The Orange Balloon
We had tears at our house this evening. No, they weren’t mine – although the dinner/bath/bed routine with three kids under four can sometimes tempt me to break down and cry. No, the tears were from Master Three. After jumping off the couch one too many times, he stepped on his favourite orange balloon. It’s his favourite because it’s his only orange balloon – in fact, it’s his only balloon full stop. The loud POP! was quickly followed by a loud, monotonous wail. He was heartbroken.
It’s interesting what most us parents do in a situation like that, me included. We mean well. We want to stop the hurt, take away the disappointment, provide some perspective. The first thing we tend to do is say something like, “It’s alright. There, there. It doesn’t matter. Don’t cry.” But it does matter. It isn’t alright. “There, there” won’t fix a popped balloon. And tears are a natural outpouring of the disappointment in my little guy’s heart.
I decided to try a new approach today. As most of you know I’m an avid practitioner of optimistic thinking skills. A few years ago I helped design a games-based program for kids in foster care to develop resilience and optimism. Having never been a foster carer myself, I was acutely aware of the gap in my knowledge and experience. Almost a decade of teaching had inevitably exposed me to children who are part of ‘the system’ but that alone wasn’t enough for me to understand the issues facing these kids and their foster families.
A colleague at the time gave me some videos to watch. One of them was by attachment theorist and psychologist Dan Hughes. It was absolutely fascinating stuff. As a new parent, I lapped up the advice he gave and have since found it to be great. One of the things he promotes is empathy. When we respond in the manner outlined above, we are not being empathetic. In fact, we’re downplaying the situation and as a result, minimising the emotional response in our kids. I decided to try what Dan had promoted. I would be empathetic.
Master Three was wailing behind the couch, cradling the fragments of orange balloon in his little hands. He looked up at me with a tear stained face and said, “But my do want it back together! My does not want it to be popped.”
I was busy dressing one of the babies on the change table, so I was unable at that exact moment to physically comfort him. Instead, I said, “Honey, that must be so disappointing for you. You enjoyed playing with that orange balloon and you really wanted to play with it some more. I’m sorry it popped when you stepped on it. As soon as Mummy has finished dressing the baby I’ll come and give you a cuddle.”
My little speech didn’t seem to have any impact on the wailing coming from behind the couch. I decided to keep on trying. After successfully dressing one squirming 9-month-old and depositing him safely on the floor, I sat on the couch and wrapped Master Three in a big hug. The wailing was getting to me by this point and I did whisper in his ear, “Mummy wants to cuddle you but you need to stop making that noise. I know you’re upset and I know you’re crying – and that’ OK – but you don’t need to make that noise.” He managed to tone down the wail and instead just hiccuped sad little sobs of despair. I held him for a few minutes and we talked about how disappointing it was that the balloon popped. In some ways it felt like I was making matters worse. At every mention of the treasured orange balloon, his crying seemed to intensify, before it settled again.
I had two hungry babies waiting for their bedtime bottles, so I gave Master Three a quick squeeze and went to the kitchen. I remembered Dan Hughes talking about the power of sharing your own experiences with your children that are relevant. Rather than focusing on making things better, his advice was to focus on the child feeling understood.
Standing at the kitchen sink, measuring out 7 scoops of formula for each bottle, I told him the following true story from my childhood. “You know, when I was a little girl, I went shopping with Mamma and Grandma Iris. Grandma Iris bought me a special balloon. It was a helium balloon – one of the ones that floats up in the sky. She said I had to hold onto the string tight so it didn’t float away. I thought my balloon was fantastic. We were in a big shop – just like the ones you go to with Mummy – when the string slipped out of my hand and the balloon floated all the way up to the ceiling. It was a very high ceiling and we couldn’t reach it. I had lost my balloon.” I carried the bottles over to where he and the babies were playing. “I felt very disappointed when I lost my balloon too. I cried.”
Master Three lay on the couch while I was feeding the babies. He was quiet for a few seconds. ”My does want one of those balloons that goes up in the sky,” he said.
“Maybe you could have one for your birthday,” I suggested.
Then he touched my hair with his feet. I pretended to jump with fright which made him giggle. “My does feel happy now, Mummy,” he said, with no prompting whatsoever from me. Crisis over.
I can’t help but think that a powerful thing just took place in our little family tonight. Rather than try to alleviate his pain, I walked with him through it. Rather than minimise his experience, I shared with him an experience of my own. Rather than brush it under the carpet, we handled it together. I believe he went to bed feeling understood. How powerful is that?
I think Dan Hughes might be onto something.