. What surprised me wasn’t the fact that the objects reduce environment-induced stress in children. We have all different types of coping mechanisms to stress-relieve. What surprised me was the fact that children themselves instinctively develop a constant, yet unique way to alleviate their fear and stress. It made me curious as of how we can manipulate this dependency and put it to a more practical use, such as providing better health service to children, especially those with mental diseases or disorders, to cope with their environments or symptoms. This can potentially address a lot of ongoing medical difficulties or complications that arise from children in distress. One of the main concerns with medical treatments is the hefty cost, and the other being the time consumption and inconvenience. So, what if we can use inexpensive and faster ways to placate children? Take this simple example. Now, I am not a parent but from my personal experience, taking my younger brother to see a doctor is an absolute nightmare. Not to paint my brother as a devil in the doctor’s office, but my brother used to break down at the sight of his pediatrician. Young children often express tremendous disturbance and upset from a regular medical or dental checkup due to unfamiliarity to the environment or the doctor. Maternal presence is often needed to placate the child, but sometimes, it backfires as the mother figure can also model anxiety, act over-protectively or prepare the child overzealously, which only adds fuel to the fire. In Professor Ybarra, Professor Passman and Dr. Carl’s experiment, they explored the effect the presence of security blankets have on young children in routine noninvasive pediatrics examinations.

They found that blanket-attached children who were given their blankets were less distressed overall in terms of “information seeking, cry, scream, physical restraint, verbal resistance, seeks emotional support, verbal pain, and flail” compared to blanket-attached children without their blankets. Now, the results aren’t surprising; we already know from previous examples that security blanket is a form of consolation for children. What we don’t know is the extent of destressing a security blanket can provide. Not only is the inanimate blanket effective in terms of replacing an anxious, overprotective mother, but it also provides a quick and fast distressing therapy unlike other methods used to placate a child, such as cognitive-behavior therapy, which often requires additional training, time and staff personnel. In other words, by exploiting the use of the blanket, less money, time and efforts are needed to produce the same outcome. The exception is when the children are under invasive medical examinations, say a vaccine injection or a blood draw. But this manipulation of the security blanket can help medical practitioners and parents alike to facilitate much needed services for young children at the cost of practically nothing.

Onto a more medical perspective, medical professionals can apply the relations I have studied thus far to help children with disorders, such as attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD for short. Most of you, if not all of you, have come in contact or deal with children with ADHD before. It is a relatively common disorder in children, where its telltale signs are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which consequently result in academic underachievement, poor social relations and sleep disturbance. So what does ADHD have to do with a security blanket? In an experiment conducted by Dr. Allan Hvolby and Professor Bilenberg Niels, a security blanket was manipulated to address one of ADHD’s symptoms, which is sleep onset latency. The blanket was modified into a Ball Blanket.

It is exactly like its name; it is a blanket with balls with different sizes and weights as shown above [powerpoint]. The plastic balls serve by pressing certain parts, stimulating the feeling of touch and the sense of muscle and joint. These physical sensations would provide confidence in the children while they are sleeping, and increase the limits of the body. When the Ball Blanket was tested out on children with ADHD who expressed sleep onset latency as one of their primary symptoms, they showed reduced amount of sleep onset latency, albeit non-significant in statistical analysis. In addition, their activity and attention increased, while their behavioral disturbance decreased. This suggests that the Ball Blanket, a non-invasive, inexpensive manipulation of a security blanket, can actually be used effectively as a supplement in addition to medical and behavior treatments for ADHD kids. Or perhaps instead of using medications or other forms of therapy, a Ball Blanket, an object that a child may be familiar with, is enough to suffice as a treatment entirely for children who express ADHD on a less severe level. Extending it beyond just children with ADHD, this treatment could be used for children disturbed by insomnia and other sleep disorders as well. Further investigations and research need to perform to fully grasp the potential of this medical treatment.

But, this wide range of possible applications proves to me that child object attachment isn’t merely a childhood phase where a child expresses fond attachment to a toy or a soft object. It is a phase where a child shows sophistication in thinking. They have beliefs that objects have the power to soothe when they are alone or afraid. They understand the importance of having something they can rely on. And most importantly, they realize that having a special object is a part of growth. The children alone get to decide what the object is, what to name it, when to use it and eventually, when to give it up, because that is the cycle as your mature. So, what child object attachment really demonstrates to us is that we should give children more credit than they deserve. Their thinking aren’t underdeveloped or immature, but just different conceptually from adult minds. This key difference can further prompt us to explore many other phenomenons that we have simply yet to ask “why do they happen?”. And by asking ourselves, we not only glean new knowledge from learning a concept that we are not aware of before, but also discover more about ourselves and the world around us. I remembered when I was little, I was a little question-generating machine that constantly asked why. Why do I have to take naps to grow up? Why are the trees moving back when we are in a car? Why does the sun seem to be following us wherever we go? Why do I get allergies but other people don’t? These questions keep me curious and allow me to dive into fields that I never thought I would, like art history, politics and business. Likewise, I hope to pass on this level of curiosity not just on the topic of child object attachment, but for all plausible ideas and subjects in the world, and encourage you to challenge what we haven’t yet. Thank you.

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