CHILD clinical psychologist Oliver James has good news for parents. Whether your 10-year-old’s having temper tantrums or your seven-year-old’s clingy, the problem is rarely your fault.
“Because of one misfortune or another … the child’s basic brain chemistry is in need of adjustment, usually only a small one. Rather than a pill being the only way to achieve this, it’s far more effective to give the child a new experience and to alter the way the parents relate to him,” says James, author of Love Bombing, Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat.
Children’s brains are more plastic than previously thought, says James, who developed ‘love-bombing’ (LB) when making three parenting series for British TV. Love-bombing is spending time with your child and giving them a condensed, intense experience of feeling in control and loved.
It is not ‘quality time’, which is just hanging out with your child. Love-bombing is a special emotional zone, apart from normal life, with new rules.
How does it work? Tell your child the two of you will spend one-on-one time together. The child decides what he wants for that time and when he wants it — even if it’s eating chips and a burger during a video-game marathon.
You say this will be a big, exciting event, soon. In the run-up to LB, the child draws up a list and chooses a name for this cocoon of time.
“The period of time of LB depends on practicalities, like how much money’s available, how many children are in the family, and what’s comfortable for you as a family. For a significant proportion of parents, having a night or two away with the target child works well. For others, it can suit just to go into the zone for a few hours at a time,” James says.
James recommends LB for common behaviour problems, mild or severe.
“Parents might worry about the expense, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. The injunction to let the child be in control, and do what they want, can alarm some. They think ‘my child will demand to meet Fernando Torres or go to the Bahamas’. They worry siblings will feel they’re showing favouritism.
“In some cases, the child’s behaving so badly that parents don’t like the thought of spending much time with them. But most parents say LB sounds fun. They see it’s attractive to get a break from the normal routine and for the parent to regroup,” he says.
Resetting your child’s emotional thermostat by creating a warm, loving, liberating space for your child requires commitment.
“It can be quite a task to not make suggestions, but to go with the flow of what your child wants. The child will sometimes set a test to see how real you are. But, however vile their behaviour — and some will have a meltdown — you need to try and stay as loving as you possibly can. If there are storms, you ride them out. It really seems to reset the emotional thermostat and parents come back different, too. They feel all loved-up,” says James, who encourages parents — whatever the child’s age — to think of him as an 18-month-old for the LB period.
“Parents report that their child has brief periods during LB when he reverts to being like a toddler, cuddling and even using baby talk. This is what you’re aiming for. You’re trying to give him the chance to go back to earlier periods, but this time it’s really good — he feels totally safe, loved and in control.”
Is it a case of anything goes in the LB zone? There are no-nos, says James.
“You might need to say to the child that they can’t do anything that could be harmful to themselves or to another person.”
The LB zone is outside ordinary life — beyond the zone, you set consistent, firm boundaries. “It’s real abuse by parents if they don’t set proper boundaries,” he says.
James recommends daily top-ups of the LB experience and that your child should bring back a memento that will help them ‘get back in the zone’.
“Set aside half an hour every evening. That seems to be all it takes to re-ignite the safe feeling.
“Initially, your child might just demand to watch telly with you — that can be fine if you make it a joint, cuddly experience. Often, children will start like that and then be open to playing games or just chatting.”
In his book, James gives the example of Gina, aged three, who was scared of groups and of losing toys. Following the LB approach, her mum lit a fire and they cooked sausages and marshmallows. Later they lay in a hammock, and Mum read stories from a book chosen by Gina. The result? Mum revised her way of mothering. When Gina has tantrums, she cuddles her and talks to her about it rather than being angry. Gina settled well in nursery and took part in activities.
James says all children can benefit from LB, even those without problems, and recommends it from age three to early puberty.
“It can work with a young teenager, but if he came into puberty at 12 and is now 14 with a girlfriend and is quite adult, he might find LB strange. It’s easier to do it in early puberty, if the child’s still quite child-like,” he says.
“Love- bombing works because it stabilises levels of the fight-flight hormone, cortisol.
“If too high, the child can be manic, aggressive or anxious. If too low, the child may be listless or surly,” he says.
¦ Love Bombing, Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat, by Oliver James, €13.20.