RESETTING YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL THERMOSTAT
“Can we go swimming now?” asks Sonny, my five-year-old. We have just left the aquarium.
“Yes,” I say immediately.
Sonny looks at me surprised, it’s not an outright no, or even a hmm maybe, or a snappish only if you eat your lunch.
“Can I choose to do what I like today?” he beams broadly.
By the time we get back from the aquarium, to collect our swimmers, he’s gone off the boil and wants to watch Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, with the sofa bed pulled out in the lounge. I don’t try and persuade him that the exercise would be good for him, or groan about Star Wars, or moan about the hassle of converting the sofa. I break a longstanding habit of sitting down with him, rather than parking him while I get on with some jobs.
Sonny can’t believe that his mother is being so accommodating. He gives me a couple of Lego Star Wars figures to play with and keeps up a continual Q&A throughout the film to test my knowledge and my attention. Actually this continues all evening.
A friend told me about Lovebombing a few months ago but I hadn’t taken it any further until the opportunity presented itself for two days, indiluted, at home with Sonny.
A concept created by Oliver James, author of Affluenza and They F*** You Up, it resets your child’s emotional thermostat by showering them with love and attention. Some of the case studies in the book have quite profound problems – insecurity, violent tantrums – but all of the kids seemed to benefit in a short space of time.
Most people would say Sonny is fine: he has lots of friends and is usually confident and chirpy. But sometimes he can’t control his anger and gets unreasonably upset over small things. Recently, Meribel said something which hurt his feelings and he tried to leave home. If you tell him off, he’s prone to slide into self-loathing: “just put me in the bin.” He’s uncomfortable when it comes to performing, awkward about eating and, it pains me to say it, our relationship has its difficulties.
I had a difficult pregnancy with Sonny, a really easy birth, but then he screamed for weeks and I slid into post-natal depression. I found it almost impossible to cope with a baby who cried for 75 per cent of his waking hours, and a two-year-old who was miffed at not getting my undivided attention. There were other reasons why that was a hard period of my life, but basically I think my relationship with Sonny and more specifcally, Sonny, has suffered because of that time.
Five years on, we have fallen into a pattern of me doing things with Meribel (I’m better at ponies) and Mark doing things with Sonny (he’s better at Lego and Wii). This is fine, except I am the main care giver. Especially in the holidays, Meribel, Sonny and me spend a lot of time together and I can see that Meribel is better at getting her items on the agenda and I think Sonny feels like second fiddle.
Witnessing the terrible relationship between my mum and brother, I realise that I need to put things right now. According to James, up until their early teens, kids’ brains are really malleable, so it’s easy to reset their feelings and boost their self esteem. If there is one thing I would like my kids to have, over and above everything else, it’s high self esteem.
Mine and Sonny’s wasn’t a purist Lovebombing as, at that point, I hadn’t read the book and was working from my friend’s summary. Basically, you set some parameters: when and how long it is going to be and then you let them decide how and where the time will be spent. Some fantastical ideas need to be managed, but generally the whole idea is to put them in control and make them feeling bathed in love.
As the opportunity came up at last minute – when Meribel decided to accompany Mark to visit his dad who is very sick - I hadn’t had had the chance to clear the diary or prepare him for it, choose a name or work on the itinerary. And I didn’t know you were supposed to sleep in the same bed.
What I did do was be as focussed on him as possible. I turned down invitations for stuff that was more appealing for me than him, didn’t drag him up to do the pony and although I did direct his choices slightly when his initial ideas were more of the same, it was only to open him up to more choices, which he embraced enthusiastically.
So, what did we do? We went to the cranio osteopath, which had been booked in for ages. Sonny likes the cranio (it’s her that stopped him crying when he was a baby, by getting rid of his headache) and I read to him while he was having it done.
In the afternoon, I had promised to take my mum, who was recovering from a breast cancer op and shingles, shopping. Instead of dragging Sonny around my choice of shops, we bought his school shoes. The ones he wanted (because they have toys in them) even though the lady in the shop said they were the wrong fit and didn’t want to sell them to us.
We also bought ice lolly makers, which he has been asking me for for ages. Then we went for a coffee/babycino before going home to watch Star Wars, with pizza, on the sofa bed. Before bed, we looked up a karate class that he could join, as he’s been asking for a while and I’ve been saying yes without doing anything about it.
