How a love-bomb can change a child's world
'Love-bombing' your child is about fulfilling their every desire to boost their sense of security or help them get over trauma. Suzanne Harringtonput the technique to the test on her own family
LOVE-BOMBING: spending uninterrupted time with your children, and giving them all the affection and treats they want. The aim is that they regress to a state of emotional security and “reset” their minds, so they shake off their anxieties for good.
It’s when I am interviewing the psychologist Oliver James about his most recent book How Not to F*** Them Up, which he wrote for parents of children up to the age of three, that I wonder aloud what you do if this has already happened. What if your kids are over three and have already been f***ed up? Is it a straight road to delinquency and destructive behaviour and an adulthood on the therapist’s couch (if they’re lucky) or is there anything you can do in the meantime? Can you repair damage, rewire neural pathways, reset brain chemistry, even if your kids have had worse things happen to them than the usual new-baby shock or first-day-at-school anxiety?
When James tells me about love-bombing, the subject of his next book. It is for children between the ages of three and puberty, and sounds so simple that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. “What you do is you say to the child that you’re going to spend the weekend together,” he says. “We’re going to spend Friday night and Saturday night alone together and give it a name that they choose, Mummy Time or whatever. It’s going to be a very special sealed-off time during which the child can do anything they want: they can eat as much ice cream as they want, or watch all the television they want, and you’re going to do this together. You’re going to sleep in the same bed and you’re going to have a lot of cuddles and an enormous amount of fun. This is their time.”
It works, he says, for children who may need extra reassurance and feelings of security. “What you do is first identify the problem,” he says. “Usually it’s not a big problem, it’s not ADHD” – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – “or anything like that, but maybe the child doesn’t speak very well, or there are still signs of cortisol, in that they might be a bit jumpy or whatever. Or maybe just not doing as well at school as they might. This can also be used to reassure children suffering after the birth of a new sibling.”
But could it work for bigger stuff, like the traumatic bereavement that my children suffered when they were three and five, after their dad died by suicide following an untreated depression? Although they have since done lots of therapeutic work around suicide and bereavement, the effects still linger, especially for my son.
“When I first used this technique I was flabbergasted,” says James. “It seems to correct the child’s thermostat, to get the electrochemistry back into sync again. The child comes out of it feeling very loved. And it changes the trajectory of your relationship with the child; the child feels that they’re special. It’s very simple and enormously rewarding.”
On a lesser scale, because you can’t really get worse than death of a parent, my children have also had to contend with my alcoholism. They don’t remember much of my drinking, but I was emotionally unavailable to them in their earliest years: there in body, going through the motions of mummying, but emotionally frozen. I was still barely thawing out when their dad died. Love-bombing, therefore, could hardly hurt.
“What this means is that the child can regress to being like a toddler or even earlier,” says James. “You cuddle them, you tell them you love them, you look them in the eye – although don’t smother them or make it an embarrassing farce. You use every opportunity to show them you love them and you really value them and they are a good person.”
Lola and Felix are nine and seven. Before he was ever bereaved, Felix had the kind of personality you’d describe as big, and held very fixed opinions; he is bright, funny and a natural show-off. Since his dad’s death his insecurities manifest themselves in separation anxiety: until quite recently he would not let me out of his sight except when he was at school or with close friends, and his constant refrain was, “Where’s my mum?” even if I was in the next room.
This has eased over time, but I imagine that being inside Felix’s head can be exhausting sometimes: he has a tendency to catastrophise, and imagines all sorts of grisly endings for me: that I will die in a car crash, be kidnapped or disappear in a puff of smoke. It would be great, therefore, to shore up his feelings of security and give him even more reassurance that his immediate world is as safe as it can be.
Lola appears to have processed her loss differently. She has an almost overdeveloped emotional maturity, calm and balanced and phlegmatic. Her confidence was horribly shaken when she was bereaved, but it has come back in the past few years. I still worry, however, that, for a nine-year-old, she knows an awful lot about suicide, depression and alcoholism. (My policy has always been openness rather than secrecy, as the less-damaging option in the long term).
So while Lola doesn’t act out the way her brother does, I feel that love-bombing would give her the space to be a little girl, without a care in the world, and send her a strong message that she is deeply loved and valued. This would be particularly appropriate given how overshadowed she can sometimes be by her shoutier, more explosive sibling.
Both children are very keen on the idea of one-on-one special time. As a single parent I am always saying things like, “Not now,” or, “I’m busy.” They decide it will be called Mummy Day, and I promise that it will involve no mobile phone, no computer, no work, no friends, no interruptions.
Felix is to go first. He devises a complicated list of activities for the day. He cannot write yet – he is Steiner educated – so he draws a list. Two smiling stick people, a chessboard, a Lego brick, a shark, a chocolate box, a front door, a television, a bed. He sleeps in my bed, so that we wake up together. This is lovely, unrushed and relaxed. It is a school day, so there is a gleeful sense of bunking off together.
We start Mummy Day with a game of chess – short and bloody, and of course he wins – and then we visit the Lego shop and the Sea Life centre. I follow him around at his pace, saying yes to everything: ice cream, fizzy drink, another ice cream, another fizzy drink. He can hardly believe his luck; it’s like buying a teenager beer.
Later, when we have spent forever at Sea Life, checking out every mollusc, every squid – with none of the usual “come on then, hurry up, let’s go” from me – we have lunch at his favourite place. I tell him he can have whatever he likes. He stuffs himself, before lying down with a food rush. He is exhausted, he says. Time to go home.
We watch Avatartogether, wrapped in fluffy blankets. He talks through the entire film, which is a bit violent and inappropriate, but I go with it, even though his talking is driving me nuts. I have been telling him I love him all day long, which I always do anyway, but today all the I-love-yous are not interspersed with the usual orders to tidy his room or get dressed or stop arguing. In the end he says, “I know, Mum. Now shush.”
Then we have a chocolate fondue, which is total overkill, but he is so thrilled that I don’t care. The boundaries have been clearly set: for one day only, normal rules are off. Felix is in charge. By bedtime he is high on sugar and I am collapsing with exhaustion. He sleeps in his own bed, where we have more cuddles and a story for half an hour, and I tell him that he is the most special boy in the world, and he says Mummy Day has been the best day of his life. I had a lot of fun too.
I tell him that from now on we will have occasional Mummy Days and every evening we will have half an hour of Felix Time.
Mummy Day with Lola is less intense. We potter. She loves making things, so we go to the bead shop and the fabric shop and the art shop. We talk about puberty, and how it will soon be upon her, and how it might feel. Then we have lunch – she picks the same sushi place as Felix – and afterwards we go home and watch a St Trinian’s remake and eat chocolate. She emits long sighs of contentment and says that she would love to do Mummy Day again sometime. So would I: it has been fantastic.
Lola has not wanted to share a bed. “That’d be kind of weird, Mum,” she says. Instead we cuddle up on the sofa, then have half an hour of quiet time in her bedroom. She is very relaxed, and is not asking for anything more; she is, momentarily at least, sated. I tell her what I told Felix: that from now on we will try to have some Lola Time each evening and, every now and then, a Mummy Day. Because Oliver James was spot on: it’s simple, rewarding and fun, and afterwards the difference in my children’s feelings of security is palpable. And apart from the sugary-treats bill it’s free.