While on a family vacation six months ago, the unthinkable happened to 2-year-old David Chiang. He lost his favourite stuffed dog, Max. “We were on a train and David was in the stroller, holding on to Max,” recalls David’s mum Elizabeth Chiang. “After getting off and walking for about 10 minutes, we realised Max was missing.”
The family traced their steps back to the train station and even asked the staff working there, but unfortunately Max was never found. Needless to say, little David was devastated. “Max was his constant companion. My son would take his toy everywhere he went, even to bed,” says Chiang.
The next few days were challenging as David found it difficult to sleep without his bedtime buddy and constantly cried for him. When they got home, the Chiangs bought David a replica of his beloved stuffed dog ― plus another three of the same plushie, so they’ll always have one on standby. “After what happened, we’ve learnt to travel with a backup toy as well,” adds Chiang.
Tots and their toys
It’s not uncommon for toddlers to form an attachment to a certain toy or a comfort item like a blanket. “It’s a way for them to have a sense of security when they need it most, such as during bedtime, in time of separation from parents, in unusual situations, when frightened, upset or simply tired,” explains Maguelonne Rousseau a training consultant and parenting expert at Conscious Parenting, which organises regular parenting workshops and talks.
“When your child’s pain is being acknowledged…she will succeed in connecting with her feelings and can understand that it’s okay to feel bad and solutions can be found to feel good again.”
Rousseau notes that the attachment usually happens during the first or second year of the child’s life, usually at the same time when separation anxiety peaks. In a way, the toy acts as a coping mechanism for your child as they transition from one life experience to the next. It might also be their best friend. Which is why the emotions they experience when they lose their toy or lovie are similar to the ones we adults experience when we lose something of sentimental value.
These feelings include sadness, melancholy, loneliness, grief, anger and frustration, points out Rousseau. “A particularly challenging emotion is the feeling of permanence of loss and the inability to recover from it.”
Taking your child’s loss seriously is key to helping them pick up the pieces and move on. When junior learns early on that they can overcome painful feelings and emotions and still find happiness, it will be easier for them to repeat this positive pattern later on in life.
“When your child’s pain is being acknowledged instead of being dismissed, she will succeed in connecting with her feelings and can understand that it’s okay to feel bad and solutions can be found to feel good again,” adds Rousseau.
As she comes to grips with more of such experiences, it will get easier for them to recognise negative emotions, ask for help, and find healthy ways to overcome the pain. But junior will need your help to practice this skill many times before they can master it. Here are five ways you can help your tot cope with the loss of a toy…
1. Acknowledge your tots' feelings of grief
Don’t brush it off as “just a toy” or tease your child about their attachment to the object. They will feel inadequate, misunderstood and hurt and this could subsequently affect your relationship with them. “Children need to feel understood, that their pain is real and recognised, so they can move on,” says Rousseau. “Not till the bad feelings come out can the good ones go in.”
If you ignore their pain, you’re failing to help your child connect with their emotions and find the necessary tools needed to recognise, accept and deal with those negative feelings. “Instead, the child might develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as nail biting, eating disorders, problems going to the toilet, aggressive behaviour or anxiety,” adds Rousseau. Take the time to actively listen to your child, so that you can understand the emotions they’re going through. Also, help them put it into words by saying something like, “Do you feel sad we can’t find your favorite toy anymore?” or “Are you worried you won’t be able to sleep without it?”.
2. Don't be too quick to shove a substitute toy at your grieving child
Contrary to popular belief, offering another toy in place of the lost item does not help junior get over their grief faster. In fact, you are minimising your tot’s feelings when you do that, Rousseau points out. If you think your child can benefit from having a new companion, start by acknowledging their pain first. Give them space to fully express their negative emotions, then offer a substitute toy of their choice. “A substitute toy should never be imposed and asked to be loved,” adds Rousseau.
“What’s most important is that from this experience, they learn that their parents will always be there for them in any difficult situation.”
3. Don't keep your tyke's hopes up that the toy might resurface
If you’re not sure the toy will be found, don’t keep your child’s hopes up that it will happen. You’re making a promise you can’t keep. When you child figures out you don’t always come through for them, they might start developing trust issues. Since they’re still hopeful that their beloved toy might be found, your kewpie is also not allowing themselves to properly grieve and move on. “However, if you’re certain the toy is lost somewhere in the house, but cannot be found at that time, it’s alright to reassure your child that the toy is not lost forever,” points out Rousseau. “It’s a good way to prevent your child from freaking too much!”
4. Give your tot time to grieve over the loss
Junior should have as much time and space as they need to grieve over the loss of the comfort toy. Allow them to do so by actively listening to them and acknowledging their pain and worries. “Let your child speak as much as she wants about the toy and its loss. Usually after a few days, the pain gets better and the child finds some ways to move on,” adds Rousseau.
5. Offer lots of comfort
This is especially important if the toy or lovie is something your child needs to fall asleep. “Give plenty of emotional care and physical love such as, hugs, kisses, hand holding and gentle patting during nap or bed time,” Rousseau advises. “Also use affirmative statements such as, ‘I love you’, ‘You are safe and secure’, ‘I’m here with you’, ‘You can sleep now’, ‘You can do it’ and ‘I’ll stay with you until you feel better and fall asleep’.”
It may take a few days for junior to revert to their normal sleep routine or feel better about the situation. What’s most important is that from this experience, they learn that their parents will always be there for them in any difficult situation, show that they understand and can help them look for a solution to any problem.
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