The following day was when we did the aquarium and more Star Wars. I had a headache after so much indoor activity and Han Solo and had to go to bed at the same time as Sonny. Which was a bit weird, as Meribel was still out at a gig with Mark (on their way home from the grandparents) and wasn’t expected home for several hours.
So did it work? In so many ways, yes. I think the fact that Sonny clicked that he could make the choices, without me telling him that was the aim, showed he did feel a sense of control. I think he finally felt heard. Spending time with him on his interests was stepping outside of my comfort zone (not good at Lego and just don’t get Star Wars), but gave him some validation.
I have since read the book and it has made me reflect on my parenting. I realise that a lot of the time I parent sub-consciously. I think I’m doing an all right job, because I keep them safe, listen to them read, make them eat fruit, facilitate entertainment and get their friends around to play. But there are a few basics that I’m completely missing.
Lots of times I say no, for no good reason, or turn each request into a negotiation. (You can only go swimming if you eat up your lunch.) I try not to shout, but sometimes it happens and I realise how crushing this is for him. I don’t favour Meribel, but I do favour her interests and I realise now that, to Sonny, that seems like I’m favouring her. I know now that sometimes I just have to make the time for a light sabre fight, rather than sorting out the washing.
Meribel and Mark also had a fantastic time and came back full of enthusiasm for each other. This is great too, as sometimes Meribel was a bit cheeky to him and he was a bit irritable with her.
Going forward, we’re changing things so it’s not always “the girls” and “the boys”. I will read Sonny his Star Wars bed time story (again), while Mark gets to read Harry Potter to Meribel. We’re bigging up his impending karate class and went to the library to find some books on it. This time I didn’t even try to direct him to the stories, but went straight to the factual books, which he prefers. We came home with a few that I find palatable as well.
On a daily basis, I’m going to give him as much control as is practical. I’m not going to do reward/punishment parenting or enter into pointless negotiations. I don’t ever want to shout at him again and I’m hoping that by following these steps I’m never provoked into it.
Five months later, I’ve revisited this post and I’ve been struck at how well Sonny has come on in this time. It would be easy to put this down to him having matured a bit, but I like to think that Lovebombing, and some of the awareness it created with our parenting, made a difference as well.
I have one glaring example of how he has benefited. I mentioned in the post that he hated performing. In fact that post was written shortly after his school learning assembly and I was secretly upset that he was the only one in the class who hadn’t been given a speaking part.
Each autumn St Austell has a Speech and Music Festival and children from our school have to audition for it. It’s generally the same old faces: those who will speak loudly and always get picked for speaking roles in the nativity.
Sonny learned the poem, but didn’t get picked by the school. Surprisingly, he asked me to enter him individually, which I did, thinking that he would probably forget about it and we’d end up not going. We practised occasionally, but not that much. Meribel practised hers a lot more.
Even the week of the festival I was unsure about whether Sonny would enter, as he seemed to have gone off the boil. But, after watching Meribel coming second with hers, he knew he would get fuss made of him, he knew where he had to stand and he obviously decided he would give it a go.
I felt extremely nervous the morning of the competition. Sonny is a bit of a loose cannon and I felt his performance could go either way. One little boy got up on stage, looked at the audience, said no and ran off. I thought there was a chance Sonny might do that too: it’s intimidating and they’re only little. Instead, he strode confidently up the steps and marched right to the front of the stage, right in the judges face. In fact, his toes were almost over the edge and he was asked to move back a bit.
He put in a blinding performance: loud and clear, expressive, fluent and no fidgeting. I knew the result would be based on the judges personal preference, but I felt he had done himself proud.
At the end she called about 10 of the children back to the stage and started handing out certificates (lots get second and third), time went on and he hadn’t been given one, Mark and I glanced at each other. He hadn’t won, had he? He bloody had! Seeing him get that trophy was one of the best moments of my life and certainly of 2013.
Walking though town after we bumped into the teacher who hadn’t given him a line in the assembly (I do really like her, by the way), she asked how he got on and he proudly produced his trophy.
What’s great about this is, because he wasn’t chosen he’s been given more fuss and attention by the school. He’s shown them what he can do. Good job, Sonny.