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Child Caring

8-year-old's tantrums for lost and broken toys may be a red flag

Barbara,

I'm concerned my 8 year old is too attached to "stuff" and am not sure 1) if I'm right 2) if it's a phase 3) what I should do, if anything.

Just last night a small toy of hers broke - nothing expensive, nothing overly precious and not something she even plays with regularly. But it led to much sobbing and carrying on about how important that toy was and how horrible it was that it broke. This carrying on can last up to and over 30 minutes. Last night was not the first time either, it has been going on since she was little. It also happens sometimes as she remembers a toy she has aged out of and we have given away - where she has been the one to choose to give that toy away.

I try to impart that "stuff" is not what's important but people and the memories we make with them. However, she is the only grandchild on both sides of our family and we are lucky enough to be financially secure so there is a lot of "stuff" that comes to our house regularly.

When she gets like this I give her time to be sad about it and just cuddle with her, being supportive. I also try to reinforce that while it's okay to be sad, "stuff" is replaceable and if something breaks it makes room for something else. We do not, however, run out and buy something to replace it...we try to give new toys mostly just at birthdays and holidays.

Is there anything else you suggest? Is this kind of carrying on over a broken/lost toy normal? (It is not something I or my siblings ever did as kids.) Should I be concerned that she is too attached to "stuff"?

Thank you,

From: Not-too-material Mom, Boston

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Dear Not-too-material Mom,

A child who is into the "stuff" would be into the accumulation and acquisition, anxious to run out and get the next toy, says Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan Linn. She should know. She's author of "The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World," and director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. (Unabashed endorsement here: This is a terrific organization; our kids -- the world! -- would be a better place if every parent would heed its messages. See them here.)

But back to your daughter. "The response of a kid overly immersed in the commercial culture would more likely be to shrug off the loss of a toy, because one can always get another one, or to start nagging for another one," Linn said in a conversation about your email.

Thirty minutes of tantrum/crying behavior? That's a long time for any child, but especially for an 8 year old. All this makes us wonder if there's something else going. Here are some questions to consider:

What kind of toys is she crying about? If it's a toy that has evoked her imagination -- that she has invested emotion in -- the loss can be painful. If it's a random toy? Not so much. If it's the former, Is it possible the loss of the toy is a symbol for the loss of something in her life? Who gave her the toy? Is that person sick, dying, somehow gone from her life? Has there been a serious loss in her life? Does she have trouble separating from you? You say this has been going on for a long time: Maybe her behavior has become a habit and a way to get attention. I'm guessing this isn't the only time you cuddle with her, but is it a guarantee for cuddle time? What about friendships? Does she have one or two close friends? Does she value relationships? Or are her relationships more with her toys than with people? Lastly, how do the toys break? Is she responsible for breaking or losing them? Is it purposeful behavior?

Your instinct is right, this repeated kind of carrying on over lost or broken toys is not typical, it could be a red flag. Get some professional help. Meanwhile, acknowledge her feelings when this happens -- "I know you're sad about this toy."-- but ratchet down to a matter-of-fact response and routinely build into your day some one-on-one time with her.